Australian beekeepers have called on the federal government to investigate the risk posed to the local $100 million honey industry and bee population by the recent jump in honey imports.
The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council is concerned imported honey from countries such as China and Mexico could contain live viruses and bacteria that cause bee disease and threaten the survival of Australia’s introduced honey bee population and 1500 species of native bees.
Australian honey imports have more than doubled in the past three years, with nearly 10,000 tonnes bought by Australian honey processors and food manufacturers in 2015-16.
At the same time, local honey production has plummeted to just 14,800 tonnes annually, down from 22,385 tonnes in 2012-13 due to drought and increased climate variation, causing one-third of all bee keepers to quit the industry.
Many local beekeepers also blame cheap honey imports for keeping a ceiling on honey prices paid by the big processors such as Capilano and Beechworth Honey. Australian raw honey produced from native bushland is sold by beekeepers for between $5 and $7 a kilogram. In New Zealand, where cheap imported honey — which cost less than $2.50/kg to buy — is banned, processors pay up to $15/kg for normal bush honey, and much more for special manuka medicinal honey.
Australia’s biggest honey processor, Brisbane-based ASX-listed Capilano — 19 per cent owned by Kerry Stokes through his family investment vehicle Wroxby-ACE Investments — last year imported about 4000 tonnes of honey into Australia from a small processing plant it owns in Argentina and also from China.
These imports added to the 10,500 tonnes of pure Australian honey Capilano bought from its 600 supplying beekeepers, about 70 per cent of all local production.
But Capilano chief executive Ben McKee denies his company’s imported honey purchases threaten either the economic or biological viability of the local bee and honey industry.
He says the increasing variance in local honey production — which he attributes to changing climates, seasonal variation and a decline in the availability of some eucalyptus and native bush tree species for honey production — makes it necessary for a large business like Capilano to have overseas sources of honey to meet the demands of its customers.
Australian honey has also become some of the most expensive in the world to buy, he says, with significant price rises over the past five years. While this is ideal for maintaining the reputation of pure Australian honey as a premium quality product, it puts top quality Australian pure honey out of the price reach of many local supermarket shoppers.
“Fundamentally we are a company that supports Australian beekeepers; if we import honey it is to provide consumers with greater choice and reliability,” Dr McKee said. “We do get offended by claims and allegations on social media that our 100 per cent pure Australian yellow label Capilano has imported honey in it; it is totally untrue as we would never risk our reputation by doing that.”
But other well-known honey brands also owned by Capilano such as Allowrie and Barnes are now blended honey — and clearly labelled as such, according to Dr McKee — using a mix of cheaper imported honey and local product to keep the price down.
Benalla commercial beekeeper and honey producer Andrew Boyd, who supplies bush honey to both Capilano and nearby Beechworth Honey (which eschews imports), understands McKee’s predicament.
With 1800 hives spread in high country forests, bushland and river red gum country across southern NSW, the Mallee and northeast Victoria, Mr Boyd has experienced the enormous variability in seasons, drought, tree flowering times and honey production first hand.
“The biggest problem is not imports but that we are not producing enough honey in Australia; if we could have greater consistency of supply the problem would go away,” Mr Boyd said.
“I can see both sides of the fence; I don’t like the Chinese honey coming in here and I’m worried that it is low quality and might turn Australians off honey altogether — but at the same time I understand Capilano’s business strategy and am a beneficiary of the better prices being paid for pure Australian honey too.”
The director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council Trevor Weatherhead said: “We have nothing against imported honey; as long as the scientists can guarantee to us that there is nothing else coming in the honey — such as bacteria and viruses — that could cause disease here that we don’t already have and harm the industry.”