Honey Fraud: Will the controversy snowball into a crisis for the brands?

Manisha Kapoor, Secretary General of ASCI, revealed that the body received 93 complaints from the category this year, out of which claims of only 5 cases were found true

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Dec 4, 2020 3:24 PM
Honey Fraud Story

The report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) alleging that top brands are selling adulterated honey with a modified sugar has made headlines, which is sure to be generating chatter among consumers. The CSE investigation claimed that the companies mixed the naturally acquired honey from bees with sugar syrup procured from rice, corn, beetroot, and sugarcane and passed them off as pure. It also added that almost all brands of honey being sold in Indian markets are adulterated with sugar syrup. exchange4media reached out to leading honey brands in question like Dabur, Emami and Patanjali for their comments. However, these brands have denied these reports calling them malicious and baseless, and that they comply with the guidelines laid down by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

In an email response to exchange4media’s query, a Dabur spokesperson said, “The recent reports seem motivated and aimed at maligning our brand. We assure our consumers that Dabur Honey is 100% Pure. It is 100% indigenous, collected naturally from Indian sources and packed with no added sugar or other adulterants. We also assure our consumers that Dabur does not import any Honey/syrup from China and our Honey is sourced entirely from Indian beekeepers. Dabur is complying with the 22 parameters (listed below) mandated by FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) for testing Honey. In addition, Dabur Honey is also tested for the presence of antibiotics, as mandated by FSSAI. Further, Dabur is the only company in India to have an NMR testing equipment in our own laboratory, and the same is used to regularly test our Honey being sold in the Indian market. This is to ensure that Dabur Honey is 100% Pure without any adulteration.”

Meanwhile, Acharya Balkrishna of Patanjali contended that “it seems to be a plot to defame Indian natural honey industry and manufacturers in a bid to promote processed honey. “ He said, “We make 100% natural honey which is tested pure on more than 100 standards laid down by FSSAI for honey. Ayurveda has been recommending natural honey for ages to boost immunity and to scale down inflammatory cytokines factors. It further seems to be an international marketing design to promote German technology and machines which cost crores of rupees. Besides, it is an attempt to lower down the market share of Indian honey in international trade.

Besides, this is a bigger game plan to replace lakhs of rural farmers and honey growers including Khadi & Village commission channel with processed/artificial/value-added honey makers, which are heavy capital and machinery driven industry. “

While an Emami Spokesperson in response to the query said, "Emami as a responsible organization ensures that its Zandu Pure Honey conforms and adheres to all the protocols and quality norms/standards laid down by the Government of India and its authorised entities such as FSSAI. “

Marico's Saffola Honey is the only big brand to have emerged unscathed from the controversy. "Every batch of Saffola Honey is tested using NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) technology, which is one of the most advanced tests in the world, in the best in class laboratories to ensure that it is 100% pure, free from added sugars and free from any form of adulteration. Saffola Honey is produced at a USFDA registered plant with state-of-the-art technology ensuring robust quality checks and controls. Saffola Honey is also compliant with each of the quality parameters mandated by FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India)," said the company in its statement.

Will the controversy impact the brands in question?

Samit Sinha, Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting doesn’t think this will amount to a serious crisis for any of the brands. “I have several reasons for why I say this. First most, all of the brands are not single product brands. In fact, honey would not even be amongst the biggest contributors to the brands’ overall turnovers. Second, many of the brands have been around for a long time and are established household brands, and therefore, have the momentum to ride over, what is at worst, a minor setback. Third, the CSE test report is not as widely circulated amongst the typical honey consumer in India as we might think. And lastly, it is sad, but true, that we Indians have historically tended to be far more forgiving of sub-standard product quality, unfulfilled promises and unsubstantiated claims than we should have been, and this will also probably be no exception,” said Sinha. 

Manisha Kapoor, Secretary General for the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) revealed that in this category, the self-regulatory body has received 93 complaints so far this year, out of which claims of only 5 cases were found true and that it has witnessed around 98% of compliance from advertisers.

“This year, ASCI has received four complaints on advertisements for honey brands, which were taken up and three of these complaints were upheld. In fact, the food and beverage sector as a whole has been in ASCI's focus - through complaints received about misleading advertisements and through our suo motu monitoring,” Kapoor said.

N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA opined that this begs the question as to how are the adulterators going to be punished for their crimes. “They have not only broken consumer trust, but this is food adulteration, and therefore among the most serious of crime. While the test is a very important one, it lacks severely in only having tested 13 brands. When headlines scream that only 3 honey brands pass the CSE Honey test, it implies that all others, including those not tested, have failed. There are scores of honey brands, and they also get negatively impacted by exclusion in this testing. However, consumers have been consuming honey more after the pandemic due to its immunity-building properties, and any adulteration is a serious offence. FSSAI too did a test in 2019 and found that the 10 brands they tested were adulterated,” he opined.

On the controversy, the director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Sunita Narain said, “It is a food fraud more nefarious and more sophisticated than what we found in our 2003 and 2006 investigations into soft drinks; more damaging to our health than perhaps anything that we have found till now – keeping in mind the fact that we are still fighting against COVID-19 pandemic, this overuse of sugar in our diet will make it worse.” 

Jagdeep Kapoor, Chairman and Managing Director, Samsika pointed out that it is trust that makes brands win. “The most important attribute of a good brand, is credibility. Reputation is critical. But usage is equally important. If a brand or brands are trusted for decades and across generations in terms of usage, that reputation cannot be destroyed in a day,” Kapoor remarked.

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