alert by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon: February 2003

Bee keeping is a huge world-wide industry, supplying honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis, and bee's wax. China has become one of the leading suppliers of such products. In 2002, alerts appeared from the U.S., Canada, and Europe that samples of honey from China often contained traces of the antibiotic chloramphenicol, which is not permitted in food products for the countries involved. In addition, tests from England indicated that royal jelly also had traces of this substance.

Chemical structure of chloramphenicol
Chemical structure of chloramphenicol.

Chloramphenicol (also called Chloromycetin) is a potent antibiotic that has limited uses; it is considered a mainline therapy for typhoid fever and other systemic salmonella infections, and as a secondary choice in treating some infections that may prove resistant to other antibiotics. It is used in veterinary medicine, particularly for cattle suffering from salmonella infections.

Chinese beekeeper tending the hive  
Chinese beekeeper tending the hive.  

Chloramphenicol has been declared carcinogenic, which makes it an unacceptable substance for use in production of food products where any residue may be found. In therapeutic doses given to humans, there are rare instances (as many as 1 case in 30,000) of aplastic anemia that can occur as an unpredictable and serious side effect. The lowest dose that avoids this problem has not been established, so this is another reason the drug is considered inappropriate to appear in human food supplies.

So far, the problem of chloramphenicol contamination of bee products has been isolated to China. In sampling of honey from China during 2002, trace amounts of chloramphenicol had been found in most samples, with a range of 0.3 to 34 parts per billion (ppb). The test methods used cannot detect levels below 0.3 ppb (see table of sample test results, last page).

The reason chloramphenicol had appeared in Chinese bee products is that in 1997-98 there was a bacterial epidemic that affected bee hives which threatened the entire industry. In 1997, China's honey exports dropped dramatically, to less than 50,000 metric tons-about one-third the level that had been previously attained. China did not have stringent controls on veterinary use of various antibiotics, and this drug had been determined by the Chinese bee keepers to be the one of choice (along with streptomycin).

The epidemic that affected the hives is a disease called foul brood (or foulbrood). It can be caused by several bacteria; the most common instances of the disease are those caused by Paenibaccilus and Mellisococcus. These bacteria infect the bee larvae and destroy them within days. Entire hives can be destroyed by such infestations, and it is contagious: the entire bee keeping operations can be wiped out. To treat the disease, bee keepers either destroy the affected hives or, as they did in China, apply antibiotics to the hives. A portion of the applied antibiotics can then become incorporated into the bee products.

It is believed that Paenibaccilus larvae (which produces "American Foulbrood Disease," the most serious of the foulbrood types) was the one being treated with chloramphenicol in China. Another antibiotic, streptomycin, has also been used in China along with chloramphenicol to treat this disease, with some of its residues also found in honey. Various preventive measures are used to avoid foulbrood diseases, and the antibiotic terramycin is sometimes employed to treat initial infections in Western countries. The main treatment, though, is to destroy hives and minimize the chances for contamination of other hives.

Apiary in northeast China  
Apiary in northeast China.  

There are no approved antibiotic treatments for foulbrood. One concern with antibiotic therapies is that they may remove the symptoms but a low level of the bacteria may persist, and then it can be spread to otherwise healthy hives. Chloramphenicol is a potent antibiotic that may eliminate the disease in hives, but is no longer a permissible method; it had been in use previously in the U.S. and other countries, before being withdrawn due to restrictions on its entry into food products.

The discovery of chloramphenicol in Chinese honey in U.S. imports arose with irregularities in trade practices. China's bee products industry was recovering from the foulbrood epidemic in 1998, and China wished to recapture a large part of the world market for honey. As a result, some Chinese companies began "dumping" honey on the market, meaning that the prices for exported product were below domestic prices or production costs, undercutting other producers to attract buyers away from them. By 1999, the Chinese export of honey had reached nearly 180,000 metric tons (180 million kg). In September 2000, U.S. honey producers filed a formal complaint about apparent dumping.

The U.S. adopted anti-dumping policies, by applying a stiff tariff to Chinese honey, thereby bringing the price into the range of that offered by other producers. In an effort to avoid these tariffs, a few Chinese companies shipped the Chinese honey through other countries, attempting to disguise its Chinese origin. In an effort to thwart this procedure, the U.S. government began testing honey to seek out trace markers that could clearly identify honey that was actually from China. It was with such testing that tiny amounts of chloramphenicol were found. Other governments also began testing for this compound, confirming its presence in Chinese honey. The problem surfaced in late fall of 2001; by winter of 2002, most countries knew of this contamination, and from spring through the end of summer 2002, formal regulatory action had been taken, including seizing imports and recalling products or fully banning further import of honey from China until the problem is resolved.

Chloramphenicol was also found in royal jelly products, but its detection came about by a different route. Agricultural visitors from the U.K. to China had noted that there were few controls being placed on the use of veterinary medicine. This led to concerns that banned veterinary drugs might be found in products derived from animals. Therefore, a series of tests were conducted on a number of animal-based products, including honey and royal jelly. Honey was the main concern, because of the potential to consume large amounts.


The levels of chloramphenicol in Chinese bee products are low enough that health authorities don't discourage people from consuming products that are made with them (i.e., where the honey or royal jelly are one component of a product), because there is not expected to be a safety hazard. But, people are discouraged from eating any significant quantities of honey from China, because the amounts of antibiotic consumed would be somewhat higher. Nonetheless, as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency points out, two teaspoons of contaminated honey contain less than one ten millionth of a single dose of the antibiotic used to treat typhoid fever. Because any detectable chloramphenicol is disallowed, government agencies are working to remove from the marketplace items that have detectable chloramphenicol. By February 2003, Chinese honey with detectable chloramphenicol had been blocked from distribution.

With its export market for honey crippled, China is rushing to enforce limitation on chloramphenicol use by its bee keepers, which will then also protect against contamination of other bee products, like royal jelly and propolis. Meanwhile, manufacturers who buy large quantities of honey and royal jelly are demanding that their suppliers test the products and assure that they are chloramphenicol free to meet government requirements and consumer expectations for purity. It is expected, by these various efforts, that chloramphenicol will disappear from the bee products supply chain in the next few months.

As an example of the impact of the restrictions on Chinese honey, the import of Chinese honey into Canada, having peaked in June of 2001 (at over 800,000 kg in one month) abruptly stopped after March of 2002, as indicated in the following graphic:

Table showing Canada's importation of Chinese honey

In Canada, Chinese honey was replaced mainly by honey produced in Argentina (which shipped over 2,000,000 kg in 6 months, most of it a three month period, April, May, June of 2002):

Table showing Canada's importation of Argentinian honey

Table of sample test results for honey purchased in London from January 25-February 14, 2002. The detection limit for chloramphenicol was 0.3 g/kg (ppb) and for streptomycin was 50 g/kg (ppb).

Description Country of Origin Residue of Chloramphenicol Residue of Streptomycin
Asda Sunflower Honey Not specified None detected None detected
Gales Pure Honey (clear) Not specified None detected None detected
Tesco Pure Set Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 0.9 µg/kg 70 µg/kg
Sainsbury's Runny Clear Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 3.1 µg/kg 60 µg/kg
Asda Smartprice Set Honey Not specified 1.3 µg/kg None detected
Sainsbury's Pure Clear Blended Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 4.7 µg/kg 50 µg/kg
Asda Pure Clear Honey Not specified None detected None detected
Gales Pure (Set) Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 1.5 µg/kg 120 µg/kg
Tesco Finest Acacia Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 4.5 µg/kg 50 µg/kg
Asda Acacia Honey China None detected 500 µg/kg
Tesco Pure Clear Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* None detected 180 µg/kg
Rowse Pure Natural Blossom Honey Not specified 1.2 µg/kg None detected
Leechy Honey China None detected None detected
Bee's Queen Pure Chinese Honey China 4.3 µg/kg None detected
Tesco Finest Acacia Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 4.3 µg/kg Not tested
Sainsbury's Pure Clear Blended Honey Blended. Contains honey of Chinese origin* 7.2 µg/kg Not tested
* Information from manufacturer
These tests were conducted by the Food Standards Agency of the U.K.
Logo of the Food Standards Agency of the U.K.