Australia is having a food fight. Well, a honey fight, actually, and there are lessons aplenty to be found in it. First off, a Save the Bees gentleman, Simon Mulvany, of Melbourne, launched a name-calling campaign against Australian honey packer Capilano, disparaging the packer’s buying habits by claiming that Capilano bottles “toxic” imported honey and uses misleading labeling to sell it. At least, that’s what I’m hearing from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Capilano sued Mulvany for spreading false stories about its honey, which Mulvany had declared “poisonous and toxic”.
Toxic, of course, is in the stomach of the consumer – persons with extreme diabetes may, indeed, find Capilano honey toxic, if consumed in large enough quantities. Simon Mulvany’s honey would also be toxic in such a situation – provided he produces enough to kill anyone. The allegations, of course, are much broader than a diabetic overdose, as the accusation claims that Capilano’s honey is poisonous.
Calling another’s honey unfit for consumption does little to sell one’s own honey. In fact, the fear across Australia is that Simon Mulvany is causing honey sales to tank as consumers become wary of all honey. I’ve seen similarly stupid campaigns in the past – people don’t switch brands, they just quit buying. The average grocery customer doesn’t have enough time to bother with this and read all the background material. They hear the words “toxic” and “honey” in the same sentence and the message is clear, even if it’s wrong.
Mr Mulvany’s mission(s)
Mr Mulvany, though, is on a mission or two. Perhaps his goal is not to destroy all of Australia’s honey industry, that’s just a possible unintended consequence. Instead, his goal is to ‘Save the Bees’. According to his linkedin page, this has been a passion since, um, October 2014.
On Linkedin, Mr Mulvany tells us, “We are addicted to the short term disease of money. Compensation ought be paid out to major honey producers in the same way as the Government [sic] buys back fishing licenses when fish stocks are being impacted. Bees are so much more than honey. Indigenous bees are quite often better pollinators honey bees. [sic] More efforts needed in insuring [sic] indigenous insects.” In this, it seems Mulvany wants Australian commercial beekeeping abolished – unless, of course, it’s done according to his rules.
If the single quote above doesn’t satisfy your craving for pearls of similar beekeeping wisdom, you’ll find that Mulvany’s “Save the Bees” Facebook page contains the “Universal spiritual wisdom of the bee”. For even more nuggets, Mulvany runs a “Bee the Cure” website and an Instagram “Bee the Cure” page (where he writes about “bees dyeing” [sic] , though he doesn’t indicate which colours the bees use).
Mulvany’s personal Facebook page (November 30, 2016) greets you with a photo of Fidel (“Castro: The Making of a Legend”) and carries insight about how GMO wheat caused the world’s obesity epidemic (“The biggest fat loss secret”). Further down the page is a delightful story on the harmful chemicals in antibacterial soap. Beyond his personal site, we can learn about Mulvany’s view of his lawsuit with Capilano, Mulvany’s GoFundMe campaign (which has collected $7800 so far!), his Paypal Donation links, and his Change.org petition. By the way, the petition has a point – it’s a plea to have country of origin as a legal part of every honey label. Go sign it if you’re Australian and you agree with this idea.
This fellow knows social media. However, Australian beekeepers believe that Mulvany’s damage to consumer confidence in Australian honey is hurting them. That’s why many beekeepers publicly support Capilano Honey Limited instead of Mulvany.
Beekeepers defend Capilano
According to ABC, “as news of the legal and social media battle spreads, some beekeepers told the ABC they were concerned about loss of business.” They should be concerned. As misinformation flows, consumers are reaching for maple syrup and little bags of brown sugar, not honey. They are worried about the toxic honey which Mulvany claims is on some shelves.
Australia’s beekeepers have a lot of experience. They have been running good businesses, producing healthy food, and keeping their colonies alive long before the save-the-bees and honey-is-toxic folks came to their rescue. Trying to restore some normalcy to their industry, many commercial beekeepers have gone to Capilano’s support.
Capilano purchases some foreign honey and sells several brands which carry labels stating they are “packed in Australia from quality local and imported products”. Much foreign honey is packed in Australia and then re-exported. Capilano Honey Limited also packs millions of pounds of local Australian honey, buying from Australian family bee farmers, and selling it as purely Australian honey under the corporate brand name.
Following is a promotion video made and distributed by Capilano. It is, of course, corporate propaganda generated by Capilano, but the beekeepers are real and seem sincere. Some have been selling to Capilano for three generations. If they are like commercial beekeepers everywhere, they may occasionally feel underpaid by their packer and they likely have a love-hate relationship with the people who buy their honey. But they are seriously worried that the smearing of Capilano honey has become the smearing of all of Australia’s honey.
Imports and Exports
Australia’s honey producers are gravely concerned about the misinformation being spread about ‘toxic honey’. The Department of Agriculture issued a statement assuring consumers of Australia’s honey safety standards. The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council also found it necessary to use its time, money, and resources to try to mitigate the damage being done to Australian beekeepers by Mulvany’s campaign:
“Not only are these statements untrue, they are damaging to the wider beekeeping industry,” the council said.
“They also risk undermining Australia’s reputation as a producer of safe, high quality honey in growing export markets,” says the council.
Meanwhile, Simon Mulvany carries on his fight against Capilano and imported honey. The funny thing is, when I was a kid here in North America, we used to complain about imported honey coming from Australia – it typically undercut North American prices. Nevertheless, the beekeepers of Oz were revered as masters of the art – they often produced the most honey per hive of any place on Earth. Trade works in all directions. Here in Canada, we import honey from 30 different countries, but we export much more than we import. It’s the same in Australia.
Australia needs to export millions of pounds of its own honey to the world market. Total consumption of 10,000 tonnes/year is less than half the country’s annual production – obviously the excess must be exported. Shutting down international trade (Mulvany strongly opposed TPP) would hurt Australia’s beekeepers, just as the claim that some honey is poisonous has proven disastrous.
It’s not just Australian consumers who are nervous about allegedly toxic honey. Western Australian honey producer Fewsters Farm Honey, in business since 1898, says a Malaysian buyer suspended an order for 60 tonnes of honey per year due to concerns about Australian honey toxins. Likewise, Australian honey is having trouble entering Vietnam under a similar cloud of toxic and poisonous allegations.
The post-truth world
As we’ve seen, claiming that honey can be toxic may destroy honey sales for everyone. It’s doubly difficult to tolerate when the allegations are untrue. We live in a ‘post-truth’ world now. We can’t credit Simon Mulvany with the collapse of Australia’s entire bee industry, but unfounded claims amplified through adroit (albeit unsophisticated) manipulation of social media shows the deadly power of persistent spin. We have entered a world were facts don’t matter and where a person who has been “Saving Bees” since October 2014 can destroy beekeepers who have been quietly doing their job for generations.
Mulvany has tens of thousands of social media followers who enthusiastically gush their encouragement for his attacks on capitalism, big business, free trade, agribusiness, GMOs, neonicotinoids, and antibacterial soap. He has a responsibility to get facts right. The mud which is being slung at Australia’s honey industry may cost producers millions of dollars. Honey’s reputation as a healthy food is at risk. Calling any honey “toxic and poisonous” is a reprehensible mistake.