These latest results have revealed traces of an antibiotic, chloramphenicol. 10 out of 16 samples tested positive for illegal residues of chloramphenicol. On receiving these results, the Agency yesterday convened a meeting of independent scientific experts to assess whether this posed a risk to the consumer. The main known risk from chloramphenicol relates to aplastic anaemia, a rare but serious blood disorder that affects 50 to 100 people a year in the UK. It may also be linked to cancer. The conclusion was that overall the levels of this antibiotic in honey pose an extremely small risk to public health.
Nevertheless, it is illegal and undesirable for honey to contain chloramphenicol and the Agency is therefore calling for the withdrawal of jars of Chinese and blended honey on sale in the UK. The companies involved in this trade have been informed of the tests results. All jars of Chinese and blended honey (unless shown not to be of Chinese origin) are affected by the Agency's call for a withdrawal, as it believes that it is not possible to be confident that only the specific batches and lines tested are affected. The Agency is requesting that companies ensure that any restocking of the shelves with new lines meets legal requirements.
Local authorities are being advised of the results of the tests and the Agency's advice, and are being asked to check the withdrawal of these products.
The Agency's advice to the consumer is that, given the extremely small risk, people can continue to eat any honey they have already bought, irrespective of country of origin. This advice also applies to other foods that contain honey, where the risk is even lower.
Further tests are on-going and the Agency will publish more results and update its advice to the consumer as appropriate.
The Agency began testing honey and other relevant Chinese products on sale in the UK prior to the European Union's formal decision to suspend imports of products of animal origin from China on Wednesday 30th January. A European Commission inspection visit had expressed concern about the lack of controls on the use of veterinary drugs in animals in China. Products affected by the EU ban that are in transit to the EU/UK over the next three weeks will only be able to enter the country if they pass strict checks. After 13 March 2002, all such imports will be suspended.
At the time of this action, 31st January, the Agency did not advise against the consumption of animal products from China that were already in the UK, and was not asked to do so by the European Commission. However the Agency's precautionary testing was already underway, and the Agency pointed out that "consumers should be aware that there may be a risk that cannot yet be identified".
Initial results of the Agency's tests published on February 6th revealed an illegal residue of a veterinary medicine, streptomycin in seven out of fifteen honey samples. Whilst this did not give rise to food safety concerns, honey cannot legally contain streptomycin and therefore the Agency advised the relevant companies to withdraw the affected products.