APIARIST’S OPINION: PHIL EVANS
When it comes to food safety, there is a road to a fully-compliant honey industry, believes Waikato beekeeper Phil Evans. He has 12 hives, runs a small extraction facility from his Hamilton flat, has made it NP1 compliant, made it available to other beekeepers and made it pay – by selling his Dinsdale Honey in two local retail outlets. Now he challenges beekeepers – those with many hives or few – to work together to protect the honey industry.
By Phil Evans
I got my first hives in the spring of 2017 and, at that time I had no idea about American foulbrood (AFB), varroa, or requirements for selling honey. I thought it would be great to have a couple of hives and get some honey for myself. I feel like over the last five years I have seen everything beekeeping can throw at the beekeeper. I have twice lost all my hives to AFB, and suffered my share of losses to varroa and wasps.
I have extracted my own honey with hired club equipment, extracted and bottled at a small independent extractor, and now set up my own registered kitchen to do it all myself. Over the last two seasons I have also extracted and bottled nearly four tonnes of honey for around 60 customers.
I won’t hesitate to say all bee clubs around the country should be promoting compliance to all their members, but I do realise that putting that in place is no easy task. In last month’s Apiarist’s Opinion article Why We All Should Comply, Scott Williamson discussed some of the reasons for compliance, with tutin, contamination and mis-labelling being the most significant. Before that, the story Non-Compliance Conundrum introduced the issue to Advocate readers in May.
Honey is food and, although it is considered low risk, it is still food. I give my customers the analogy of baking a cake. Would you bake a cake on your garage work bench? Would you use flour that has weevil or moth larvae in it? Would you put the cake in a box that has had mouse droppings or cockroaches in it? Would you transport your cake on the deck of a ute, or the dirty boot of your car? Would you do any of those things, and then expect someone else to eat the cake? Please don’t be the person who thinks any of that is OK. A cake is food, and so is honey, so they should both be prepared in suitable conditions, with all necessary steps taken to ensure it is safe to eat.
A Dog’s Breakfast
I have watched video and photos posted online of some appalling extraction setups. The most abhorrent was a photo of a bucket of honey sitting on the ground where the dusty concrete garage floor met a gravel driveway. The bucket lid was on the ground beside the bucket, with a dog standing on the lid with its nose sniffing the honey. The caption was “extracting honey for tomorrow’s market”.
Anyone who thinks that is OK really is a disgrace to this industry, and it is images like this that do the whole industry irreparable damage.
I have also seen homemade extraction equipment that appears to have never been cleaned, and possibly stored outside. Another recent video showed a group of people extracting honey in an aircraft hangar, with the extracted and filtered honey left open while the lids were stacked on the floor nearby.
When people buy any food, there is an expectation that it has been produced or prepared in a facility where hygiene is paramount, from start to finish. That is not happening in this industry, and it is past time this industry stepped up and insisted that ALL honey complies with food safety laws.
Compliant extraction and bottling of honey, tutin testing and labelling should be included in everyone’s beekeeping budget, without exception. Everyone eating any honey should know that the preparation is of the highest standard, and has not been extracted in a garage with the help of the family dog.
The rules about selling honey are clear. To sell, even to family, your honey MUST be extracted and bottled in a registered NP1 or RMP facility. Your honey MUST be tutin tested if taken off the hives after December 31 (unless hives are located below 42 degrees south), you MUST have a compliant label, and you MUST keep records of sales, among other things. This is the law. If you are selling any honey to friends and family, and not complying with the above rules, you are breaking the law.
Ambiguity surrounds giving honey away, which you are allowed to do as long as no money or trade occurs. The problem with this is that tutin testing is only recommended, and you can extract in your garage and bottle into partially cleaned curry jars.
I believe that all honey sold, donated, or given away, should be fully compliant.
The Road to Compliance
Getting to a fully compliant position across the country will not be easy, as most contract extractors have minimum number of honey box requirements that keep hobby beekeepers out. When I made the decision to set up my own facility, I decided to also make my kitchen available to others to help cover my costs. However, it may surprise many that – even though I had less than 150kg of honey in my first season in my facility – sales in two retail outlets more than covered all the registration and equipment costs, with a little left over. I didn’t really need to extract others’ honey, but I had the time, and the desire to play a part in getting compliant honey out into the market.
Being able to do this is not for everyone, but there are beekeepers out there that could. Bee clubs could at least start discussing setting up a facility, assisting members to do the same, or contacting commercial operators to work out ways of making compliance more widely available. There are clubs that have their own registered setups, and commercial operators that will take smaller box numbers.
My facility is in the small kitchen of a two-bedroom flat that I rent. The extraction occurs in the kitchen, with filtering and bottling in a corner of the lounge where the carpet has been covered by 2 large (and cheap) pieces of vinyl flooring offcuts. There have been some ‘accidents’ where not paying attention has resulted in minor spills, but with the cleaning and hygiene processes in place, these are easily resolved. The main requirement to pass the inspection is that every surface must be washable. Cleaning processes are required so you don’t wipe down the electric uncapping knife with a cloth that has just cleaned honey drips off the floor.
Keeping records is also necessary. If you are only extracting your own honey, this is as simple as recording how many boxes, how many kgs extracted, how many of each size bottled, and where you are selling it. You can design your own compliant labels, which can be printed on your home printer or sent to a local copy shop. Getting tutin tests done is very simple. All testing labs will send you the sample pot and a return courier bag for free.
If you have the time to extract others’ honey, you just need to keep records of their extractions, plus ensure they get a tutin test done, and have compliant labels. If you are already doing this for yourself, you can easily ensure your customers are also meeting the same requirements.
This conversation needs to be had by all beekeepers and bee clubs to work towards compliance as the norm, which all beekeepers follow, just as we already do with varroa and AFB.
My challenge to all beekeepers is on. It can be done.