CRCHBP’s Honey Traceability Project

We are excited to share some information about the Honey Traceability Project underway at the CRC for Honey Bee Products. Please read on to learn about how this project is safeguarding the future and quality of Australian honey. 

Introduction

The ‘Made in Australia’ logo is highly valued and internationally appreciated, as Australia is a country known for a high level of food-safety regulation. Placing a location and visualisation of exactly where that food was produced, as well as securing its passage into any home world-wide, is the new level of expectation for a fine food product. 

Honey squarely falls into the category of such a fine food product, with Australian Beekeepers producing some of the rarest wild-collected honeys in the world. Unfortunately, honey can be adulterated and it is claimed to be the third most adulterated food product in the world. The challenges this brings to the industry, for example, are illustrated in data from New Zealand where it was demonstrated that, internationally, more ‘New Zealand Manuka honey’ was sold than actually produced. 

Honey Adulteration

Honey adulteration takes many forms. The two main ways hitting the news headlines are from feeding honey bees with sugar solutions as a nectar substitute for honey production; and the addition of bioactive ingredients or sugar solutions to honey. In times of nectar resource paucity, honey bees indeed need to be fed sugar solutions to ensure colony survival, and the common sense approach for a beekeeper would be to leave this food resource for the honey bees. In the face of relentless droughts and then bushfires in 2020, some Queensland and New South Wales beekeepers had to resort to sugar feeding as they are desperately trying to keep their bees alive to meet the agriculture pollination demand for the upcoming spring season. For those beekeepers, honey harvesting will not be an option, as honey made from sugar-fed bees does not meet the internationally accepted definition of honey. 

The second form of adulteration is the deliberate addition of substances to honey to extend the honey or change its chemical composition. Luckily sugar syrup additions (e.g. cane, rice, and corn syrups) are relatively easy to detect, as the syrups often include sucrose (honey mainly contains glucose and fructose) or other signifying constituents, that can easily be identified as they dilute the non-sugar portion of the honey. The addition of bioactive ingredients, using the conversion of dihydroxyacetone (DHA) to methylglyoxal (MGO) making the key bioactive constituent of Manuka honey, is more difficult to detect. 

The Case of New Zealand Manuka Honey

So how can New Zealand protect its Manuka honey brand? New Zealand Manuka honey is derived from the nectar of only one species of Leptospermum, L. scoparium. It is the only species of this plant genus to grow in New Zealand. When the bees collect the nectar and place it in the honeycomb, they bring with the nectar a substance, known as dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that non-enzymatically converts to the highly antimicrobial methylglyoxal (MGO). New Zealand first used the presence of DHA and its conversion to MGO as a bioactivity indicator, and this afforded some protection of the source. However, both of these substances can be synthetically produced and added to honey and, unfortunately, this Manuka honey adulteration has been exposed in some instances. There is also the issue that Australia has the same Leptospermum species as New Zealand, in addition to 80 other species, with more than half of them also producing DHA in their nectar. So measurement of DHA and MGO in honey is not specific to New Zealand Manuka honey as Australian beekeepers can also produce honeys with the same bioactivity mechanism, that like New Zealand Manuka honey can also be adulterated by the addition of DHA and or MGO.

To address this challenge and after much intensive analysis, New Zealand researchers identified five specific markers to authenticate New Zealand Manuka honey. Four of these biomarkers require specified levels of particular chemical substances, and the last is a DNA marker within the pollen. As scientifically impressive as this authentication system is, a recent review highlighted that the required authentication testing is expensive, time-consuming and requires a high level of technical skill and high-end analytical tools. It is also important to note that this system only confirms the identity of one, albeit high-value, mono-floral New Zealand honey. Worldwide, this scenario is the exception rather than the rule as most honey production from the USA and Europe is from large expanses of agriculture crops or a mixed annual flora meadow, thus nothing as unique and as botanically specific as New Zealand Manuka honey.  In Australia, most honey is not harvested from agricultural crops resulting in the honey landscape being diverse with a multitude of, often endemic flora, producing a wide range of mono-or multi-floral honeys, each with a unique phytochemical profile and varying level of bioactivity. 

The Case of Australian Honey

Australia has a plethora of unique and often highly bioactive honeys as the continent holds fifteen biodiversity hot spots, each containing rare endemic flora. Importantly the continent supports over 900 Eucalypt species that cover ninety-two million hectares, with an additional thirty million hectares of forest containing other unique nectar-producing trees. It would be a missed opportunity to choose only one or two unique honeys from this plentiful resource. So for Australian honeys, the challenge is to characterise and appropriately market the total forage range. A key task in this undertaking is to ensure consistent high quality, free of accidental or deliberate adulteration.

B-QUAL

To protect its brand and the reputation of its products, the Australian honey bee industry has already established its own Quality Assurance System, known as B-QUAL. This system tracks and audits the process of collecting and transporting honey from field to packer and includes food safety requirements. To increase the uptake of B-QUAL among the smaller commercial beekeepers, B-QUAL is currently being digitised for greater efficiency and combined with biosecurity monitoring by the CRC for Honey Bee Products. This digitisation can also offer the link to time-saving electronic tracking of hives and frames, gathering other critical management data for the beekeeper business and assist the peak industry body (AHBIC) to provide government with critical information to protect the industry.   

Honey Library

Bee keeping and honey harvesting present a unique set of challenges that sets the industry apart from other agricultural sectors. B-QUAL records track the placement of the hive, however honey bees cannot be ‘fenced’ into a paddock and will choose their own flight path and flora, from which they will source nectar and pollen to meet their nutritional demands. As can be seen from the case of New Zealand Manuka honey, phytochemical constituents within the nectar will influence the chemical composition of the honey and with it the honey’s organoleptic characteristics and bioactivity profile. It is therefore crucial to understand exactly which plants the bees forage in order to produce honey with consistent chemical composition that results in consistent taste and bioactivity. The size of Australia and the complexity of the honey bee forage range might be daunting, but surprisingly the palate of the honey bee appears to be quite selective. Whether this is due to nectar attributes, flower shape, colour or pollen amino acid composition, there are flowers bees do not venture near. It was found, for instance, that from all the biodiversity in the south-west of Western Australia, honey bees favour only 242 native species.

In 2018, Australian honey unfortunately and unjustifiably, made headlines for all the wrong reasons when claims of adulteration and mislabelling were made. In the wake of what ultimately turned out to be an incorrect claim, a multitude of chemists offered their favourite analytical technique to assist with the authentication through confirmation of sugars and floral source. Regardless of which analytical technique is used, all require access to a reliable reference database to test samples against to verify their status. Change to ‘reliable honey samples. The problem was that the industry did not have a collection of verified honeys (as samples) to test and build the reference database to test samples against to verify their status. The industry requested that an industry-controlled Honey Library from verified locations be established.

Establishing such a library required structure, and the industry elected to use a classification system already established by biologists, the Biogeographical Regions System (https://www.environment.gov.au/land/nrs/science/ibra). A GIS app records honey collection site GPS data so the industry can track the completion of the Honey Library in each biogeographical area across Australia by season. 

The CRC for Honey Bee Products has been developing a bee flora database starting in Western Australia and moving across to the east coast. The database has relied on published literature, a Bee Flora Spotter App on their web page and observations recorded by their researcher cohort. Linking the GPS location of each honey to the CRCHBP bee flora database enables sample source confirmation and acceptance of the honey sample into the Honey Library. In each participating laboratory, the collected honeys are stored under the same conditions and in the same container type to assist with standardisation and repeatable analysis results. 

This Honey Library will take years to complete, and most likely, will be continuously expanding as our floral landscape changes. Most of Australia’s flora does not flower every year, for instance a Jarrah tree is biannual and a Karri tree only has a major flowering once every 20 years. At times even when flowering occurs, the nectar does not flow to levels required for a honey bee colony to produce honey. This is a long-term commitment as is the dedication with any comprehensive collection or library.

Honey Assurance

This Honey Assurance system will provide the guarantee that the honey is Australian and meets Australian and international standards. It will also identify the monofloral honeys and this information can be used for promoting any bioactivity activity for marketing purposes. To build the Honey Assurance system from the Honey Library, three inter-linked chemistry methodologies for honey characterisation need to be considered: alignment with export requirements; adulteration; and linking the dominant nectar source to the harvest biogeographical region. This latter aspect is important for the identification of mono-floral honeys and in particular for the marketing of bioactive honeys.  

The first and simplest approach is to check that all of our honeys meet the international honey standard. The few countries that have characterised their honeys (mostly in Europe) have identified floral sources that have specific quantifiable chemical component, or pollen count, that needs a special mention as an exception to the honey standard. This could well be true of Australian honeys and the flora sources that cause such anomalies need to be identified and declared as an exception. 

The second layer of chemistry is in hot-debate world-wide. Forensics has taken analytical chemistry to extraordinary levels and the question is if this level of sophistication is required for this food product. The luxury of having the Honey Library is that trials of the different analytical techniques can be investigated using the same samples for performance comparison as well as for novel research for new quick and cheap methods of honey authentication.

The Approach

The Australian Honey Assurance system is working towards a linked multifaceted approach:
•    The systematic recording of bee hive management and health, and honey bee product extraction from field to packer (B-QUAL and audited) – whilst this is already occurring, by the end of 2020, B-QUAL will be digitised and rolled out for testing.
•    Confirmation of the honey’s floral sources through the honey assurance system that links with the bee flora database (B-QUAL audited and the presentation of an Australian Batch #) – Honey Library initiated; testing will start this year and the digitised honey database completed by June 2021. 
•    Finally, there is the tracking of the packaged batched product from Australian businesses to the customer. The level of security will depend on product value and will be at the discretion of the company. However, if there ever is a dispute, a sample of each honey bee product batch will be retained for legal purposes.