By Gill Cooper
Bees are vital for the future of the food chain, so Robert Costa is championing the cause of beekeepers across the region and nation.
Mr Costa’s efforts to highlight the perilous state of the beekeeping and pollination industries launched him into the spotlight this week amid national reports about allegedly adulterated honey.
The Geelong horticulturist warned that the beekeeping industry must be protected or Australia would face food security issues due to direct impacts on fruit and vegetable supplies.
Australian consumer watchdog the ACCC has labelled the chairman of Costa Asset Management, who helped build his family’s fruit and vegetable empire with brothers Frank, Anthony and Kevin, as “a credible source”.
Mr Costa and legal team King & Wood Mallesons will meet with ACCC representatives in Melbourne early next week to brief investigators on evidence to support claims of “honey fraud”.
They will supply the ACCC and the federal Agriculture Minister with results of tests on 28 jars of Australian and imported honey.
Mr Costa paid a state-of-the-art German laboratory to conduct two sets of testing. One used NMR screening and the other used an official C4 sugar test to meet existing Australian standards.
The NMR results indicated that 12 of the 28 samples tested were not pure honey.
Experts say adulterated honey is generally bulked up with rice or beet syrup and other unidentified substances, which official Australian tests fail to detect.
“I’ve been working on this issue for some time, talking to different people and getting plenty of sympathetic nods but no action,” Mr Costa told the Indy.
“Something had to be done. My primary interest is in ensuring the survival of our beekeepers.”
“I commissioned the tests because the issue with adulterated honey has been getting worse and worse year by year. What that’s doing is putting a downward pressure on the prices and returns to Australian beekeepers.
“You are looking at something like a 25 per cent decline in beekeepers over the past five to 10 years, which is massive considering our plantings are going up by more than that amount over the same period.
“We’re heading to a real watershed point where we’re just not going to be able to pollinate crops.”
“It’s important there’s transparency in labelling. Most people assume their honey is 100 per cent natural product but it’s not the case.
“The average consumer will make a choice on what they buy but you’ve got to tell them what’s in a product. Don’t mislead them.”
Mr Costa said the testing and legal campaign would likely cost “into six figures by the time we’re done”.
“There will be no more tests but our concerns have been borne out in the evidence so far,” he said.
“The tests were a catalyst and the ACCC is now taking on the issue. My next steps will be to follow through with the government and industry associations.
“We’ve concentrated purely at federal government levels – that’s where honey imports need to be properly regulated.
“Going public helps the politicians realise people do care about what’s happening.”
ACCC chair Rod Simms said he considered the honey allegations warranted a “high-priority investigation”.
“We want consumers to have faith when they buy honey that it is honey,” he said.
Mr Costa said international crime-fighting agency Interpol was also investigating the “world-wide problem”.
Interpol was focussing on links between adulterated honey and organised crime, he said.
”There are 30 shipping containers of honey from China being held in US ports right now.”
A joint ABC and Fairfax report this week alleged that international fraudsters, often criminal gangs in China, produced the fake honey and sold it to unsuspecting suppliers at a higher price, making a fortune along the way.
“Beekeepers are not looking for any favours. We just need to get some regulation and proper testing in place to help force importers to compete on a level playing field.”
“This isn’t just about honey,” Mr Costa said.
“Two thirds of Australia’s food relies upon bee pollination. Citrus, avocadoes, berries, almonds, avocados, vegies like cauliflower and broccoli, even canola, fruits and cherries – there’s so much more that require bees for pollination.
“They’re critical for our food supply. What people don’t realise is bees are as important to horticulture and agriculture as is water.”
“No water, no crops. No bees, no crops.
“It’s as simple as that.”
Mr Costa said farmers were under pressure to source enough bee hives when their crops needed pollination.
“It’s the bees that gather the pollen and set the fruit, so that’s all the different trees and plants and fruit.”
Mr Costa was worried about the parasitic Varroa mite entering Australia and damaging bee colonies.
“When the Varroa mite comes, the first victims will be the feral bees that pollinate crops from bushland areas,” he said.
“And we’ll all need more honey bees then. Australia can live without honey but we can’t live without honey bees.”