Beyond putting Indian honey makers in a tight spot, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)'s allegations of adulteration in honey sold in India have once again brought Chinese companies into spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The CSE allegations say Chinese companies were exporting sugar syrup as 'fructose syrup' to India with claims that it could bypass the basic tests specified for selling honey in Indian market.
CSE tracked Chinese trade portals like Alibaba which had companies that listed fructose syrup on the platform.
On checking India's Ministry of Commerce database, CSE found that the same Chinese companies listed on these portals also exported to India. Some of these names that have exported 'fructose' to India in the last few years are Wuhu Runquin Daily Necessities, Wuhu Haoyikuai Import and Export (HYK foods), Wuhu Deli, Anhui Yuan Sen.
CSE said that from the trade base they found that in the last four years more than 11,000 MT of fructose syrup had come from these sellers as 'industrial raw material'.
Buyers were from Punjab (Faridkot, Patiala and Rajpura); Delhi NCR; Jaspur and Kashipur (Uttarakhand).
In fact, as per the database, the average quantity of fructose from China is over 10,000 MT every year since 2014-15. In 2012-2013, it was less than 2,500 MT. "It is clear that China is driving the trend of fructose syrup and glucose quantity imported in India," says CSE's director general Sunita Narain.
CSE conducted an undercover operation to find the Chinese link in honey adulteration in India. It sent emails to Chinese companies soliciting syrups that could pass tests in India. It received replies that syrups were available and could be sent to India.
Alarmingly, Chinese companies informed CSE that even if 50-80 per cent of the honey was adulterated with syrup it would pass all stipulated tests.
A sample of the syrup that could bypass tests was then sent by the Chinese company via Hong Kong as "paint pigment" to get through customs.
CSE also got a tip that the Chinese companies had sold the technology that would help 'bypass' the test to some in India. CSE tracked down a factory in Jaspur, Uttarakhand that manufactures syrup to adulterate honey. CSE procured a syrup sample using the codeword 'all pass' syrup.
To understand if the sugar syrups from China and India would pass the laboratory tests undetected, CSE then adulterated samples of pure honey.
"What was shocking to find is that adulterated samples with 25 per cent and 50 per cent sugar syrup passed the test of purity. In this way, we confirmed that sugar syrups exist that can bypass the 2020 FSSAI standard for honey," says Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE's Food Safety and Toxins team.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in May this year had taken note of adulteration of honey using golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup. Following which, it had asked importers and state food commissioners to register with FSSAI and inform if they were using imported products.
But since the Chinese companies were selling these as fructose, the sugar syrups were getting cleared undetected.
Khurana said, "The three imported sugar syrups named by FSSAI in its directive - golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup -- are either not imported in these names or are not indicted for adulteration."
Khurana says: "It shows how the business of adulteration has evolved so that it can pass the stipulated tests in India. Our concern is not just that the honey we eat is adulterated, but that this adulteration is difficult to catch. In fact, we have found that the sugar syrups are designed so that they can go undetected."
Meanwhile, CSE's director general Sunita Narain has urged the government to stop import of syrups and honey from China and strengthen enforcement through public testing so that companies are held responsible.
CSE's investigation had found that 10 out of 13 honey brands in India flunked the sugar syrup test, indicating adulteration in their products.