By John Helmer, Moscow
President Vladimir Putin is the bee’s knees. There’s noone to beat him, electionwise. But when it comes to feeding Russians the genuine article, Putin’s promise is a honey trap. Naturally, we are talking only of the business of Russian beekeeping, honey production and trade.
Eighteen months after Putin listened to a Kemerovo region beekeeper complain that adulterated and counterfeit honey products imported from abroad were driving genuine Russian honey out of the market, the president said he would order the government to investigate. The study which followed early this year has confirmed the economic damage adulteration is doing to the Russian bee business, and proposed to combat it with tighter regulations and more comprehensive testing. But the packers and retailers of fake honey have successfully lobbied Putin to sit on his hands. Nothing has happened – except that Russian production of honey is now falling. .
“The share of Russian natural honey on the domestic market used to be 94%,” says Arnold Butov, president of the Russian National Union of Beekeepers (RNSP). “ But this is decreasing. Some organizations and enterprises make honey with additives to increase the weight and sweetness of the product, making it easier to pour. These products are becoming more popular among consumers, and retailers prefer them to natural honey. We tried to appeal to the responsible governmental organizations, but were ignored. Someone there is lobbying the interests of retailers. The Bashkiria Republic government supports its honey producers very well. That can’t be said about the federal government, where control of honey production is very weak. We are writing a letter to President Putin in order to demonstrate the problems, and we hope that before 2021, when Apimondia, the international federation of beekeepers’ associations, is scheduled to convene at Ufa, in Bashkiria, some of these problems will be solved.”
On April 25, 2016, Putin hosted a regional forum of the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF) in the Kemerovo region of Siberia. The Kremlin has published the transcript here (pictured below). Putin was asked by a local beekeeper, Dmitry Nikolaev, if he would investigate counterfeiting and adulteration, and protect the domestic producers of honey.
“In general, Russia is among the ten largest producers of honey [in the world],” Nikolaev told the president. “While we almost completely cover the domestic demand, we have the capacity, the beekeepers, to supply honey products for export to the west. We have this huge capacity… But according to international law, we, the suppliers of honey products, must comply with the sanitary requirements of the countries where we export. And in most countries these requirements are very difficult….”
“But along with this, among the abundance on our honey market there happen to be many cases of counterfeit products. Supermarkets and hypermarkets, and the so-called fairs, are swamped with products which include ‘honey’ in quotation marks, but with flavour enhancers, all kinds of colours – there are colours that are impossible for honey. For example, honey with Royal jelly, but it’s white. How much Royal jelly must you pour for it to turn white? Or honey with propolis [bee glue ], but it’s green. Here it is clear what is happening.”
“To this is added the danger that due to the fact that our existing standards are not able to distinguish real honey from beekeepers from substandard products, into our market can come from foreign countries a product that is not quite of the right quality. But reflect for a moment. If anyone removes impurities from honey, or makes an intervention, or changes the properties of the honey, there must be a warning on the product label. It should be called ‘honey product’.”
“In this regard, Mr President, we, the beekeepers of Russia — because for me there are hundreds of thousands of beekeepers, and here I add the billions of bees – we offer or we propose the modification of existing standards, so that we can have some order, and make clear criteria for separating natural honey from honey products, and to formulate the requirements for the quality and safety of the product. This would help us, the beekeepers, to develop — to make this leap for the export and domestic markets on quality. I’m sure if we, with your help, will start to do it, then, as I often say as a joke with the grain of truth — we, the beekeepers of Russia, may, perhaps, lay the oil and gas pipes in Russian honey and cover the west with our Russian high quality, beautiful honey.”
Left: the most powerful beekeeper in Russian politics, Yury Luzhkov, ousted as Mayor of Moscow in September 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev. Right: Then-Prime Minister Putin holding a pot of honey, a gift from a beekeeper in Kirov region in February 2011 .
Putin had a script already prepared in reply. He said he didn’t believe counterfeit and adulterated Chinese honey in the Russian market was as big a problem for Russian beekeepers as the tactics of beekeepers in the European Union (EU) blocking Russian honey exports. “About Chinese honey, I think you’re wrong, because the Chinese honey has declined in our market three times over the past few years, and the main honey we receive is from those countries where technical regulations are very high: these are Austria, France, European countries. In order for us to handle this issue, we now need to decide at the level of the Eurasian Economic Union — we have to have uniform regulation.”
Putin’s script was partly right, partly wrong, but his precision in response to a professional beekeeper was misplaced. Russian production of honey for the domestic market is sizeable; export volume is minuscule. Even if it met EU standards – and Russian beekeepers acknowledge it is costly for them to do so – the domestic impact of adulteration would remain large and costly. .
RUSSIAN PRODUCTION OF HONEY, EXPORT OF HONEY, 2013-2016
In parallel, the import statistics for honey show there has been the sharp fall which the president read out. In 2010 the import volume was about 6,000 tonnes. In 2014 it was down to 2,400 tonnes; in 2016 , 630 tonnes. The Ukraine and China, which dominated the import trade until 2014, have disappeared, at least from the official statistics.
The reason for the declines in exports and imports has been the falling price of honey in the domestic market, which has reduced the profitability of the trade – Chinese imports, along with other sources. Moreover, as the professional beekeepers add discreetly, the official government figures on which Putin was relying are not accurate, especially not for Chinese imports, whose volume is hidden in honey branded and sold as if it were domestically produced. That’s the cheap stuff Nikolaev was warning Putin about.
In his answer to Nikolaev, Putin responded by attacking the EU, then deep into its sanctions policy against Russia. “I foresee certain difficulties in order to promote this product to other markets, including European, because for all their outward commitment to opening markets our European colleagues are using various tricks, including technical regulations, so for many positions the EU market is closed,”
At last Putin appeared to concede what the beekeepers were asking for. “We need to work on these things, I agree. Let’s do this…of course, there will need to be in these technical regulations the entire range of additives, so that no medicines [antibiotics] have been added, on which the bees feed. Also, no sugar, no colouring, and as you said, no flavour enhancers. What a flavour enhancer could be, I don’t understand. But you know better, I guess. Let’s do this. Certainly I promise I will instruct the Government, the Ministry of Agriculture.”
A study followed by the new state agency, Russian Quality System (Roskachestvo ). It has reported that among the honey and honey products consumed by Russians in the retail market there is contamination by antibiotics, especially prevalent in Chinese honey, and adulteration to increase weight and reduce cost. Roskachestvo recommended  that the Ministry of Agriculture and the food regulator Rosselkhoznadzor (RSN) add into the technical regulations requirements to keep out antibiotics, and certify that Russian honey exports will also be free of antibiotics.
This year, industry sources report the global price of honey is reviving, and that production and trade are picking up again. It is also quite clear, Russian beekeepers say, what must be done. This is because the adulteration problems are worldwide. Apimondia, the world organization of beekeepers, estimates that about two-thirds of the honey in trade is adulterated or fake, and that several large trading companies are responsible for most of the honey blended, packaged and shipped for wholesale. They are powerful enough, according to Apimodia, to corrupt, deter or block effective enforcement of product standards.
In the US, anti-dumping sanctions were introduced against Chinese honey in 2001. A new review of these measures commenced this month in Washington. The US press reports that despite efforts by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to tighten honey product regulations, labelling and grading, there is no enforcement.
The technology of adulteration is also advancing faster than the testing methods in use. It is expensive to equip laboratories to detect honey counterfeiting. In Russia, Butov (pictured, below left) says there is reluctance on the part of the government authorities to introduce tighter standards, and to improve enforcement. He won’t say which “powerful government officials” are refusing to implement new standards.
Sergei Nelyubov (above, right), commercial director for Medovik Altaya, a leading fareastern producer, says: “the federal government doesn’t support the natural honey producers (private farmers) because they don’t pay enough tax, so that’s unprofitable for the state. The genuine honey manufacturing companies pay tax, but the amount is low, so they are also beyond the state interests. If we speak about the regional government [Altai region] we have subsidies for developing, but the real help would be in bringing Russian honey standards up to the international standards. For instance, when our company decided to export honey to China we had to do all the research ourselves. There aren’t enough competent laboratories in Russia for product and standards testing. Naturally, this has impacted on our final export prices and caused losses.”
A leading British broker for Russian food producers and farmers believes “the country could become a major exporter. The only commercial branded honey I regularly see on sale is from the Urals. It is sold on marketing the ecological purity of the mountains. There is also a great deal of honey sold as local, but much of it really comes from China, and is blended. There is a huge gap in the Russian potential for commercial honey production as a by-product from pollinating field crops.”
PRODUCTION OF RUSSIAN HONEY AND EXPORTS, 2011-2015
Last year, according to the latest figures from Rosstat, domestic production revived but export volume fell almost by half. The latter was caused by a sharp fall in global honey prices. The larger-volume, more established exporters in the market were able to beat the Russian competition because of their higher reputation for their guarantees against antibiotics and other adulterants. China took the lion’s share of the Russian honey exports, trailed by Kazakhstan, Sweden, and the US. In the global market 16 countries account for 85% of the honey trade — Australia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Hungary, Vietnam, India, Canada, China, Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, El Salvador, Turkey, Uruguay and Chile. Russian honey exports represent less than 1% of domestic production, but from Argentina and Vietnam the figure is above 80%; Canada exports 30% of its honey; Australia and China, about 25%.
“The production of honey in Russia isn’t developing at all,” observes Nelyubov of Medovik Altaya,. “Domestic sales make up the main share of our income but export makes our profit. Adulteration is driving natural honey off the retailers’ shelves, because they are not interested in such an expensive product. For example, our cost of production price is usually the same as the retail price of the adulterated honey on the shelves. That’s why we are not interested in selling genuine honey to the retailers – they demand conditions which turns our business into loss. Nowadays the amount of fake honey on retail sale is about 90% because it’s cheaper and more attractive for consumers. The only way to sell natural honey now is to open special honey shops, eco-shops, or to supply only the high-class, premium retailers.”
According to Butov, it is difficult to name the top five companies according to their volume of production. “It’s because they aren’t genuine producers. What they do is to buy honey from private producers, blend and pack it, ignoring the standards for genuine honey.” Butov says the top Russian honey-producing regions are Bashkiria (Bashkortostan), Altai, Krasnodar, Primorsky Krai, and Volgograd. In recent years, honey production in the Altai region has increased sharply. It was about one thousand tonnes in 2003. In 2015 it was 4,800 tonnes, and continuing to rise.
Letf: Governor of Altai Alexander Karlin visits hives at Medovik Altaya (“Honey Pie of Altai”); see the company website . Right: Znatny, one of the branded natural honies in Medovik Altaya’s product line. The top five Russian exporters of Russian honey are Arkon (Primorsky Krai); Medovik Altaya; Asiatek (Primorsky Krai); Forest Products Company (Khabarovsk); and Tseyamusy (Jewish Autonomous Region). The leading Russian importer of honey is Mistral Trading of Moscow.
Butov said the priority for his organization is “to mobilize the private honey-farmers into cooperatives, and combine with them to produce genuine honey under our own label.” For a list of Russian domestic honey producers on the market at the moment, click to open.
According to Nelyubov, the annual production of around 70,000 tonnes in Russia is “not a large number for a such a big country, and Russian honey is only 1% of the world’s honey production. The average volume of consumption of honey in Russia is about 500 grams per person per year. Almost nothing.” By comparison, the annual consumption level in Germany and Japan is between 2 and 3 kilograms. For more details, open the beekeepers’ website  and click to read the internet forum.
Mistral Trading is the leading importer of honey in the Russian market, according to the official figures, but the company declines to respond to questions about the trade in adulterated honey. At the Kremlin the President’s spokesman was asked to respond to the view of the beekeepers that since Putin’s speech in Kemerovo, the government is siding with the fake producers and retailers, and refusing to improve or enforce the regulations, as Putin had promised. What is the President’s intention towards protecting the Russian honey industry? the spokesman was asked. He replied that the question should be asked at Rosselkhoznadzor. The RSN spokesman Alexei Alexeyenko did not reply to the questions. The Ministry of Agriculture was also asked to comment on its measures for standardizing honey. It had not replied by press time.