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Babies and honey: better to err on the safe side

24 August 2012


From Mr Andy Pedley
Sir, - As a beekeeping environmental health officer, I would like to comment on the discussion about "blessing" children with honey (Letters, 3 and 17 August).

There is real cause for concern: it is well established that the spores of Clostridium Botulinum can occur naturally in honey, and survive despite honey's antibiotic properties. C. Botulinum is the bacteria that produces Botoxin ("Botox") - a potent neurotoxin.

To adults, consuming honey poses no risk. Dr Bradley is correct: honey does not contain toxin. Nevertheless, children under the age of 12 months have not developed intestinal microflora (the "friendly bacteria" of the yogurt advert), and if they ingest C. Botulinum, then the bacteria can propagate in their guts, and produce botoxin, leading to "floppy baby syndrome" (infant botulism).

The illness is fortunately rare in the UK: www.nhs.uk indicated 13 reported cases since 1978. There were, however, three reported incidents in the UK in 2009/10. Incidence in other countries seems to be higher: the University of Florida says that there are fewer than 100 cases per annum in the US. The same source indicates that ten per cent of honey samples have been found to contain C. Botulinum spores.

It seems that some parents are in the practice of dipping their baby's dummies (soothers, pacifiers) in honey before giving them to the child, which seems harmless; but there is concern that even this small quantity of honey could be enough to cause infection.

In the UK, there is a voluntary agreement with the Honey Packers Association that honey labels include a statement "Honey should not be given to infants under 12 months." Sam Montel, of the Food Standards Agency, said: ". . . it might be tempting to give honey . . . [but] infant botulism is a very serious illness and it simply isn't worth the risk" (www.food.gov.uk).

There is a danger that the blessing could lead to a real curse, one that is unnecessary and easily avoided.
36 Ferrymead Gardens, Greenford, Middlesex UB6 9NF


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