Traces of the controversial weed-killer glyphosate have been found in New Zealand honey, prompting concern for our high-value mānuka industry.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) found the chemical, which is the active ingredient in products like Round Up, in more than 20 per cent of honey sampled from across the country.
It also found traces in packaged mānuka honey products purchased from retail outlets.
While officials stress the traces are small and the products are still safe to eat, even at the highest levels they detected, it’s a problem for exporters who sell mānuka for hundreds of dollars a jar overseas.
That’s because glyphosate is one of the world's most controversial chemicals. While our regulator says it’s safe to use, the World Health Organisation's cancer research arm has found it to be a probable carcinogen.
Round-Up manufacturer Bayer denies any wrongdoing but has just agreed to pay $16 billion to settle cancer lawsuits in the US, relating to nearly 100,000 people.
The MPI report, from the National Chemical Residues Programme, and published in January 2020, reveals our officials have been testing our honey for the weed-killer for years.
Their first round of testing took place in 2015 and 2016 and saw 300 mostly raw and unprocessed samples gathered from all over the country. They later found 67 of them, or 22.3 per cent, contained small traces of glyphosate and 5 of those, or 1.7 per cent, were over our regulatory limits.
A second test, conducted in 2018 and 2019, found traces in 11 of 60 packaged mānuka honey products available openly for sale.
Officials say there is no food safety risk but admit in a ministerial briefing document, obtained by 1 NEWS under the Official Information Act (OIA), that the contamination is a “possible trade risk”.
“This is because most countries importing honey from New Zealand have no maximum residue limit (MRL), generally meaning that residues must not be detected at any level,” the document reads.
The confidential brief also reveals an unnamed New Zealand producer began an investigation in 2018, when glyphosate was detected in its honey in an overseas retail market, and went on to find honey with glyphosate levels above New Zealand’s regulatory limits.
“Their investigation into the detections found residues present in unprocessed honey at levels above the New Zealand default maximum residue limit,” it reads.
“Their investigation concluded the likely cause of the residues was the use of glyphosate in pasture renovation/renewal.”
The MPI study expands on this and found the contamination is likely caused by bees visiting flowering plants that have been sprayed with glyphosate. It says there is very little beekeepers can do to limit exposure as the chemical is widely used.
“Beekeepers also have little practical means of excluding bees from foraging on plants treated with glyphosate,” it reads.
“To do so would require the beekeeper to place their hives at the centre of [a] 28 square kilometre area, where they had assurance from landowners and managers there was no agricultural compound use.”
MPI’s chief scientist Dr John Roche stressed the contamination was too low to be harmful in an interview with 1 NEWS this week.
“All of our processed honey comes in well underneath our maximum residue limits, so it's only the raw honey where we've seen anything breath that, and through blending practices, that can be taken care of before it's actually sold as a product,” he says.
“A five-year-old child would have to eat approximately 230 kilos of honey a day, at the maximum residue level that we set in New Zealand, to breach that concerning threshold of the WHO.”
But Jodie Bruning of the Soil and Health Association said the news would come as a “very big surprise” to those who perceive New Zealand to be a “clean green oasis”.
“It's tainted, and it's not the beekeepers’ fault, it's the fault of a regulatory environment that doesn't control it enough,” she says.
“If New Zealand wants to be a cheap commodity producer, producing tainted food, then that's New Zealand choice, or we can actually have stronger regulation, which protects our free market.”
It’s a headache for big mānuka exporters like Comvita, who are now testing every single drum to make sure the product is free of the weed-killer.
“In our case, [customers] don't have to worry about that, because we take care of that for them,” says Tony Wright, the company’s head of industry and Government affairs.
“But absolutely if I was a consumer buying a $200 jar of honey, I would want to be sure it was the very highest quality, so of course that's our focus, and that's why we put the effort in that we do.
Industry body Apiculture New Zealand agrees and says we should we working to limit chemical use where possible.
“Consumers, we understand, don't want to see any residues in their honey, and neither do we, so I think that's something as an industry we have to continually work towards,” chief executive Karin Kos says.
Speaking this morning to Breakfast, Ms Kos reiterated that the levels of glyphosate being found in New Zealand were "not a food safety issue at all" and admitted that it's "probably more of a reputational issue for us.
"It's something we know we need to manage and I know that our beekeepers have become a lot more aware of the issue and do quite a lot more with their landowners to manage where they put their hives, to make sure they're aware of when spraying occurs, and equally our honey processors are a lot more aware of the issue and the need to undertake testing.
"Glyphosate residues are an issue for the world, internationally - not just New Zealand," Ms Kos said.
"This is an issue that is not going to go away - consumers are increasingly aware of it, we're very aware of it and we do what we can."
Ms Kos said New Zealand should also be thinking "as a country" about how we can better manage and reduce our use of glyphosphate.
But MPI’s chief scientist, Dr John Roche, is happy with the system as it is.
“Very little can be done to stop it,” he says.
“We haven't received any indication that consumers are concerned by the glyphosate that has been detected.”
And so traces of weed-killer will continue to show up in honey, produced all over the country.
Do you have a story relating to glyphosate? Email Thomas.Mead@tvnz.co.nz