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Natural contaminants in honey

(September 2016)

Some types of honey contain high levels of naturally occurring plant toxins, known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which may cause adverse health effects. PAs are found in many foods and are naturally produced in more than 600 plants.

The toxins may get into the honey when bees forage on the flowers that are rich in pyrrolizidine alkaloids such as Paterson’s Curse, also known as Salvation Jane.

Many years ago, FSANZ established a safe level of intake for these alkaloids of one microgram per kilogram bodyweight per day based on the known toxicity in humans. FSANZ has not established a regulatory level because there is no evidence of harm from normal consumption.

For people who normally eat honey derived from flowers other than Paterson’s curse, the levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids would not be a cause for concern.

It is recommended that anyone, including pregnant or breast feeding women, who consumes more than two tablespoons of honey a day, doesn’t eat Paterson’s Curse honey exclusively.

Pure Paterson’s Curse honey is relatively uncommon and is usually bought from specialty markets and online distributors. Most honey processors blend their Paterson’s Curse honey with other honey to reduce the pyrrolizidine alkaloids to a safe level.

What is FSANZ’s response to reports on the high levels of PAs in Australian and New Zealand honey?

FSANZ is aware of the recent reports on total PA levels in Australian and New Zealand honey. However, based on the type of PA present and honey consumption levels in Australia and New Zealand, they are unlikely to pose a health risk.

Although poisoning incidents have occurred in other countries from contamination of PAs in plant products derived from wheat and other crops, there have been no reports of poisoning due to PA contaminants from honey.

What is FSANZ doing about this issue?

FSANZ and the honey industries in Australia and New Zealand have made a significant effort to characterize the toxicity of PAs present in honey.

In particular, this work has shown that the predominant PA in Australian and New Zealand honey, echimidine, has a lower toxicity than the PA used as a standard by some authorities to set values.

FSANZ is taking account of recent research conducted in Australia and New Zealand on the presence and toxicity of these substances in honey and is waiting on the outcomes of the international risk assessment of PAs by JECFA (the WHO expert group with responsibility for assessing food contaminants).

It is anticipated that the WHO will complete a risk assessment this year and then the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food will consider if there should be an internationally agreed maximum level for PAs in honey or other foods. 

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