Since the Government of India directed the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), in December last year, to revise its standards for honey only two meetings have been held. The 32 member technical committee of the Apiary Industry Sectional Committee, the committee that oversees the specifications of extracted honey, met on January 5,2011 and decided that an eight member panel would be formed. This panel would discuss the comments received by the technical committee and eventually restructure the clause 5.4 of IS 4941:1994 for extracted honey with reference to extraneous contaminants such as antibiotics, heavy metals and pesticide residues.
The BIS was also supposed to analyse the study done by the Centre for Science and Environment that had found high levels of antibiotics in honey, both international and domestic brands, sold in the country. The brands were found to contain antibiotics from the range of the banned Chloramphenicol to the broad spectrum Ciprofloxacin and Erythromycin. CSE had released its study in September 2010.
FSSAI skips the meet
The eight member panel comprised of representatives from the national bee board, drug controller general of India, Indian Council for Medical Research, Directorate for Marketing and Inspection, Bureau of Indian Standards, Indian Council for Agricultural Research and consumer group VOICE. The nominations for the panel were sought and subsequently received except from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). FSSAI is the member of the 32 member technical committee.
It is worth noting that that while the BIS makes rules that are voluntary, it is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that has the locus standi to frame mandatory standards for honey as well as check the quality of imported honey.
The absence of the FSSAI from the panel indicates the seriousness of the Authority, a trait it has been lacking ever since the controversy broke. After CSE released its study on the presence of antibiotics in honey in September 2010, the FSSAI simply issued an advisory that no antibiotics should be present in honey. This advisory has not yet become a gazette notification and its validity in the court of law remains suspect. Though the FSSAI maintains that it is legally viable, the honey manufacturers think otherwise.
No antibiotics but some MRLs please
However, the meeting of the 8 member panel, on April 26, was held without any representation from the FSSAI. The panel was convened by TP Rajendran, ADG, Plant Protection, ICAR. It was agreed upon that extracted honey will not contain any antibiotic or their metabolites but in the event of an unacceptable, perceived contamination of these extraneous substances, there is a need to estimate their presence. Members were asked to provide methods to measure their concentration in extracted honey as well as a list of antibiotics which are detectable and perceivable in honey, along with their original chemistry and their metabolites.
The meeting did throw up a Catch 22 situation on the issue of setting maximum residue limits (MRLs) for antibiotics in honey. While on one hand there are no recommendations of antibiotics for treating bees, except for oxytetracycline by a handful of agriculture universities, setting MRLs for certain antibiotics would send a message that they are permissible.
It was also decided that there should be no dual standards for exporting honey and honey to be consumed domestically. Health was the central theme with expert members urging the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to draw a protocol to conduct a study on the impact of the presence of antibiotics and pesticide residues on the health of the consumers.
Concerns regarding exports and trade barriers came from unexpected quarters. The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), represented by Malay Mitra and the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) through correspondence stated that, the levels should not be set so low that trade is hampered while it might not affect the health of the consumer as much.
MV Haridas, consultant with the National Bee Board, said at the meeting that they were in talks with the likes of FSSAI, Ministry of Commerce to set the ball rolling on detection of antibiotics and other contaminants in honey. Further, the board has started work of registration of beekeepers, for the purpose of traceability of source of honey.