The China trail: Detective-like, CSE trailed the mysterious “all pass” syrup allegedly being used by top companies to adulterate honey

In The Slow Cafe with Neelesh Misra, environmentalist Sunita Narain speaks about the Centre For Science and Environment’s pathbreaking research on adulterated honey and why following the trail to its logical conclusion is important.

Subha J Rao
| Updated: December 4th, 2020

Sunita Narain, director-general of Centre For Science and Environment has been working in the field of public advocacy from the time when it was not considered very fashionable. She’s been in the news again this past week over the honey expose by her team. Thirteen brands of honey from India were sent for testing to Germany, of which just three made the cut.

The Slow Cafe with Neelesh Misra is usually a langrouous conversation, the kind that makes you unwind, slow down and take in every pause. However, the conversation with Narain zipped past, fuelled by double espresso. It helped that the topic being discussed needed that kind of urgency. 

When Narain narrated how the team cracked the story, you felt an adrenaline rush. To think, a story that finally saw the involvement of companies from China in helping adulterate honey begin with a complaint from farmers that they were getting low rates. Narain did not expressly state it, but this story, like so many others, showcases how dogged reporters have to be, to help an investigation reach its logical conclusion.

The investigation was triggered by a righteous zeal. Imagine an entire country consuming more honey during the pandemic to increase immunity, and imagine finding out that that very honey is not doing its job, but causing harm, thanks to the adulteration of sugar. “Doctors have found out that those who are overweight are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19,” Narain informed.

Which brings us back to an earlier segment of the conversation where both Misra and Narain spoke about how we seem to be discussing everything except our air, our water and our food. When these sources are poisoned, lives suffer, said the duo, who identified themselves as being the “strange ones”, the folks who can’t handle it when garbage is thrown out of cars or there’s water leakage. 

Of course, there’s frustration, but “you keep going”, said Narain. “Things have to be changed in society, yes, but to change, you need to know what’s happening.”

As she spoke about how bee farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and the North belt, where hives are placed in shimmering yellow mustard fields, worried about the crashing prices of honey, one was reminded of the honey collectors of the Nilgiris, the Kurumbas, who shimmied up slippery slopes to gather pristine mountain honey. 

A bee farmer. Photo: Gaon Connection

Honey gathering might be an industry now, but it’s also a fine art. And one fraught with danger in the wild. It’s also a service to farmers, because bees offer free pollination. According to the Trade Promotion Council of India, globally, China produces 1,779.6 metric tonnes of honey. India is in the sixth place, with 3.5 per cent of the global production. The major export destinations of Indian honey are the US, Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Narain said the investigation came out of a simple quandary. One plus one should equal two. In this case, it did not. She also spoke about how there was this undercurrent of rumour among farmers about a “Chinese syrup that helps pass all tests”. And so, the CSE got down to working on a hunch that something was wrong.

What followed was no less than a John Grisham or Alistair MacLean thriller. Most samples passed the first test at the honey testing lab at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in Gujarat. By then, the team knew something was wrong and that the government knew that too. 

“We looked for three things — golden syrup, rice syrup and invert syrup. Nothing showed up in the import export database,” said Narain. Finally, they ordered this syrup after pretending to be a company. One sample got stuck at customs, but another reached them safely, via Hong Kong, and under the guise of paint pigment! With a guarantee that even if they mixed 80 per cent of this with 20 per cent of honey, their product would pass all tests. And directing them towards these sellers were advertisements on e-commerce sites such as Alibaba. 

The team realised there was a factory in Jaspur in Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand where they could get this magical syrup made in India, which went by the nickname “All pass syrup”. When the team used it to adulterate honey to the tune of 50 per cent, they still passed the lab test!

Finally, they sent the samples to Germany to be tested under NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) technology to find out the content. This test determines the content and purity of a sample. It studies the structure of molecules in liquid as well as crystal and non-crystalline materials.

Just three brands cleared the test — Saffola,  Markfed Sohna and one sample of Nature’s Nectar. The rest, including Dabur, Patanjali, Apis Himalaya, Baidyanath, Zandu and Hitkari, failed.

Narain said what infuriated her most, and should make us react too, was that this was being done even at a time when everyone was prompting the usage of honey as an immunity booster. “Our health suffers, and what happens to the poor bee farmer? How will he compete with someone selling syrup for sixty rupees a kilo?” she asked.

Misra spoke about his conversations with beekeepers two years ago, and made a disclosure about how he set about marketing Slow Honey just because of this. “I spoke to beekeepers yesterday and they reminded me that they had spoken about this with me two years ago,” he said.

Eating honey that’s sugar also causes health issues, especially among those who are diabetic and think they are consuming honey. 

Why is honey important to humans? “It is antimicrobial, it is anti-inflammatory, and while converting nectar into honey, the bee infuses it with so many good properties that no factory can reproduce,” said Narain.

It is this very uniqueness that those using adulterants attack. If one strain of adulterant is spotted, they switch to another, then another, and finally end-users never know if they are consuming something healthy or not. 

So, what is the solution? “People must demand accountability. We need to know traceability of food, from farmer to consumer. We need to know how to join those dots again. When companies give you food, it becomes part of an industrial manufacturing process. We lose the connections,” Narain said.

Bee boxes. Photo: Gaon Connection

In a light-hearted moment, when Misra asked her about Gobar Times, the magazine brought out by CSE, Narain said it was the brainchild of its late founder Anil Agarwal. “He always said that like how khadi and salt were the symbols that Gandhiji chose, Gobar would be ours, because it is the most recycled substance in the world.”

This study raises flags yes, but what next? “We plan to meet with the government. We have already shared the details of our study. We have three demands. Imports from China must be stopped. The FSSAI [Food Safety and Standards Authority of India] must do rigorous public testing. We need a protocol of testing. We must name and shame violators, so that people know what the problem is. Let the companies answer queries,” Narain said. 

Validation for this process came from farmers in the hinterland who were grateful their doubts were not without reason. “You have to keep the pressure up. Yes, there will be threats, but let them do their job, let’s do ours,” said Narain.

A fear is that corporates might dump the blame for adulteration on beekeepers. “The latest ad of Dabur says it is NMR tested at source,” she said, wryly.

The conversation, which was just about 35 minutes, was also a lesson in tenacity and why one must always go in pursuit of an investigation for the common public good.