Honey, I shrunk the market!

When the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) first announced ‘Honey Fraud’ by top brands in India, it was noon of December 2, 2020.

As the news of the murky honey industry in India started to gain traction, Dabur, the market leader, which has most to lose from the report going public, may have started planning a massive multi-media campaign to assert their product’s purity.

That led to the piquant situation the next day of their advertising claims appearing side-by-side with the news (CSE’s) claims that the very same brand of money was not 100% pure.

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Since then, 2 of the 3 brands that were given a clean chit by CSE have taken to advertising to use the report as validation for their purity (basically the opposite of Dabur’s stand) – Markfed Sohna and Saffola Honey.

The background to all this involves multiple reports about the entire segment being murky and an industry body that seems to be acting very inconsistently.

CSE’s 2020 report is not the first on the murky state of the honey industry in India.

In 2003, Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) tested 17 brands of honey available in the market and found that many failed to live up to standards. That report concluded: “Dabur is our best buy”!

In 2010, CSE released a report that found that many Indian brands had high levels of antibiotics!

CSE’s report also pointed out that there were no standards for antibiotic limits in honey meant for domestic consumption, unlike what existed for export! That literally means that the lives of Indian consumers are less important – sales were more important.

That report literally kickstarted the official interest in bringing some quality standards to honey production and sale in India. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in the same month as the CSE report (September 2010) issued an advisory to reassert that pesticide and antibiotic residues were not allowed in honey sold in India.

FSSAI followed that up by publishing tolerance limits for antibiotics in 2012.

In 2016, Dabur Honey used ‘ranked No.1 in purity by Consumer Voice’, a Delhi-based NGO as a USP in their ads.

That irked the new entrant in the market, Emami’s Zandu Honey and they complained to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) about it!

In response, Dabur complained that Zandu has been using a Dabur Honey-style bottle in its ad where they claim that the ‘rival’ has 30% added sugar.

In 2018, in a spectacular turn of events, Consumer Voice ranked Zandu Honey as the purest, as per their latest test!

In between all this, FSSAI issued a gazette notification, in July 2018, to clarify what should comply with honey sold in India. Observe serial numbers 12 to 15 (on page 23).

Then, in October 2019, FSSAI issued an amendment to the July 2018 notification. Observe the points and serial numbers of the draft amendment!

In December 2019, The Morning Context (under a paywall) wrote a long story titled, “How FSSAI cheated India’s beekeepers, and you – The food regulator in October legitimized adulterated honey, allowing it to be packaged as the real deal”

Now, look at the latest report by CSE using all this history above!!

In the immediate aftermath of the CSE report, Dabur and Marico are only doubling down on the allegations on each other.

What the honey brands have completely forgotten in this war is the interest of the user/buyer. That comes across very clearly in Patanjali’s response to the CSE report that is perfectly synced with the brand’s abrasively nationalistic advertising stand: Patanjali Ayurved managing director Acharya Balkrishna told ET – “It seems to be a plot to defame the Indian natural honey industry. It further seems to be an international marketing design to promote German technology and machines which cost crores of rupees. Besides, it is an attempt to lower the market share of Indian honey in international trade”.

The old ploy of “foreign conspiracy” while completely forgetting that 3 brands did clear the test, and also fully forgetting that the Indian consumer/user/buyer/citizen is the victim here given that these are being sold to the gullible Indian using a web of complex jargons and false claims!

Also, Patanjali seems more intent on shooting the messenger instead of focusing on the Indian consumers’ health. After all, this is the same messenger that took on the international Cola giants and a Joint Parliamentary Committee validated CSE’s claim of pesticides in colas! And there is the antibiotics in honey story above that led to FSSAI coming up with more thought-through guidelines.

And after December 3rd, the 2 leading brands – Dabur and Saffola (that have the most money to throw at the problem) have been on an advertising blitzkrieg! This is just a snapshot of the amount of advertising money both brands are showering at the problem of trust gone berserk in their product category – that too, across just Tamil and English newspapers. Add more newspapers and more languages and you’d realize how rattled the honey brands are.

As a normal consumer, the only thing I can deduce, taking into account everything above is that the entire commercial/bottled honey industry in India is incredibly shady. There seem to be multiple levels of questionable behavior by all players – the official regulator, multiple brands, NGOs and so on.

If I, as a user, believed Dabur to be the pure honey in 2003 and 2016, I was forced to believe that Zandu was the purest, in 2018. And now, in 2020, I’m given to understand that Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar are the purest!

Instead of addressing the systemic problem of an entire product catefory losing trust from buyers, they are busy attacking each other, via PR and via advertising.

All this points to a need to work from the ground-up in building trust in Indian honey. There is a larger need for the Government to descend on this product category and clean up FSSAI’s act.

And there is a need to reign in the over-eager and over-enthusiastic honey brands from making tall claims and thereby polluting the trust in the entire product category.

Most importantly, it falls upon the FSSAI to communicate to end-users how to assess honey quality and what parameters to look for on the packs they buy. Simultaneously, FSSAI also needs to ensure that they instruct the brands to label the ingredients and quality in a transparent and easily understandable manner, removing doubt and loud claims that hide the truth.

The brands themselves need to pause and think – the more they advertise proclaiming their purity while attacking each other in media through juicy quotes, the more they are diluting their own product category’s trust and credibility among buyers’ minds. This is perhaps a good time to get together and work with each other to communicate the basic fact that they all value and respect the Indian buyer. And that the Indian consumer’s health is their primary interest and that they would collectively work towards improving quality, standards and transparency of their product category, not just individual products and labels.

Going by all this sordid history, I’m averse to buying at all in the first place, let alone trusting Saffola right now. All the squabbles and crisscrossing reports only work in shrinking the market for honey.

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