HoneyBees.ca commissioned freelance writer Rebecca Melnyk to investigate and report about Health Canada's 2011 ads on infant botulism.
Concern over Health Canada's Misleading Ads about Honey
by Rebecca Melnyk
Tibor Szabo Jr, father, professional beekeeper, and former Vice-President of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, is still buzzing from ads published by Health Canada that linked honey to infant botulism. "The ads were silly and misleading. They didn’t point out how miniscule the risk of contaminated honey is," he said.
Ogilvy Montreal Inc. designed the ads through an open competitive process for last year's Children’s Health and Safety Campaign administered by Health Canada. The ads ran for four months and, in the process, shook up the beekeeping community with giant pictures of a honey squeeze-bottle crossed out with a large red line. The focus of the ad, "you should never give honey to a child under 1," was written beneath the picture in small print. Instead of infant botulism, honey looked like the target. Instead of the myriad of other substances linked to botulism, honey was the only product singled out.
When Health Canada was questioned about why honey was targeted, Media Relations Officer, Olivia Caron, replied: "In Canada, the only food that has been proven to be linked to infant botulism is honey; therefore Health Canada is advising parents and caregivers not to feed honey to children under one year of age. This position was first issued through a health warning in November 1985, following the first case of infant botulism in Canada linked to the consumption of honey."
Infant botulism is caused by bacteria called Clostridium botulinum which commonly exists in nature. The bacteria cannot grow or make toxins in honey, but if an infant swallows honey contaminated with spores of the bacteria, the spores may grow and produce toxins in the baby's body and could cause paralysis. Szabo says, "If they're going to single out honey, then what about corn syrup which could also potentially contain these same spores?"
Honey is rarely the means by which children under one may be exposed to botulism. Dr. John Austin, Research Scientist and Chair of the Botulism Reference Service for Canada states, "There have been very few cases of infant botulism in Canada that have been linked to honey consumption. In the majority of cases, a source of C. botulinum spores is never determined. Dust and soil are high factors in cases where the spores haven't been linked to anything." Does this mean that Health Canada should have created ads targeting construction sites or dusty basements? According to their website, 38 cases of infant botulism have been reported in Canada since 1979. In only "2 or 3 of these cases, the discovered spores have been linked to honey," confirms Austin, numbers which account for less than 8 percent of cases. Still, "honey is the only food that has been linked to infant botulism."
Why was honey and botulism chosen to be the target of this specific part of the campaign? Caron stated that they wanted the campaign to "be effective," so "extensive testing was performed on six focus groups across the country. Based on this research, a list of topics was devised and tested with Canadian parents." Out of the topics listed, "the honey concept was the most effective print ad concept." Caron further stated that the aim of the campaign was to "increase Canadian parents' awareness and access to information as well as to encourage them to visit Healthycanadians.gc.ca/kids a one-stop source of information to protect children."
Listed on the website are countless other potential threats to infants. It is also suggested that by six months of age, babies can begin to be introduced to solid foods such as meat. Yet, there is no mention of avoiding seal meat, a common cause of botulism in adults. It is further mentioned that water used for feeding infants under four months of age should be brought to a rolling boil for two minutes and then cooled to make sure it is sterile and will not make a baby sick. No ads circulated during the campaign displayed a crossed out water bottle.
What was intended to be an "effective" ad shocked beekeepers only months before the UN declared that the decline of honey bees is a global problem. Pesticides, parasites, viruses, and the modern transformation of rural landscapes have resulted in colony collapse around the world. Szabo believes that the ads, displayed in malls and consumer magazines, took away from the urgency of protecting honey bees.
"Honey is how I make my living," says Szabo. "More importantly, it's about the survival of our planet." Honey bees are essential crop pollinators. Pollination Guelph, a leading group in Canada dedicated to promoting the appreciation and understanding of pollinators, states that one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat and of the beverages we drink is delivered to us by pollinators. Honey bees are the most important managed pollinators in Canada, responsible for producing fruits, nuts, and seeds which are a critical part of many animals' diets. Approximately 1,000 of the estimated 1,330 global crop plants cultivated for food, beverages, fibers, condiments, spices and medicines depend on pollination by animals. Without honey bees, humanity would experience mass starvation.
Many opportunities exist to help support honey production. During focus testing for the campaign, it was demonstrated that food and nutrition (including food safety, food allergies and junk food) are major concerns for parents of children aged 12 and younger. If junk food was a major worry, honey could have been promoted because it is the "healthiest sweetener around," says Szabo. In 2008, Health Canada published a report requiring manufacturers to relabel over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to indicate that these medicines should not be used in children under 6. Szabo says, "Honey is the best cough syrup; it's natural and has been used for centuries." However, the report ignores honey as a suitable replacement.
When asked if their infant botulism prevention ads could have been designed with more clarity, Caron replied that since the ads were run, they have "received input from various stakeholders and have adjusted their messaging, moving forward to better communicate the fact that the botulism concern is specific to children under one, and that there are no safety concerns with older children or adults consuming honey.
Szabo declares this adjustment isn’t good enough: "They need to reverse the misconception by promoting Canadian honey. Advertise it. Tell people to buy honey. Support honey bees. Without them, there's no food or future for mankind."