Obliteration of the beekeeeping industry in Cyprus (2005)
Skordis Andreas & Varnavas Giannakis
The Pancyprian Beekeepers' Association

From Melissokomiki Epitheorisi, the beekeepers’ magazine published in Greece
“In its nascence as a European state, Cyprus delivers a deadly blow to its beekeepers…Cyprus is afflicted with the privilege of being the only country in the world to have systematically caused its honey-production untold misery and to have put its beekeeping industry at the door of extinction. Cyprus is the only country to have taken its first tentative steps into Europe, the Union it aspired so hard to join, while breaking a catalogue of rules and directives issued by the very Union itself. Surely, justice will prevail both in the European and Cypriot courts, where the Greek Cypriot beekeepers intend to take refuge. Surely the Cypriot beekeepers will rise again out of the ‘ashes’ of their destruction in order to bring back to our table their much loved honey”. 

Christmas 2004, and the demise of the honey-industry slowly unfolded on our television screens before our very eyes. The names of seven of our producers together with their brands of honey were publicly paraded as the scourge to public health; HMF (hydroxy-methyl-fulrfuraldehyde) and Diastase activity found in honey were said not to confront with the acceptable limits of the directive 2000/110EC. The Cyprus Ministry of Health made the announcement without any advance warning to the Beekeeping Industry or indeed to the named producers. This was an unprecedented and merciless attack on an unsuspecting Industry.

Following this very public announcement, the onslaught began. The very next day, the story had made front page news right across the entire press, with the INTERNET hosting the announcement made by the Ministry. As expected, the consumers reacted by getting rid of the honey in their larder together with their home-made honey sweets they had made for Christmas. Meanwhile, personal abuse was hurled at the named producers over the phone, by an angry and misinformed public who were asking for compensation. Furthermore, substantial export contracts already negotiated between Cyprus and Saudi Arabia were aborted.

After its initial shock, the PANCYPRIAN BEEKEEPERS ASSOCIATION started to fight back. Its primary task was to engage with the mass media the very same forum, which so effectively and so single-handedly managed to bring an entire industry down on its knees. The Pancyprian Beekeepers Association tried to present its case and argued the following points:

The producers never intended to deceive their consumers.

  • The indications of HMF and diastase found in honey were the result of changes that occur naturally in stored honey, whether at home or at the supermarket.
  • HMF and diastase do not affect the nutritional value of honey, therefore, honey is safe for human consumption.
  • Furthermore HMF: and Diastase are indeed, not the result of contaminated honey products but rather, they are used throughout Europe and beyond as indicators of the longevity and freshness of honey.
  • Diastase activity can be naturally present in low concentration because of citrus honey that is one of the major crop of Cyprian beekeepers
  • In no other country in the world had the mass media ever taken it upon itself to name specified products as unfit for human consumption.

Alas, however, the Beekeepers’ protestations had fallen on the deaf ears of the Ministry of Health; apparently their arguments were no match for the Ministry’s, so called, experts.

Thus, a meeting was sought with the Minister for the Interior who was standing in for the Minister of Health. At the meeting ( 21/12/04) health inspectors from the Ministry, as well as scientists from the Cyprus State Laboratory were also present. The Ministry officials failed to disprove the arguments made by Beekeepers representatives, arguments already supported by evidence as to the safe consumption of honey. The Minister, therefore, ordered the immediate restoration of honey to our tables, as well as the good name of its producers.

Sadly, however, and unbeknown to Beekeepers, the very same day and at the very same Ministry another meeting was taking place, again with honey on the agenda. At this meeting the Cyprus State Laboratory announced, that of the 14 samples of Cypriot honey that it tested, half of them were found to be contaminated with sulfonamides, residues of antibiotic. The following day the Ministry of Health announced, in a u-turn, that honey found to contain HMF and diastase out of the prescribed limits was not dangerous to public health after all, but instead, certain brands of honey containing antibiotics should now be avoided. Once again, new names and products of the honey-producers concerned, were paraded in all the media, while the public was encouraged NOT TO EAT HONEY. In an attempt to better inform the public the television channels invited a host of experts and Ministry officials who simply managed to continue their assault on HONEY and their propagation as to its injurious effects to children’s health.

The honey-producers were at a loss; their good name had been besmirched, their products withdrawn from the market, their livelihood decimated and all the while, their persecution by the State and the Media alike persisted.

After the second blow they suffered, beekeepers tried a second time round to pull itself together, in order to bring to public accountability the public servants responsible for such a shoddy and shameful treatment of the Cypriot beekeepers. The Beekeepers’ Association accused those responsible of the following:

  • Antibiotics were used by the beekeepers only after advice received from the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Even in the last edition (2005) of the ‘AGROTIS’, the Ministry’s own official magazine, the use of antibiotics was encouraged. The veterinary services also continued to prescribe sulfonamides, tetracyclines, terramicines and other for beekeeping application.
  • It is widely accepted that sulfonamides are not injurious to human health and that their chances of adverse effects are negligible. This is evidenced by their long term use in the treatment of both man and livestock alike. Furthermore, the European Union has already set acceptable limits (MRLs) of sulfathiazol group (100 to 1000 μg/kg), found in milk, meat and other dairy products (2377/90).
  • No such limits however, have been set, as to the production of honey, not because of any danger inherent to the product, but simply because no legislation has ever been passed.
  • The Cyprus government did not follow legislated procedures embodied in civil law. For example, the beekeepers were not given any advance warning as to the intentions of the Ministry of Health, vis a vis, the withdrawal of their product from the market; any such warning could have enabled the beekeepers to lodge an appeal should they have wished to do so. No confirmation or verification of the laboratory results by an independent body ever took place; indeed no study into the extent of the problem was ever carried out, and no one ever looked into the proposed risks to health, so that the necessary measures could be taken.
  • On the contrary, government officials behaved in a rash and irrational way, always making sure that the day after tests were carried out on specific brands of honey, these brands, together with the names of their producers were made public on television; the consequent withdrawal of honey from the market was inevitable.

Cyprus is the only country in the world to have deliberately used the mass media as a tool with which to make deliberate public announcements over the supposed risks to human health carried by supposedly certain specified honey products; it is either the presence of antibiotics found in such products or the quantity of antibiotics which are said to exceed the prescribed limits, or both, that were found to be offending by the officials concerned. Cyprus is also the first country that put in the Alert System for Food and Feed notification the presence of sulphonamides in honey.

Aware of the huge injustice done to them and faced with enormous financial loss, the producers sought the support of political leaders and members of Parliament. They asked the Agricultural Committee of the Cyprus Parliament, to call with representatives of the Ministry for a special meeting where two memoranda were produced in addition, a plethora of documents, directives and regulations were also presented and made available to all those present at the meeting. It slowly transpired that the whole dossier had been conveniently ignored by both Ministries concerned; the reason for this was because its contents provided evidence actually supporting the arguments of the beekeepers all along.

The meeting took place on the 13th January 2005. There present were leaders of different political parties, a large presence of civil servants and representatives of the beekeepers. But alas, the meeting only served to demonstrate the contempt and treachery with which the officials were treating beekeepers; things seemed to be going quite well for the Beekeepers, until the time when government officials decided to pull the plug. Digressing from the main point of the discussion, they suddenly started to recite the dangers to health caused by chloramphenicol, an antibiotic found in Chinese honey. During the adjournment, the Ministry of Health had appointed a spokesperson, a doctor, who herself sat at the earlier meeting; she made serious allegations in the media. Without any reference whatsoever, to what was discussed at the meeting with the members of the parliament, regarding the alleged dangers of sulphonamide, the doctor spoke to the media that the antibiotic found in honey, can indeed cause aplastic anaemia and even death.

Of course the doctor very conveniently omitted to mention that the antibiotic “chloramphenicol was found exclusively in Chinese dairy products as well as Chinese honey, and that this was a substance entirely alien to Cypriot honey products.

The doctor also forgot to say that in 2002, when the problem with the chloramphenicol was at its peak, the markets worldwide were feeling uneasy with related Chinese products, and that the European Union had already imposed a total ban on these Chinese exports. Nevertheless, the Cyprus Ministry of Health unreservedly permitted the import of 19720 kg of Chinese honey free without having imposed any restrictions or even without examined it.

Not only did the Ministry’s spokeswoman not explain that chloramphenicol was never found in Cypriot honey, but she went on to explain in a most irresponsible and unscientific manner how the antibiotics found in Cypriot honey can cause slow death. Her intentions were all too clear for everyone to see. At long last, through its spokesperson, the Ministry of Health had managed to shift responsibility in order to restore its credibility in the House of Representatives. But at what price? Indeed, the decimation of a whole Industry!

The day following these allegations, the media once again bombarded beekeepers with images of the ‘Murderous Honey’ and ‘The Honey of Wrath’.

Since that day, the beekeepers in Cyprus have been locked in battle with the Establishment. The Media is clearly not on the side of the beekeepers whose interviews are constantly sabotaged; the interviews are either made to favor the authorities, or they are taken off the air.

The Cypriot beekeepers live in despair; they feel alone and dejected. Their own government has treated them so cruelly. Our honey is no longer to be found in the shops, but on the odd occasion that it is found on someone’s shelf it is always brushed aside in favor of a foreign-produced honey. Even the honey, which is still in storehouses, is systematically destroyed by the Health Authorities. It is obvious that the Government has sanctioned the extermination of the beekeeping industry to the detriment of Cyprus as a whole. Officials of countries like Cyprus could readily destroy the global beekeeping industry