Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are naturally occurring plant toxins which may cause adverse health effects when consumed at high enough levels. There are more than 600 different PAs which are produced by about 6000 types of plants. PAs have been found in some foods, including honey, tea, herbs, spices, grains, and animal products such as meat, milk and eggs.
Pyrrolizidine alkaloids in honey
PAs may be present in honey when bees forage on PA-containing flowers such as Paterson’s Curse, also known as Salvation Jane.
In 2001, FSANZ established a safe level of dietary exposure for PAs of one microgram per kilogram bodyweight per day based on known toxicity in humans. FSANZ has not established a regulatory level for honey in the Food Standards Code because there is no evidence of harm from normal consumption.
For people who usually eat honey derived from flowers other than Paterson’s Curse, the levels of PAs are not a cause for concern.
It is recommended that anyone, including pregnant or breast feeding women, who consumes more than two tablespoons of honey a day, doesn’t eat Paterson’s Curse honey exclusively.
Pure Paterson’s Curse honey is relatively uncommon and is usually bought from specialty markets and online distributors. Most honey processors blend their Paterson’s Curse honey with other honey which reduces the concentration of any PAs present.
FSANZ’s response to reports of high levels of Pyrrolizidine alkaloids in Australian and New Zealand honey
FSANZ is aware of reports on PAs in Australian and New Zealand honey. However, based on the types of PAs present and honey consumption levels in Australia and New Zealand, they are unlikely to pose a health risk.
Poisoning incidents have occurred in other countries from PA contamination in plant products derived from wheat and other crops. However, there have been no reports of poisonings in Australia or New Zealand associated with PA contamination of honey or any other foods.
Current FSANZ work on pyrrolizidine alkaloids
FSANZ is undertaking a small pilot survey of PA levels in honeys, teas, and herbal infusions available in Australia. These foods are potential sources of dietary exposure to PAs.
The pilot survey builds on previous work by FSANZ and the honey industries in Australia and New Zealand to characterise the toxicity of PAs present in honey.
FSANZ is taking account of this work and the outcomes of the recently completed international risk assessment of PAs by Joint Expert Committee for Food Additives (JECFA) (the FAO/WHO expert group with responsibility for assessing food contaminants).
This will determine the priority of future work on the issue.