Competition for European suppliers of honey has ramped up with Brussels clearing the way to end a two year ban on food imports from China which should pave the way for cheaper raw materials for honey formulations.
Meeting at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health last week the member states cleared a Commission proposal to allow Chinese imports of shrimps, farmed fish, honey, royal jelly, rabbit meat and a number of other products of animal origin.
In 2002 the substance an antibiotic - chloramphenicol - used by vets and farmers was found to be present in a range of products from China, prompting a blanket ban on animal imports.
Consequently, manufacturers in the US and Europe were forced to reformulate their blended offerings without Chinese honey and retailers withdrew affected products from the shelves. Chinese honey accounts for 40 per cent of UK imports, which meant that local producers saw higher sales at the expense of the Chinese producers.
The knock on effect has been that raw material prices have increased for many honey buyers.
Cloramphenicol is an antibiotic used to control disease in shrimp, crawfish and bees. Mostly used to treat life-threatening infections in humans when other alternatives are not available. Use of the antibiotic is limited because it is associated with a rare, but potentially life threatening side effect called idiosyncratic aplastic anemia. For the small number of people susceptible to this side effect, exposure to chloramphenicol can be fatal.
According to market analysts Access Asia although the market for honey in China has fluctuated in recent years the country continues to be by far the leading producer in the world. And with per capita consumption set to rise, Access Asia indicates that production will continue to increase in line with demands.
In international terms China is currently by far the largest honey producing nation in the world, with around a 40 per cent slice of the market. The next biggest producers are the US, Argentina and Ukraine. According to the American Honey Producers Association China and Argentina have been adversely affecting America's domestic honey industry with cheap imports, although there is a counter argument that both China and Argentina have been helping to counterbalance falling production in the US. Also starting to emerge onto the world honey production arena are Thailand and Vietnam.
Although production has continued to rise the number of bee colonies in China has declined in the past few years from a high of 6.5 million to around 5.7 million in 2001. This decrease, the report says, is due to the introduction of smaller beehives and reduced choice of bee yards. Additionally, many agricultural co-operatives have shifted from honey production and bee cultivation following the poor harvests of 1998 and looked for more high margin products.
Officially the Chinese government has not financially supported honey producers since 1978. However, some provincial level support is available to boost the industry and income from the sale of honey, honey products and queen bees is all tax free.
"The experience with the lifting of restrictions to date has been positive. The decision approved today will lift the remaining restrictions (with the exception of poultry-meat) following progress made by the Chinese authorities in tightening their food and feed safety controls," said the European Commission in a statement this week.
The recent re-emergence of bird flu in East Asia prompted Brussels to remain cautious over imports of chicken and other poultry meat from China. As a result, the EU's ban on Chinese poultry will remain in place.
The import of pork, beef and dairy products from China has never been authorised because of various animal diseases prevalent in China, such as foot and mouth disease.
The proposal will now be formally adopted by the Commission in the next weeks and enters into force 3 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.