A Supreme Court battle between a beekeeper and Australia’s biggest honey producer Capilano over the safety and source of its products is becoming increasingly bitter, with both sides now suing the other.

Capilano has applied for a Supreme Court order to curb the allegations on social media.
Capilano has applied for a Supreme Court order to curb the allegations on social media.

For the past year, Victorian apiarist Simon Mulvany has waged a social media campaign against Capilano, accusing it of selling “toxic”, imported honey and of using misleading labelling.

Capilano strongly denies the claims and applied for a Supreme Court order to curb the allegations, suing Mr Mulvany for damages and costs.

Mr Mulvany has now responded by lodging a defamation claim against Capilano and its chief executive officer Ben McKee over a social media post from July.

Mr Mulvany alleges untrue claims were made on Facebook about the case.

“I’m suing Capilano because the CEO Ben McKee on his Facebook page said court findings had already been found by a judge, and this wasn’t true,” Mr Mulvany alleged.

Mr McKee told the ABC, Capilano intended to defend its position and that Mr Mulvany’s case was “simply a response to our legal action taken earlier this year”.

But as news of legal and social media battle spreads, some told the ABC they were concerned about loss of business.

The “Save the ” Facebook page run by Mr Mulvany has carried claims that Capilano’s motivated by greed to sell “poisonous” imported products in Australia. All claims have been denied by Capilano.

He also accused the company of marketing blends of Australian and imported products as purely Australian in overseas markets. These claims have not been proven.

Along with its namesake brand, Capilano Honey Limited also produces Allowrie, Smiths, Wescobee and Barnes brands, which carry labels stating they are “packed in Australia from quality local and imported products”.

All Capilano honey ‘comprehensively tested’

Capilano said all honey packed by Capilano was comprehensively tested and undergoes rigorous quality assurance testing to ensure it meets the strict standards set in place by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). Capilano also notes on its website that it has never failed this quality testing.

 

About 5 per cent of imported honey consignments are checked under Imported Food Inspection Scheme.

One batch imported from Yemen in 2012, not associated with Capilano or its brands, was found to contain unacceptable levels of the antibiotic Tetracycline. Another batch imported from Iran in 2015, not associated with Capilano or its brands, was found to contain added “C4”, or plant sugars.

Last year, the National Residue Survey found 97.6 per cent of locally produced honey met Australian standards. The remaining 2.4 per cent was attributed to one batch, which was found to contain a type of antibiotic known as a nitrofuran.

Neither the non-compliant imported nor locally produced honey has been linked to Capilano or its brands.

In February, the company took Mr Mulvany to court over what it described as the “untrue” claims, seeking an injunction to stop him posting the claims online.

“Capilano does not mislead consumers and all of our honey is 100 per cent safe to consume,” Capilano chief executive Ben McKee told the ABC.

“While all Capilano brand Honey is made from 100 per cent pure, Australian honey, the company does import some honey from accredited international suppliers for use in supplementary brands such as Allowrie.

“All imported honey is comprehensively tested and meets the same rigorous quality assurance standards as honey produced in Australia.”

Mr Mulvany voluntarily took down more than 20 posts ahead of a Supreme Court decision but in a later statement of claim, Capilano called for 54 online posts to be removed.

Shortly after the Save the Bees claims infiltrated social media, a number of industry bodies moved to reassure consumers and limit any potential damage to the reputation of Australian honey.

Claims ‘damaging’ beekeeping industry

The Australian Food and Grocery Council, which lists Capilano among its members, issued a statement saying “consumers can trust reputable Australian brands like Capilano”.

The Department of Agriculture also issued a statement assuring consumers of Australia’s safety standards, and the Australian Industry Council followed suit.

“Not only are these statements untrue, they are damaging to the wider industry,” the council said.

“They also risk undermining Australia’s reputation as a producer of safe, high quality honey in growing export markets.”

These concerns would soon prove to be warranted, with the Malaysian Government announcing it was investigating online claims of “poisonous” Australian products.

A short time later, West Australian producers Fewsters Farm Honey say a Malaysian buyer suspended an order for up to 60 tonnes of honey a year due to concerns about Australian honey.

Days later, the Malaysian Government announced Australian honey was safe, following assurances from the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.

But owner Kim Fewster said he never heard back from the buyer and raised concerns about the situation in an email sent to West Australian agricultural officials.

“We have also just spent the last one month trying to get an order of jarrah honey cleared by Vietnamese quarantine. Vietnam also now seems to have become concerned about contaminated honey from Australia,” Mr Fewster said in the email.

While industry has united around Capilano in blaming Mr Mulvany’s claims for potential loss of business, Mr Mulvany said many beekeepers support his cause.

“They’re saying that this really all had to come out and it’s going to improve the industry,” he said.

But Capilano said its priority was to protect the interests and reputation of the “more than 600 beekeeping families across Australia”.

“This is why … we urge consumers to research the facts and refer to information made available by these credible, independent organisations,” Mr McKee said.

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