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February 9, 2004

AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND: Warning issued on honey toxins

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) today [Monday] issued advice to consumers who eat more than two tablespoons of honey every day not to eat honey made exclusively from Paterson’s Curse or Salvation Jane.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) today [Monday] issued advice to consumers who eat more than two tablespoons of honey every day not to eat honey made exclusively from Paterson’s Curse or Salvation Jane.

It would be unusual for anyone to consume large amounts of honey every day. Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane honey is also a relatively rare product usually found in specialty markets.

The FSANZ advice is based on the presence of high levels of naturally occurring toxins known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids in honey made from Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane. There have been no reported health problems from eating Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane honey in Australia.

According to the National Nutrition Survey, 9% of Australians eat honey on any given day. The average honey eater consumes about three teaspoons a day while 5% eat more than two tablespoons a day.

FSANZ also advised honey processors to continue their practice of blending Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane honey with other honeys as this will reduce the pyrrolizidine alkaloids to a safe level. Most commercially available honeys are blended.

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are a group of naturally occurring toxins that are found in a number of plant species around the world, including Symphytum (comfrey), Heliotrope, Echium (Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane) and Crotalaria species. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids enter the human food supply through the use of comfrey leaves in salad, through the contamination of grain crops by weed species (Heliotrope and Crotalaria), eggs and dairy products, or through the contamination of honey as a result of foraging by bees on the flowers of Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane.

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids can cause liver damage in both animals and in humans when exposure is high over an extended period. FSANZ has provisionally established a safe level of intake (referred to as a tolerable daily intake) of one microgram per kilogram bodyweight per day based on the known toxicity in humans.
 
Preliminary results of a survey of pyrrolizidine alkaloids levels in commercially available honey conducted by the CSIRO Animal Health Plant Toxins Unit have been made available to FSANZ. This survey examined the pyrrolizidine alkaloids content of 60 samples of honey specifically chosen to represent honey derived from sources likely to contribute to contamination by pyrrolizidine alkaloids. The highest levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids were found in honey samples derived mainly from Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane.

The preliminary results from the CSIRO honey survey have been examined by FSANZ together with information on the expected dietary intake of pyrrolizidine alkaloids from honey using food consumption data from the 1995 National Nutrition Survey. For the average consumer of about three teaspoons a day of honey, the levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in these honey samples would be well below the tolerable daily intake and not a cause for concern. However, for the high consumer of about two tablespoons a day of honey sourced exclusively from Paterson’s Curse/Salvation Jane, there is potential to exceed the tolerable daily intake.

Reproduced with permission of Food Standards Australia New Zealand

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