COVID-19 impacts could open the door for fake honey in Canada, according to one B.C. honey producer.
Peter Awram, CEO of Worker Bee Honey, a honey farm in B.C., worries that increasing demand for honey by Canadians, coupled with production problems in Canada, and the impulse to open markets as quickly as possible post-COVID-19 could mean more fake honey coming in than before.
Adulterated or “fake” honey is lucrative, since the recipe usually goes: part real honey, part cheap filler (like rice syrup), which means counterfeiters can sell larger quantities.
“I expect us to see huge increases of fraud,” Awram said. “Despite the fact that Canada produces far more honey than it consumes, we’re still seeing the stuff [fake honey] coming to the country.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency 2019-2020 report on honey authenticity documented that 13 percent of honey tested was adulterated, and almost all the fake honey was imported.
“The price of rice syrup and all these contaminants, it hasn’t jumped nearly as much,” said Awram. “So, you know, there’s more money to be made and when there’s money to be made people will find ways.”
The whole situation is a concern since the demand for honey has gone up during the pandemic. But, while Canadians were running for the honey aisle last spring, local honey producers were struggling with labour shortages and bad weather.
Cold weather, COVID-19 disruptions drive down honey supply
Most of Canada’s honey comes from Canada. But last summer’s bad weather and COVID-19 disruptions could mean less local honey than before.
“For honey production [season], it was really short,” said Rod Scarlett, director of the Canadian Honey Council. “For the most part across most of Canada, it was cool and then really hot for about two weeks then it cooled down again. And so the honey-production season lasted about two weeks.”
Bad weather aside, honey producers faced another setback during last year’s pandemic harvest.
“Disruptions in commercial flights reduced the supply of queens and package bees, which prevented some beekeepers from restoring their colonies following high winter losses,” according to a recently released 2020 Statistics Canada report on honey production.
Labour shortages hurt honey producers
In addition to a lack of bees, COVID-19 travel restrictions caused labour shortages across the agricultural industry in the fall. Honey producers rely on foreign farm workers to do crucial beekeeping work before the winter to keep bee colonies from dying. The effects of improper winterization — a delicate process that prevents nasty mite infestations from killing bee colonies in cold weather — could mean fewer bees, and less honey, in the coming season.
“The expectation from a number of beekeepers is that they’ll have higher losses because of higher mite counts,” Scarlett said.
According to Scarlett, some honey producers might have improperly winterized hives because COVID-19 restrictions last summer meant the skilled labourers who usually come from abroad to do beekeeping work, couldn’t. Honey producers won’t know how many bee colonies survived until pollination begins this spring.
“From the labour perspective, if you don’t have the experience, it means somebody has to be around who knows what’s going on,” Scarlett said. “And if you didn’t have the labour, or hired local labour to do it, it means a slower process or a process where you may not get [the work] done.”
Labour shortages have been well documented since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but, according to Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, finding specialized farm workers is particularly challenging.
“Farm labour involves a set of skills that develop over time,” said Newman. “Many farmers have a long-standing relationship with groups of labourers.”
It’s difficult to find farm workers in Canada, said Newman, and labour shortages could rattle the industry again in the 2021 harvest season.
“Locals aren’t that keen to take highly seasonal work, usually,” she said. “I expect this year might be just as bad or even worse as we all hunker down and wait for [a] vaccine.”
Show me the honey
Government data shows that total Canadian honey production in 2020 was the lowest since 2013.
But, because the price rose as production fell, that meant the market value of the highly sought-after nectar ballooned to a five-year high: $208 million to be exact.
And where demand is high while supply is low, the opportunity for fraud can be vast.
“There’s already big players in making money off of fraudulent honey,” said Awram. “So they’re just going to get bigger in terms of that.”