Importers stung by Zambian honey ban
South African importers of sought-after organic Zambian honey are clashing with the government over claims that questionable bee-disease test results have led to import bans. It is a claim the agricultural department and Agricultural Research Council dismiss, with both saying SA's testing is in line with international standards.Since 2018 the department has repeatedly banned imports of non-irradiated Zambian honey because of contagious American foulbrood (AFB) disease infestations.In February, the department's plant health division acting director, Maanda Rambauli, wrote to South African importers stating that only irradiated Zambian honey could be imported because of AFB detections. For honey to be declared organic and raw, it cannot be irradiated. Irradiation involves high temperature processes that destroy bacteria.AFB, which is deadly to bees but not harmful to humans, was first detected in SA in the Western Cape in 2009. The latest ban was first instituted in October, when the council detected AFB in non-irradiated Zambian honey consignments.Small-scale South African honey importers, who have built their business on Zambian honey imports, have dismissed the government's claims of AFB disease in Zambian honey and questioned the council's testing processes.The latest ban comes despite the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) certifying the sampled imported raw Zambian honey of some importers as AFB-negative in May after the importers had independently asked the world body to test their supplies.The fight has now involved the African Bee Association (ABA), which is demanding the impasse be urgently addressed. ABA promotes the rights of honey producers across the continent.For South African honey importers such as Gauteng family-run business The Channel Trader, and Western Cape business Musanya Honey Co, the ban is destroying their livelihoods. The Channel Trader is known for its supply of organic honey brand Zambezi Gold, sold at Dis-Chem, Spar and Pick n Pay. Owner Keri Webb said: "Since our launch in 2015 we have worked with the department to ensure our honey is safe for South Africa." She said their nightmare began in 2018, when the department informed her AFB had been detected in samples taken from a Zambezi Gold consignment. She questioned the research council's results and was later informed "human error" had caused some of the positive results. Business Times is in possession of a letter written in 2018 by the council's senior research manager, Dr Ansa van Vuuren, which says that some samples that had initially tested positive later tested negative.Van Vuuren's letter states: "We have done an in-depth root cause analysis and the original weak positive was determined to be most probably as a result of human error . I suggest we consult prior to releasing results that have far-reaching consequences."Webb said they were again allowed to import, in 2019 and 2020, but some consignments had again tested AFB-positive. Suspicious of the results, and after receiving Rambauli's letter, she sent controlled samples to the OIE in March, from which the council had drawn samples for its own tests. "The labs tested 24 samples. All were negative. Something is very wrong at the council's labs," said Webb.Business Times has the OIE report's results for Webb's samples, which indicate AFB-negative. Webb said despite the OIE results, the ban was still enforced.She said the impact had been financially catastrophic as Zambezi Gold accounts for 90% of her business."It is packed in Lusaka, where it is certified organic, and is then transported to South Africa. Because of the ban, it has to be irradiated, but the problem is that you cannot irradiate packed honey because it destroys the packaging and renders the honey non-certified organic. That means we cannot import and are losing 90% of our business. This is impacting on our ability to employ staff."Zambian honey producer Dan Ball, who owns Forest Fruits, which producers Zambezi Gold, said due to the ban the company was sustaining a loss of R15m annually. He said SA was only the country in the world that required irradiation of honey, thinking it could be used to control AFB, "whereas the rest of the world controls AFB at the beehive, where infected hives are burnt"."Countries recognise that there will be AFB in honey. Science globally has shown that it's extremely difficult to infect bees through honey. There are simply not enough spores in honey. You need a minimum of 5-million spores per litre of honey to infect bees. South Africa is way behind the times, the science having been around since 1973."He said the ban was either because of protectionism or incompetence or questionable testing protocols and serious bio-safety gaps at the council.Jacques Hurter, owner of Musanya Honey Co, said the ban was killing his business. "To get a honey export licence from Zambia, the country's authorities require the honey to be AFB-negative. Zambian honey farmers use OIE for their testing. It's impossible for this to happen. Something is wrong with the council's testing protocols."He said his business was taking a double whammy. "I also export raw honey to Dubai via South Africa. Not only am I losing money because I now have to irradiate my honey, which costs consumers more, but I must now set up new export facilities outside of South Africa, which will cost me R5m, because the government won't allow me to ship it via this country."ABA chair Christian Nawej said they were surprised by SA's latest ban. "We cannot say whether South Africa's positive results are a result of poor bio-safety issues. This impasse must be urgently addressed, possibly through the AU."Van Vuuren confirmed that the last tests they conducted for AFB were in October 2020 and that their testing processes were in line with those used by the OIE. She said samples were collected by and received from department inspectors.Questioned on the discrepancies in results, she referred Business Times to the department.Department spokesperson Linda Page said there was AFB in the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape, with the disease first detected in Cape Town in 2009.She said the importation of honey from Zambia into SA was regulated under the Agricultural Pests Act, with irradiation having to take place upon arrival.Page said the ban on importation of non-irradiated honey from Zambia was because of the repeated detection on samples of imported honey of the larvae which cause AFB. She said SA was a signatory to the OIE and World Trade Organisation and imposed trade measures recommended by both organisations, including testing methods for specific diseases.Questioned about the discrepancy in test results, Page said: "It [the results] has been confirmed independently by the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, which is an OIE reference laboratory for AFB of honey bees."The tests conducted by the council are scientifically justified and follow the OIE manual. The department trusts the council's results. The results were proven to be correct, as confirmed by the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut."She said there needed to be uniformity in testing."It should be noted that these samples are not the same if one party draws a sample and another from the same batch. It is two different samples. Therefore, different results can be obtained."If sub-samples were taken from the same sample and sent to various participating laboratories that would be acceptable. No laboratory is making a mistake if their methodology is following the OIE manual. The laboratories only work on the samples presented to them and the results are based on those samples submitted."Asked if consignment-based testing would be done, Page said such testing had already been applied."Some of the consignments tested positive still. Applying testing per consignment as a measure will overwhelm the inspection, diagnostic and irradiation capacity. Therefore, testing each consignment of honey is not an option."