A day after Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) alleged that honey sold by major brands in India adulterating honey with sugar syrup, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) said that it will utilise the findings of the investigation to bring about any improvements in the food safety ecosystem pertaining to honey that are found necessary.
Taking note of the CSE's investigation on adulteration in honey, the food safety regulator said it appreciates the efforts of civil society organisations like CSE to promote awareness among customers about food safety and standards.
In a major expose on rampant adulteration of packaged honey sold in the Indian market, 10 of the 13 brands flunked the stringent Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) test considered as the global gold standard for honey as part of an investigation conducted by the CSE. Honey samples from leading brands such as Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkari and Apis Himalaya, all failed the NMR test. Only 3 out of the 13 brands - Saffola, MarkfedSohna and Nature's Nectar (one out of two samples) -- passed all the tests.
On CSE's concerns about the non-prescription of Trace Marker for Rice syrup (TMR) for detecting adulteration of in honey, FSSAI said that a more sensitive Specific Marker for Rice syrup test (SMR) has already been made mandatory and it is a more focused test to detect such adulteration. Even scientific experts felt that TMR was not necessary and this view was concurred by the Ministry of Agriculture, it said.
"A more sensitive Specific Marker for Rice syrup test (SMR) has already been made mandatory and is a more focused test to detect adulteration of rice syrup in honey, hence, it was felt by scientific experts that TMR is not necessary. This view was concurred by the Ministry of Agriculture, and hence TMR has not been made mandatory as a test method," FSSAI clarified.
Regarding the utility and desirability of NMR test for checking honey samples, FSSAI said that the test allows rapid, but database driven detection and quantification of various chemical compounds, especially for authenticating the origin of a sample of honey.
"Prior existence of a database is a necessity for effective utilisation of this technique. No such database exists at present for Indian honey and hence, NMR testing will have limited utility," it said.
The authority further stated that the cost of conducting NMR test is also quite high and the volumes available at present would not be sufficient to motivate laboratories for investing in this high end equipment. "In view of lack of database, high skill requirement, high operating cost and high capital investment; the scientific panel has opined that NMR is not required at this juncture. The scientific panel has also pointed out that India, of all the countries across the globe as well as Codex Alimentarius Commission, has the most stringent standards for honey. It may be added here that almost no food regulator in the world has so far mandated NMR as a test method for honey," it said.
Environment watchdog CSE has pointed out that FSSAI has issued instructions for checking adulteration of honey with golden syrup, invert sugar syrup, and rice syrup. CSE has opined that this is an erroneous order because nowadays companies are using fructose syrup to adulterate honey. "FSSAI had issued the said instructions in this regard last year on 23 December 2019, for the first time, on the basis of a request from the Ministry of Agriculture, which had suggested that these imported syrups are being used for adulteration of honey," it said.
"Action is required to prevent adulteration from various sources, and hence this order is not erroneous, but is a part of our ongoing efforts to prevent adulteration of honey," FSSAI noted.
On detection of fructose in honey, the scientific team in FSSAI has opined that the currently prescribed method EA - LC - IRMS is as sensitive as NMR, if not better, for detecting fruit origin sugars, it said. The parameters related to isotropic ratio and foreign oligosaccharides are meant for detection of individual fruit sugars. The isotropic ratio and foreign oligosaccharides coupled with C3 and C4 sugar detection can easily determine fruit origin sugars, the food regulator said.
Raising questions over as to why some tests like SMR have not been conducted on the samples spiked with adulterants by CSE, FSSAI has requested the environment watchdog to share details of the samples and the tests conducted by it.
"As soon as details become available, they will be analysed by FSSAI to draw conclusions about the protocols followed and suggest any improvements that are required in the test methodology for future," it added.
By Chitranjan Kumar