Australian honey toxic according to new research

A study shows Australian honey contains the world's highest levels of PA contaminants. Image courtesy of Flickr - Dino Giordano
A study shows Australian honey contains the world's highest levels of PA contaminants. Image courtesy of Flickr - Dino Giordano

A new Irish study on levels of a certain toxin in honey around the world has found Australian honey to be the world’s most contaminated.

The study, published in Food Additives and Contaminants Journal found that Australian honey scored the worst in the world when it came to pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA) contaminants.

PA itself is linked to chronic diseases and enters honey through production sourced form certain kinds of noxious wild plants.

While the honey tested does meet Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) standards, it fails to meet European ones which are 140 times more stringent when it comes to PA contamination.

Specifically, the PA is thought to enter the production chain via a plant called ‘Patterson’s Curse’. Use of this plant for honey-making is banned by Australian authorities, however FSANZ reportedly admits its complete removal is unfeasible.

Responding to this report in an article with the ABC, representatives from the Australian honey industry attempted to show that it was misleading.

Primarily they claimed that the Australian honey analysed in the study was from older samples from between 2008-2012 and thus was out of date due to new “biological control” measures taken by the industry to remove Patterson’s Curse.

They also pointed out that in other countries such as China, honey is often adulterated with sugar syrup, making it less pure and thus less likely to include PA. Finally, they criticized the report for over-estimating Australian honey consumption.

The Manufacturer contacted Dr Martin Danaher and Dr Ambrose Furey, two of the co-authors of the Irish report, who confirmed the sample period, while rebutting some of the other points raised.

“In relation to the honey samples, the Australian samples were 2008 to 2010 and again in 2012,” Dr Danaher stated.

He also explained that the purity of the honey could affect the PA level.

“PA content can be diluted by blending, so potentially a pure Australian honey could look more contaminated than a honey made up of different blends.”

Nonetheless, similar studies comparing EU honey to honey from elsewhere show the more regulated EU honey with significantly lower PA levels.

This demonstrates that geographical location and regulation play an important role in the level of this contaminant, beyond what could be explained by purity levels alone.

With respect to the alleged over-estimation of Australian honey consumption, Dr Furey pointed out that their study made use of EU-recommended assumptions of 20g of honey per day for a 60kg adult.

“As recommended by EU expert committee’s, we applied these recommended values to all our PA studies so that the comparison of survey data could be obtained for PA levels in honey purchased in Ireland and in Australia,” he explained.

“In European hotels, a single pre-packed restaurant portion of honey is between 25-28g (typically used on two pieces of toast or to sweeten oatmeal), so using 20g in exposure assessment studies seems reasonable at least for EU countries.”

Similarly-sized hotel portions of honey (20-30g) are made by Australian manufactures, suggesting local consumption is not significantly different from that seen in the EU.

FSANZ has so-far taken no immediate action to change standards relating to PA levels in honey.