Food Standards Agency warns on honey

The Food Standards Agency is reminding parents not to feed honey to babies who are under a year old. This follows a confirmed case of the rare but serious illness, infant botulism.

There have been only 11 confirmed cases of infant botulism in the past 30 years, but three of these have occurred in the past year and all have had possible links to honey. The most recent case involved a 15-week-old baby. While it is not absolutely clear that eating honey caused the illness in these cases, honey had definitely been eaten by the infants.

Botulism is caused by a germ that normally lives in a dormant form in soil and dust and occasionally gets into honey. If the germ gets in to a baby’s intestine it can grow and produce a toxin or poison, leading to infant botulism. Honey is safe for children over the age of one, but a younger baby’s gut is not sufficiently developed to be able to fight off the bacteria. This is why the parents are advised not to give a child honey until they are one year old.

Sam Montel, nutritionist at the Food Standards Agency, said: ‘For around the first six months babies, only need breast milk or infant formula and, although it might be tempting to give honey for easing coughs, infant botulism is a very serious illness and it simply isn’t worth the risk.

‘Once your baby is introduced to solid foods, you don’t really need to sweeten anything for him or her as you’ll only be encouraging a sweet tooth. Honey is a source of sugar, so avoiding it, along with other sugary snacks and drinks, will help prevent tooth decay.’

Dr Kathie Grant, botulinum expert at the Health Protection Agency (HPA), said: ‘Although infant botulism is incredibly rare, it’s a serious illness that causes muscle weakness and breathing problems, and most babies require hospital treatment. While recovery may be slow, thankfully almost all babies recover fully.

‘Not all babies who are given honey will develop infant botulism, but because of the link to this infection, babies under one year of age should not be given honey under any circumstances, even on their dummies or mixed with their milk.’

Members of the Honey Association have a voluntary code of practice of stating on product labels that honey should not be given to infants under 12 months. The Agency supports this responsible initiative and recommends that any other packers and suppliers of honey should follow this precautionary labelling approach.

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