The Chinese honey crisis turned out to be a blessing, of sorts, for the honey sector.
Sales soared by 12% over the last year, following a 24.7% increase on the year before, as consumers switched to premium alternatives.
The ban on Chinese honey created a shortage of worldwide stocks of honey in 2002 and doubled honey production costs within two years.
“We’ve had to sweat it out,” says Stuart Bailey, managing director of Rowse.
“There needs to be more action on the shelves as well as promotional and price activities to stimulate the market.”
Recent Rowse promotions have included 30p off a jar of honey, reduced from £1.99 to £1.69 and an extra-free offering on its squeezable beehive bottle, which, says Bailey, have stimulated demand and will be followed by similar promotions.
Ted McFadyen, grocery buyer for Waitrose, says that the star performers have been its new own label range launched last
August and in particular, squeezy honey “with sales double our expectations”.
Chinese honey got the all-clear in September 2004, but red tape and trial shipments are likely to delay its comeback on to shelves until later this year.
But, says Bailey, even when it does return to shelves, it is unlikely to ever return to its previous levels.
“Since the ban two and a half years ago, blends have been created without using Chinese honey, which are better quality and consumers have now got a taste for them.
“There’s also a lot of confidence to be regained in Chinese honey.” According to Bailey, so far no Chinese honey has been traded, although 20 Chinese factories have been approved by the authorities to export to Europe.
“Nothing leaves China without a certificate saying that
the honey complies with European regulations. There will be trial shipments and stringent procedures and tests on pre-shipment and on arrival. There are so many precautions.”
Waitrose’s McFadyen believes Chinese honey could make a return this year “but with moisture levels around 26% against a permitted level of 20%, there have been several objections to its return”.
It may, he says, even be that it cannot be called honey. “There are still far too many questions about the beekeeping practices in China, which will make Waitrose uneasy about using any Chinese honey for a long time yet,” he adds.
This means good news for the honey brands such as Rowse, Gale’s and niche luxury blends, which have blossomed as a result of the Chinese honey decline.
St Dalfour, known for its fruit spreads, has decided to enter the honey market for the first time with the launch of two mono floral honeys - orange blossom from Spain and acacia honey from Hungary.
Mark Tate, sales director, says: “We’ve taken a long look at the honey sector.
“Our new products aren’t the cheapest in the market, but consumers will trust the St Dalfour brand. We’re also looking at French-sourced honey, but it’s too expensive at the moment.”
Tate sees the sector growing, partly because people use honey in cooking, not just as a spread. “It’s also seen as healthy and a good source of energy.”