Irradiated honey – what is that?

What is food irradiation? Are irradiated foods safe to eat? Food irradiation exposes foods to radiant energy (such as gamma rays) to kill insects, bacteria, and other food-borne pathogens. The gamma rays do not create radioactive particles and the food itself never contacts the source of the radiant energy and therefore irradiated foods are not made radioactive and are safe to eat.

While the process of irradiation kills harmful bacteria, it may also destroy ‘friendly’ enzymes and other microorganisms and affect honey composition (including vitamin E and moisture levels) which affects its wholesomeness and the health benefits of honey more generally.

Why is honey irradiated?

Most honey on South African retailers’ shelves is imported – over the past two decades, South Africa’s honey imports have grown to roughly 60% of total available honey in South Africa. In 2019, South Africa imported 3000 tons of honey, 80% of which came from China.

In 2009 and 2015, South Africa experienced outbreaks of American Foul Brood (AFB) disease, which threatened the country’s food security by wiping out thousands of bee colonies across the Western Cape. The disease was probably introduced into South Africa by imported honey and is an existential threat to beekeeping in South Africa.

To avoid a repeat of this and similar outbreaks, importers are required by law to “irradiate” imported honey to kill any bacteria and pathogens. This measure protects South African bees and local beekeeping operations.

Check the label!

The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 sets out labelling requirements on food products (including honey products) that are subjected to irradiation. The objective is to ensure that consumers know what they are buying. Our legislation stipulates that labels on honey products must disclose the origin of the honey and state whether the honey has been irradiated.

Despite this legal requirement, many honey products do not adhere to these requirements.  The result is that consumers are unsure about whether they are buying local honey, imported honey, irradiate or non-irradiated honey or a blend of local and imported honey.

Make sure to check the label of your honey if you want to consume only non-irradiated local honey. Buy honey from established honey brands or local beekeepers – this gives you the best security that you are buying pure, non-irradiated local honey! Peel’s prides itself in only selling pure, non-irradiated South African honey.

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