Sweet poison: Tracing the dirty making of fake honey Fake honey selling in Harare streets

Trust Freddy

Herald Correspondent

When Nyasha Kaseke (25) of Budiriro 2, a high density suburb in Harare bought “honey” from a street hawker, her hopes were high that she would not only benefit from it as a natural sweetener, but also as medicine due to its therapeutic impact on human health.

She never at all thought about the dark side of adulterants caused by humans that manipulate the quality of honey.

Nyasha will always rue the day she bought fake honey from street vendors in the capital.

Her supposedly good day was ruined by a mere 375ml bottle of counterfeit honey she bought from a hawker for US$2.

“The sound was like a thirty-year door, that has never been oiled or opened for years,” says Nyasha as she vividly describes the agonising stomach pain she endured when she decided to taste honey she had bought from the vendor at a bus terminus in the city. At first, when Nyasha had a stomach attack, she thought it was the side effects of sugar beans she had consumed the previous night, but it turned out that she had been duped into buying fake honey.

As we sat down with her, there was a hint of pain in her captivating smile as she narrated her ordeal.

“My stomach had this distinguishing pain, like someone taking my insides and pounding them,” she said. “I squirmed out of my seat and tried to open the window so that I could vomit since I was still on the bus going home.

“To my surprise we were still stuck at ZBC along Simon Mazorodze Road and there was a long winding queue of vehicles caused by evening congestion.”

Nyasha spent almost over an hour in the vehicle congestion, agonising with pain until she reached her final destination.

“I bought the honey on my way home at around 5pm, but I later discovered that the so-called honey was a sugar syrup coated with honey on top,” she says.

The pain continued and she later started experiencing acute diarrhoea and vomiting till she was rushed to hospital, where doctors confirmed that she was suffering from food poisoning.

Nyasha only got to know that she was duped after another passenger told her that most of the honey that is being sold on the streets, and even from some shops, is not pure. She nearly died from complications arising from consumption of fake honey she bought from a street hawker just for US$2.

Her medical bills were close to US$100, covering consultation, diagnosis, treatment and prescriptions.

New rot!

Fake or adulterated honey is now a major threat to public health.

Some unscrupulous vendors have reportedly found an evil genius way of making honey using brown sugar, lemons and water to make a syrup that resembles honey.

Zimbabwe is not alone in this predicament, as honey is one of the most-faked food in the world, behind milk and olive oil, according to food compliance experts.

Honey adulterants are any substances that are added to the pure honey.

In other parts of the world, the peddlers often either dilute real honey with syrup derived from plants, like high — fructose corn syrup or beet syrup.

In some cases, they can chemically modify the sugars in those syrups to make them look like real honey. In recent years, honey counterfeiters have modified their methods to use syrups developed from plants with C3 sugars, like rice, beets, or cassava.

The adulterated syrups can be used to dilute a smaller batch of real honey.

In an interview with The Herald, the Beekeepers Association of Zimbabwe Trust director, Mr Chaipa Mutandwa, bemoaned the proliferation of fake honey.

“A lot of fake products that are being labelled as honey on the streets, supermarket shelves and other outlets are not genuine but fake and adulterated,” he says.

“On the streets, it’s sold in unhygienic conditions, and most of it is adulterated with many additives, for example cane-sugars.” Pure honey in supermarkets or pharmacies is often sold between US$5 up to US$10 per bottle, but vendors are selling a bottle of honey for as little as US$1 up to $2. The bulky honey, according to Mr Chaipa, does not qualify as the best honey suitable and safe for human consumption.

“It is eroding the market’s confidence and they are offering prices that are far below the average price of genuine products,” he says. According to information availed by sources, Marondera is the nerve centre of fake honey, however, the seemingly thriving business has sprouted to Harare and other areas.

The Herald caught up with one of the vendors in Harare who divulged everything after this reporter offered to give her brown sugar at discounted price.

The vendor only identified herself as Morby and claims to be an expert when it comes to making fake honey.

Morby has never set her foot inside a laboratory, nor a university, but she is a mere Form 3 dropout — the only bee that makes honey without flowers.

The 23-year-old woman says she has been in this business for more than three years now, but she changes her vending spot regularly.

“I am based in Marondera, but back home everyone now knows the trick, bulky honey that you see is not pure honey,” she said. Grinning from ear to ear, excited at the prospect of receiving cheap brown sugar, Morby narrates how she is making a killing from making fake honey.

“A 20 litre bucket of honey can fetch as much as $93 dollars and you can make a profit of at least $50 per bucket,’’ she says.

She, however, refuses to tell this reporter the actual process of faking, but rather gives a hint. “There is really nothing much, you simply need a 20 litre bucket, lemons, 10kg brown sugar and some water, as well as used honey combs or few drops of pure to bring that flavour,” Morby says.

She recycles used honeycombs several times every time to give the syrup a honey flavour, but customers end up being suspicious.

“Have you ever noticed that others are selling black honey?” she said. “The honey loses its brownish colour and typically turns dark brown if honey combs are recycled repeatedly, which is not good.”

Their customers are commonly desperate low-income earners from the apostolic sect or white garment churches that use honey in their healing sessions.

“(Masowe Mudhara ane mari) whenever you see someone wearing a white garment is a potential customer, as long brown sugar is readily available, will make it,” she says.

Empty bottles from which genuine honey or peanut butter has been consumed are collected from rubbish dumps, cleaned and packaged before fake seals are pasted on them.

Neatly, she displays sealed bottles of honey and anyone who becomes suspicious is immediately shown a bucket full of honey.

From the interactions, it was clear that she is making a killing, unbeknown to her that she is endangering people’s lives.

According to experts it is difficult to distinguish fake honey from a genuine product and consumers can only protect themselves by buying from reputable sources.

There are a few simple tests that can be performed at home to determine whether honey is real or not, but they are not entirely reliable.

For instance, if honey is poured into an open white plate, add some water, and stir, pure honey should resemble a honeycomb.

According to health experts, too much sugar intake upsets the body’s blood-sugar balance, triggering the release of insulin, which the body uses to keep blood-sugar at a constant and safe level.

Honey, traditionally, is used for its anti-aging properties, enhancing the immune system, killing bacteria, treatment of bronchial phlegm, and relieving a sore throat, cough, and cold.

The president of the Medical and Dental private practitioners of Zimbabwe Association (MDppZA) Dr Johannes Marisa said fake honey was dangerous, especially to those who buy honey for medical purposes.

“The purpose of using honey will be defeated if something fake is used, when somebody is trying to use honey as a cough suppressant or antioxidant it means the whole purpose of taking honey is defeated and that is criminal so we should not tolerate such people,” he says.

Another health expert, Mr Itai Rusike, an executive director of Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), says generally it will be difficult to monitor and stop the sale of fake honey due to the limited number of food inspectors in the country.

“There is a need to carry out public awareness, health education and health promotion activities to educate the public on the dangers of consuming fake honey from unscrupulous vendors,” he says. “There is also a need to support the food Inspectors with adequate resources such as motorbikes and fuel in order to strengthen food monitoring and avoid selling of uninspected and fake honey from the vendors.” Communities, Mr Rusike said, had a responsibility to protect their own health by buying food products from authorised dealers and suppliers.

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