WESTERN PRODUCER — For nearly two decades, Simon Lalonde has exported honey to Japan.
The beekeeper from Clavet, Sask., sells part of his crop to Japanese buyers because he receives a premium price for white honey.
In previous years, Lalonde has shipped anywhere from 20 to 300 tonnes to Japan, a country that imports $150-$200 million worth of honey annually.
But exporting to Japan is becoming difficult for Lalonde and other Canadian beekeepers. Japanese buyers have imposed strict residue limits on quinclorac, a herbicide used to control cleavers.
Honey producers must show that their honey contains less than 10 parts per billion of quinclorac if they want to export to Japan.
“Our frustration … is it’s not a customs or government requirement to get into (Japan). It’s just something that’s been imposed by the packers (in Japan),” Lalonde said. “We’re just not sure why it was imposed.”
Several beekeepers in Alberta and Saskatchewan told the Western Producer a similar story. They’re finding trace residues of quinclorac in honey samples, which means they can’t sell into Japan.
Beekeepers pay for their own testing in Canada because sending a shipment to Japan and having it rejected is a huge financial risk.
“An awful lot of beekeepers had samples (last year) just above the 10,” Lalonde said. “Most guys were in that 15-20 range. But an 11 puts it above the MRL (maximum residue limit), so you can’t ship it.”
Lalonde has sent samples of his 2023 honey crop for testing and awaits the results.
Some Canadian honey is still going to Japan but volumes have dropped in the last year to 18 months because of the challenges with quinclorac.
“Japan was our biggest export market. And it’s a premium market. … We get a higher price out of Japan than anywhere else,” said Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council.
In 2021, Canada exported $25 million worth of honey to Japan. In comparison, $18 million went to America.
Parts per billion
The amounts being detected in honey samples are extremely small. In context, one part per billion is equivalent to one second in 32 years.
But this issue with quinclorac began a couple of years ago, when a honey packer in Japan tested a shipment of Canadian honey. The packer found a trace amount of the herbicide and rejected the load.
“Ever since then, the (Japanese) packers are now testing for quinclorac,” Lalonde said.
In many cases, a country will establish an MRL for pesticides in certain foods. It is based on scientific evidence and potential health risks to consumers.
For instance, research might show that 200 ppb is a safe level for fungicide X on apples. If the research hasn’t been done, a country adopts a default MRL.
In Japan it’s 10 ppb.
“They have a default MRL that’s particularly low. In Canada, our default MRL is 0.1 ppm (which equals 100 parts per billion),” Scarlett said.
Japanese honey buyers don’t have evidence or data showing that quinclorac above 10 ppb is a risk to human health but they’ve imposed that limit on Canadian honey anyway.
Quinclorac is the active ingredient in a BASF herbicide branded as Facet L.
In an email, a BASF spokesperson said the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare makes decisions about maximum residue levels in food.
“The Japanese Ministry applies a default MRL of 0.01 ppm (parts per million) when no national MRL has been established. No national MRLs exist for quinclorac in honey, therefore the default of 0.01 ppm applies.”
The company said it is aware of the issue with honey and has been in contact with the Canadian Honey Council.
“Currently there are no MRLs established for quinclorac in honey in the world,” BASF said.
“(The) residue levels seen in honey are well below the levels established for quinclorac on 25 other crop commodities, as part of the PMRA (Health Canada) risk assessment and MRL-setting process.”
The residues in Western Canadian honey could be connected to a decision from 2018, when an international body, the CODEX Alimentarius Commission, adopted an MRL for quinclorac in canola.
Prior to that decision, China didn’t have an MRL for quinclorac in canola, so canola growers had to sign a declaration at their local elevator saying they hadn’t applied the herbicide to their fields.
With the CODEX approval, China followed suit and adopted the recommended MRL. That allowed Canadian farmers to use the herbicide.
“Coming in 2019, Canadian growers can use Facet L herbicide in their canola to get the best available cleaver control in Canada, while having confidence in the marketability of their crop,” said Sydney Marlow, canola crop manager for BASF Canada, in August 2018.
Given that change, it’s possible more quinclorac is sprayed on canola fields in Western Canada compared to five years ago. Since bees forage in canola fields, they could pick up the quinclorac from the flowers.
“We’re finding it in more samples as the years go on,” Lalonde said.
Testing suggests that quinclorac residues vary by region. They seem to be a bigger issue for beekeepers in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where cleavers are more common, Scarlett said.
In Manitoba, fewer beekeepers detect the herbicide in honey. Cleavers are less of a problem in that province.
BASF clarified that quinclorac is applied to a small percentage of canola acres on the Prairies.
“BASF Canada is one of a few registrants that sell quinclorac products in Canada,” the spokesperson said. “The product is a very niche product for cleaver control and is applied to a single-digit percent of the total canola treated in Western Canada.”
From 2018-22, the annual value of Canada’s honey crop was $200 to $250 million.
Of that, $50 million to $75 million worth was exported, depending on the year.
Japan is still buying Canadian honey but weak exports to that country are a big risk for beekeepers, who depend on three countries for sales.
“About 95 percent of Canadian honey goes to the U.S., Canada and Japan,” Lalonde said.
If less honey goes into Japan, beekeepers must export more honey into the U.S. or sell more domestically. That’s not easy.
Honey prices have been strong in the last few years, with prices in the range of $2.50 to $3 per pound.
However, Canada has been importing more honey, which cuts into the domestic market for beekeepers. And the U.S. has become a market where imported honey is priced at a discount to American honey.
Canadian honey is a high-quality product, but it gets lumped into the “imported” category. It’s hard to compete with countries that sell honey into the U.S. at $1 per lb.
“The U.S. is just importing the absolute cheapest honey they can find,” Lalonde said.
Some beekeepers worry that the quinclorac problem could hurt the reputation of Canadian honey. Industry leaders have contacted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, BASF, and others about the issue.
“It’s something we’re going to have to discuss with the PRMA (Pest Management Regulatory Agency). How can we do some residue testing and setting of MRLs on a product we don’t have control over?” Scarlett said.
The Japanese government has not created a residue limit for quinclorac in honey. It is waiting for Canada to do the necessary testing and develop an MRL, which could take years.
In the meantime, Canadian beekeepers will keep testing their honey.
“Right now … guys have sent off a range of samples for testing, hoping it will come back low enough (so) they can offer it to (customers in) Japan,” Lalonde said.
If the honey doesn’t satisfy Japanese buyers, beekeepers like Lalonde will need a Plan B or Plan C. That might involve a lower price.
“This year, we’re expecting the price to go down,” he said.
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