Specialists expected tutin honey outbreak

By Martin Johnston

The Food Safety Authority expected an outbreak of honey poisoning after regulations controlling the trade were eased in 2001, specialists say.

The authority yesterday commissioned HortResearch to test comb honey, produced by a small-scale Whangamata apiary, which is suspected of poisoning at least nine people with potentially lethal tutin toxin.

First test results are expected in a fortnight.

The authority's senior programme manager for animal products, Jim Sim, said a number of people, in addition to the nine identified, had reported sickness after consuming the suspect honey.

A paper by HortResearch bee specialist Dr Mark Goodwin raised questions about the 2001 move towards greater self-regulation of the industry regarding the summer-autumn tutu risk.

He and colleagues said that in 1974, the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries closed the Coromandel area to beekeeping after 13 poisonings.

All beekeepers were ordered to move their hives out of the area between December 14 and May 1 the following year. "In 1977, the restrictions were changed so hives no longer had to be moved, but that all surplus honey had to be removed by 31 December. The restrictions were very effective at managing the problem.

"In the 30 years prior to the restrictions there were 63 poisonings and this has reduced to 16 since," they wrote in the 2005 paper.

Export beekeepers have to sign declarations and register risk-management plans covering tutu. Domestic market suppliers must sign the declarations, too, and keep auditable records of tutu risk management. But the Goodwin paper notes that hobby beekeepers do not have to sign the declarations if they are not selling to a honey extractor or packer.

"The opinion of the [food authority] regarding this situation is that further poisoning will occur and that a media story will result, there'll be loss of confidence in honey, [and] sales and price will crash."

Asked about this prediction, Mr Sim said: "Yes, sooner or later it was going to happen. We did two audits of beekeepers. The first showed gaps in knowledge [of tutu]. The second showed an improvement. There's now a high degree of knowledge.

"The only person that can manage the issue is the beekeeper, unless you put blanket things in place which might disadvantage the many to protect us from the few."

The current poisonings were the first since well before the new regime began. "Sometimes you have to suck these things and see. The industry wanted flexibility."

The Whangamata investigation would "put more priority" on talks with the industry on any regulatory changes.

"Generally honey is a very safe product. Tutin poisoning is a rare event," Mr Sim said.

Dr Goodwin said the old system involved permits and hive inspections but it worked well at protecting the public. The new set-up required beekeepers to have knowledge of the vegetation for kilometres around.

"The conclusion is that the system now doesn't offer sufficient protection," said Dr Goodwin, who had expressed concerns to Annette King when she was the Minister of Health.

Whangamata Medical Centre, an official collection point for the suspect honey, said five containers were handed in yesterday and several people called who were sick last week and now linked that with the honey.

The three outlets which stocked the honey - Quarry Orchard, Valley Orchards and Meat at the Beach - report selling around 50 containers. At least nine were unaccounted for on Monday.

TOXIC TOLL

* Last recorded deaths from tutin toxin in honey were three cases in Northland in 1890 involving wild honey.

* There were 63 reported cases of non-fatal poisoning from 1944 to 1974, when tough restrictions were introduced.

* There were 16 between 1974 and 2005, the last known case for that period in 1991.

* More than nine cases reported since last week, regarding Projen Apiaries' comb honey branded "A Taste of Whangamata Pure Honey".

Latest warning

* Health authorities want people to check with the producers on the safety of Coromandel comb honey bought since January 1, before they eat it.

* Anyone who suspects Coromandel comb honey has made them ill recently should see a doctor. Don't eat the remaining honey. Keep it for collection by public health officials for testing.

* Poisoning symptoms can include vomiting, seizures and coma.

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