The first shipment - some 55 tons - left China's Sichuan province last week en route for Spain. Sichuan is one of China's four largest honey-producing regions, and prior to the ban - imposed in early 2002 after the discovery of unacceptably high levels of antibiotics in the honey - used to export to the US, EU, Japan and Malaysia.
Honey was just one of a number of Chinese food products (others include shrimps, farmed fish, royal jelly and rabbit meat) which were banned by the EU after they were found to contain high levels of the antibiotic chloramphenicol.
Cloramphenicol is an antibiotic used to control disease in shrimp, crawfish and bees, and is mostly used to treat life-threatening infections in humans when other alternatives are not available. Use of the antibiotic is limited because it is associated with a rare, but potentially life threatening side effect called idiosyncratic aplastic anemia. For the small number of people susceptible to this side effect, exposure to chloramphenicol can be fatal.
According to market analysts Access Asia, although the market for honey in China has fluctuated in recent years the country continues to be by far the leading producer in the world. And with per capita consumption set to rise, Access Asia indicates that production will continue to increase in line with demands. In international terms China is currently by far the largest honey-producing nation in the world, with around 40 per cent of the market. The next biggest producers are the US, Argentina and Ukraine. According to the American Honey Producers' Association, China and Argentina have been adversely affecting America's domestic honey industry with cheap imports, although there is a counter argument that both China and Argentina have been helping to counterbalance falling production in the US. Also starting to emerge onto the world honey production arena are Thailand and Vietnam.
Although production has continued to rise the number of bee colonies in China has declined in the past few years from a high of 6.5 million to around 5.7 million in 2001. This decrease, Access Asia says, is due to the introduction of smaller beehives and reduced choice of bee yards. Additionally, many agricultural co-operatives have shifted from honey production and bee cultivation following the poor harvests of 1998 and looked for more high-margin products.
The EU agreed to lift the ban on imports of Chinese honey back in July last year after agreeing that the Beijing authorities had done enough to reduce the levels of cloramphenicol.