Branded honey sold in India is likely to be contaminated with harmful antibiotics, according to a new study

That spoonful of “guaranteed pure” sweetness may be hiding a bitter secret. Branded honey sold in India is likely to be contaminated with harmful antibiotics, according to a new study by the Centre for Science and Environment.

CSE's Pollution Monitoring Laboratory tested 12 leading brands of honey sold in Delhi, including those made by Indian companies such as Dabur, Himalaya, Patanjali, Baidyanath and Khadi as well as by two foreign companies based in Switzerland and Australia. Scientists found high levels of six harmful antibiotics in 11 samples, with only the Indian Hitkari brand coming out clean.

The contamination is the end result of a murky chain, which begins when antibiotics are fed to bees to prevent disease, promote growth and increase honey production to meet commercial targets. When they make their way into your daily spoonful of honey, these substances could damage the blood, kidneys, liver, bones and teeth. More importantly, they create resistance in the body to prescribed antibiotics when you really do fall ill, says the CSE report.

Most developed countries have banned or strictly regulated antibiotics in honey, and Indian companies must meet those standards when they export their products. However, in a stinging example of double standards, most Indian companies are dumping their contaminated honey on the domestic market, since there are no regulations here, says CSE.

Dabur Honey — which has captured 75 per cent of the Indian market — had the antibiotic Oxytetracycline at nine times the level that is permitted for exported honey. It also had significant amounts of two other drugs completely banned for use in honey. If the sample was placed for export to the United States or the European Union, it would have been rejected.

Interestingly, Dabur was recently involved in a controversy in Nepal, where leading newspapers claimed that the Dabur honey was substandard and used harmful chemicals. The company dismissed it as part of a Nepali “smear campaign” against Indian products, but the sticky claim has now come from an Indian source.

Nectaflor Natural Blossom Honey, made by Narimpex of Switzerland, had the largest number — five — of the six antibiotics that it was tested for, including the highest levels of ampicillin and erythromycin, both of which are not permitted for beekeeping in any country. It would be illegal to sell it even in Switzerlanditself. Similarly, the Australian brand, Capilano Pure & Natural Honey, which is sold in 40 countries, violated standards set in its home country.

“It is clear that foreign companies are taking advantage of the lack of regulations in India. After all, if our government does not care about the health of its people, why should these companies care?” said CSE director Sunita Narain, at the release of the study on Wednesday.

“We have standards for antibiotic contamination in the honey we export. The government even tests and certifies that exported honey meets health and safety regulations. But we do not have any standards for domestic honey. This is clearly unacceptable,” she said.

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