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Behind bee product standards with Terry Braggins

September is Bee-Aware Month so what better time to celebrate the work of those representing New Zealand on the international stage of bee product standards.

Bees swaming a honeycomb

Credit: Nick Cottrell

Waikato-based food scientist Terry Braggins is convenor of an international standards shadow committee representing New Zealand’s interests in the lucrative bee products market. An analytical chemist, Terry explains more about his role creating ISO standards that help normalise the collection of raw material, handling, distribution and analysis to prove and improve the quality of bee products.

Mānuka and more

Behind the popular rich, thick medicinal Mānuka honey, and New Zealand’s internationally renowned reputation for delivering quality produce, lies a whole system of tests required to ensure it meets the high standards required by consumers and exporters. ‘Honey, and not just from Mānuka, is one of the subjects of tests that are the focus of ISO Technical Committee 34/ subcommittee 19’, says Terry. ‘We also look at product standards, beekeeping practices, quality standards, testing method standards and storage and transportation standards. Already there are two international standards for royal jelly, a highly nutritious substance fed to queen bee larvae. Individual working groups are developing four new standards covering propolis extracts, pollen, and honey specifications.

Applying science for assurance

While Terry is not a beekeeper himself, his impressive five decades experience in research and commercial laboratory testing and co-establishing a food and environmental testing facility called Analytica, provides expertise in relevant testing methodologies. Hes also used to working with ISO 17025 Testing and calibration laboratories, the go-to standard for all good laboratories.

I know the sophisticated instruments involved and testing methods used for assessing biological and food substances and those skills segued easily into Mānuka honey and other products’, says Terry. ‘Over 90% of the honey exported from New Zealand is Mānuka, with most going to China, United Kingdom, United States, Japan and Germany, so that tends to be the focus. To carry the label of Mānuka honey relies on minimum levels of distinct naturally occurring chemicals. Here standards determine specifications and test methods for authenticating both multifloral – that being nectar from flowers that are not just Mānuka - and monofloral - nectar from mostly Mānuka. We even test the DNA, or chemical fingerprint, of Mānuka pollen to confirm the botanical and geographical origins.’

A global hive of activity

The global honey industry is worth a massive $8 billion USD and expected to grow by nearly half as much by 2029, so standards have wide appeal and big impact. Fraudulent production of honey that is diluted with water or sugar syrups is a major international problem for authentic honey producers, so the ISO standards are important to authenticate product quality and prove provenance.

The committee represents the global interest with China holding the secretariat for the ISO/TC 34/SC 19 bee products committee and representative contributors from 33 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America. A further 28 countries keep a close watch on developments.

 ISO/TC 34/SC 19 bee products committee(external link)

Different countries, flowers, and perspectives

‘Ordinarily ISO has little involvement in food standards, which for bee products has been covered by the United Nations’ and World Health Organisation’s Codex Alimentarius Commission guidelines since the 1980s. The Codex was mostly written for honey made in Europe when the Mānuka honey industry didnt really exist. With use of propolis and royal jelly increasingly popular across the world, and Brazil and Argentina trading more with the northern hemisphere, better harmonisation of methods and standards is needed. Standards also help accommodate regulation and export needs around importing products from different floral types found across the world.

Our shadow committee meets regularly and includes academics and apiarists from major honey producers and exporters; Mānuka Health, Honey New Zealand and Comvita. Dr Kat Holt, a specialist in pollen analysis and Dr Young Mee Yoon, from Honey New Zealand often support me feeding back from our shadow committee to the wider ISO group and attending the many online meetings. We also bring in representation from the certification and research body Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) which independently certifies every batch from New Zealands 150+ UMFHA member suppliers. A representative from Ministry of Primary Industries has helped bring a consideration for Overseas Market Access Requirements (OMAR) which give product or country-specific requirements for animal products. Together we bring understanding from both small and large beekeeping points of view and those exporting and representing New Zealands position in the market.

Working together towards a common goal

Working on a standards development committee has been very interesting, interacting with scientists from different cultures, nationalities and languages coming together to come up with a common goal – to make a honey standard. When meeting across multiple time zones inevitably there are occasions when I have to attend a 2-3 hour meeting starting at 11pm. And at times it is a challenge to get consensus as some have very strong views on what should or should not be in a standard. So, it takes some diplomacy and negotiation to come to a consensus but that also offers an opportunity to learn from others and create something thats fair for all.

With four new standards currently being developed we are getting to the final drafts and opportunity for each country to comment and vote on whether they accept the technical content of the standard. Honey is the most complex of the bee products and had 300+ comments from all participants. The honey working group is working through those to develop a final draft for consensus on each element – harvesting, processing, and what criteria to grade honey on including maximum moisture content, different sugars and minimum content, how fresh, what quality factors to take into account. So much of our hard work is invisible to the end consumer who just wants good quality produce, but it does help the traders and exporters to do their part in getting it to them.

Next time you see a bee busily collecting nectar, give some thought to the massive industry they play a part in; from the beekeepers collecting their produce to the global network of specialists assuring quality and safety standards for consumption and the wider distributors that carry the fruits of everyones labours across the planet.