Sweet talk

A brand of purportedly diabetic-friendly agave nectar being sold in South Africa is actually just fructose syrup – putting lives at risk.

The South African organic food industry has been taken for a bitter ride for at least eight years by a foul-mouthed Eastern Cape conman who even made a name for himself as subject of a story about a lovers’ bustup in Die Kaapse Son. This is according to a scorned ex-wife, former employees and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Brian Neary, 54, claims to trade in the agave plant – a succulent native to Mexico that is also used in the making of Tequila – selling it into the organic food market where it is used as a honey or sugar substitute.

But the mini-empire built by Neary, a resident of the plush Marina Martinique Estate in Jeffreys Bay, is built upon an elaborate con.

Noseweek has learned that Neary operated twice on fraudulent USDA organic certificates, that his legal organic certificate obtained in November 2015  was suspended in November 2016, and that he bought Tongaat-Hulett-branded sugarcane fructose which he made into syrup and packaged as agave. This, he sold on to national retailers and distributors such as Nature’s Choice and PecanHealth.

Not one agave farmer in the Graaff-Reinet region has sold Neary agave in the past 15 years, but he has continued to trade on his suspended certificate – and was still doing so last month.

For the past 10 years Neary has been involved, one way or another, in the “agave” industry. Up and until 2006 he was the production manager of the Agave Distillery in Graaff-Reinet until he resigned “after a dispute”. He was accused of theft and dishonesty but responded by pointing a finger back at his former employer, accusing him of waging a vendetta against him.

After an 18-month gap, Neary popped up at 90 President Street, Bothaville in the Free State, operating his agave organic produce business.

Brian Neary

By 2010 he had moved to St Francis Bay and increased his product offering while also selling online. The status quo remained throughout 2011 to 2014. It was during this time he concocted a plan to create fraudulent certificates. The first, was from a global organic certifier, EcoCert, claiming he was harvesting organic agave in Korogwe, Tanzania.

The certificate claimed that the Agave Group, which was Neary, trading locally under the name Maguey Agave (Pty) Ltd, had under plantation 8,200ha of agave near “the Old Sugar Mill, Julius Mvende Street, Korogwe, Tanzania”.

From 2012 until September 2015 his company website said: “The Agave Group has two production facilities in Tanzania and by working in close relationship with local farmers and growers in Korogwe, Tanzania and in the Great Karoo area of South Africa, we source our supply of Blue Agave plants from wild plantations that have remained untouched for hundreds of years.”

There is no publicly available evidence that such an operation exists.

The USDA fraud notice announcement was made on 5 August 2014. It  named Maguey Agave (Pty) Ltd and Brian Neary, as the “CEO”, noting the factory’s St Francis Bay address. It said the fraudulent certificate appeared to have been issued in January 2012 in Dar es Salaam and was valid until 2014.

According to Neary’s fake certificate, he was allowed to produce agave sugar crystals, syrup, inulin and inulin powder as well as Maguey Xylitol syrups and cocoa power.

But despite the fraud notice Neary continued to operate his business.

He created another fake certificate and claimed to be licensed by the global organic certifying body, OneCert, claiming that he was USDA-approved from June 2014 to June 2015.

This certificate claimed Maguey met the criteria for “India’s National Programme for Organic Production Standards, considered equivalent to the requirements of USDA’s National Organic Program”.

The USDA, under the “Fraudulent Organic Certificates” section on its website, flagged this certificate as false on 3 September 2015, naming Maguey Agave again.

The Tanzanian operation remained a bedrock of Neary’s sales pitch until October 2015, when suddenly the website changed from being home of the “Agave Group”, as he preferred to be known, to being “SFD – Live Sweet the Natural Way”. Remarkably, the entire Tanzanian operation – into which he had told staff he invested millions of rands – disappeared without a trace.

Neary also obtained a new tax number, a new listed address in St Francis Bay and new telephone numbers. He was on the prowl for a third certificate, except this time he wanted to go legit, and in 2015 approached another global organic certifying company that could give the treasured USDA rating – Control Union.

By this stage he had already found an unused agave plantation outside Graaff-Reinet being grown on Kommadagga Farm, owned by Koos Moolman. Oom Moolman’s forefathers had planted the Garingboom, – the local name for agave – and used it as feed for livestock during drought.

In 2013 Neary told Moolman they could produce agave nectar using his stock, made promises of cash and signed a contract. Neary told Moolman he didn’t need the stock immediately.

Control Union was told that SFD was an “upstart” in the agave sector. The inspectors checked the factory, where workers had quickly and quietly hidden the Tongaat-Hulett fructose bags. They also inspected Moolman’s farm – the apparent source of the agave. All looked legal. Neary obtained the certification on 10 September 2015 – just seven days after the previous one was publicly released. Moolman had no idea his farm was being used as a front. 

Neary was legally allowed to produce agave inulin fibres, powder and syrup. He still claimed to produce Xylitol products derived from “wild plantations” of Birch trees.

But in November last year Control Union suspended the certificate. Sources maintain that the Portuguese inspector sent to view the plant was purposely kept away from the factory, while an audit revealed that, despite claiming that the operation produced agave throughout the year, not a single plant from the accredited farm had been harvested. 

Moolman confirmed that not one of his plants had been dug up.

“He [Neary] told me his relationship with his previous supplier of agave, Tim Murray, didn’t last. We signed a contract in 2013 and another in 2016 but we were never a commercial venture. He said he was currently sourcing his product from somewhere else.

“According to Neary the contract was to reserve the agave in the future. In the latter part of 2016 he started paying me a retainer (of R6,000p/m) but when Control Union suspended his certificate, he cancelled the contract with immediate effect in a manner that was in breach of our agreement. Not one plant was ever harvested,” reiterated Moolman.  

Not a single farmer in the entire Graaff-Reinet district, where 450ha of agave is under cultivation, has ever sold Neary agave in the past 15 years – including Tim Murray.

Murray told Noseweek he represents the Graaff-Reinet district agave farmers and has “a mandate to encourage the development of an industry based on the agave plant”. He said the plant’s leaves, pole (from which it flowers once before dying) and heart, or piña, can be sold and all parts have uses “as diverse as an anti-itch cream, surfboards and alcohol”.

“There have been many inquiries, ranging from arts and crafts, biogas, bioethanol, pickles, fodder, dietary fibre, inulin and agave syrup. I have at least one contact regarding the agave every month,” said Murray.

“I have been interviewed by the SA Police regarding this issue and have made a statement to the Commercial Branch to this effect (that Neary has not bought any agave from any farms in the Graaff-Reinet for 15 years). He recently attempted to contract my plantations but never followed through with the negotiations on the pretext that I wanted too much for my agave. I have no idea where he purchases his agave,” said Murray.

The police confirmed to Noseweek that Neary is the subject of a criminal investigation.

The reason no agave was harvested for Neary’s production was simple: he was purchasing massive volumes of Tongaat-Hulett branded fructose derived from sugarcane  directly from their Durban offices – with orders between R200,000-R400,000 placed at a time. In 2016 he bought 1.7tonnes of inulin, which he mixed into his fake agave syrup from Johannesburg-based Tate & Lyle South Africa. He bought the Xylitol, which should be obtained from the “wild” birch trees, from CJP Chemicals in Port Elizabeth. 

Bags of fructose, used to make a syrup which is packaged as Agave nectar

A former employee, Prosper “David” Khapzela, who was the production manager and worked for Neary for eight years, confirmed that he had been tasked with “cooking” the fake agave.

“He said I was a supervisor but in reality I was just a general worker. We just mixed the stuff and packaged it. I did the mixing and had no idea we were doing anything illegal. We would receive fructose in Tongaat-Hulett bags. We would then mix 750kg of fructose into 500 litres of water in the 1,000l pot, boiling it for 13 hours at 1200C until it turned to syrup. We would then allow it to cool down and mix in 205kg of a lighter syrup, also from Tongaat-Hulett, into the pot, stirring until we obtained the right colour. We would then package it. Some would go into Agave Xylitol packets and others into Agave Dark Syrup packets or containers. Effectively it was the same thing. The only other product we would add is inulin, as this is what people tested for. We never once had an actual agave plant on site,” said Khapzela.

The factory had five 1,000l pots and one 2,000l pot.

He said some items such as the Dutch cocoa powder and Xylitol crystals were delivered and re-packed into bags with the company label.

The recently resigned bookkeeper/ personal assistant/secretary, Antasha Janse van Rensburg – who has now approached the CCMA – said that, despite having been employed for five months, with her office right next to the factory, she was barred from going inside it except to use the toilet.

“We bought directly from Tongaat-Hulett in Durban every month and the Xylitol, from CJP Chemicals. It was a very quiet operation. The only people who visited were those who wanted money such as Uncle John the Greek, who was his previous landlord,” said Janse van Rensburg.

During her time at the company they moved the operation from St Francis Bay to Jeffreys Bay and then to Humansdorp where it is now.

By 8 February this year Nature’s Choice and PecanHealth Natural Food Products –  both large operators in the South African health foods market – were still stocking Neary’s product on the assumption his certification was above board.  PecanHealth’s Derek Levy said they would assess the matter before making any decision on future purchases from SFD.

Christelle Steenkamp from the quality assurance department at Nature’s Choice said they “do not label our product as organic”.

However, just a day earlier, Steenkamp sent Noseweek – after having posed as a customer wanting to buy an organic product – a “Certificate of Analysis – Organic Agave Light Syrup” with the Control Union guarantee despite the certificate having been suspended. It is listed under Bio-Friendly.

In their defence, SFD claimed its products were “certified organic”.

In January, Neary’s ex-wife Hanlie Rothmann, with whom he is entangled in a bitter dispute, sent out an email to a number of his suppliers.

“Good day. It’s time for normal people who buy very expensive Agave Nectar in South Africa to ask: is this the real product. Let me tell you, the only Agave Nectar in the world is Agave from Mexico. Brian Neary, the ‘big boss’ of Agave in South Africa, is a fraud.” Rothmann then listed where Neary bought his products. 

She ends her email: “No real agave in South Africa. If you want it you need to import it from Mexico.” 

Glen Thomas, who was once Neary’s national sales manager, is suing Neary for R200,000 which he was awarded by the CCMA in February 2015. Neary claimed Nulla bona [No goods/property that can be seized] just days later.

“He told me he was friends with the late [mining boss] Brett Kebble and [underworld figure] Glenn Agliotti. He would never let anyone into the factory, including me. He told me he had a R20m operation in Tanzania growing Agave, on which he only owed R3m. He never went to Tanzania in the nine months I worked with him.

“We were also, unknown to me, operating on a fraudulent certificate that claimed we were approved by the USDA. I found out he was buying fructose from Tongaat-Hulett and selling it as Agave. He was putting people’s lives at risk,” said Thomas, who is a diabetic.

Cape Town promotions company owner Caroline Dreyer signed a 12-month contract with Neary in 2012 which he cancelled just three months in. Dreyer says this was a complete breach of contract and the extra staff she took on to service his contract had to be let go. Neary commented on his Facebook page in September 2013 that he finds it “hard to stomach that this person now demands payment for work not done” and that the “standard of her work was far from what we ¨expected”.

“I lost R70,000,” said Dreyer. “When I inquired whether I should sue him, I was told I needed R50,000 upfront for legal fees. I had to let it go. So instead I started a blog about Neary.” In one post she muses: “How unfair is it that such a slimeball can get away time and time again with conning people? No conscience, no morals and no class”. 

She claims her site has attracted US businesses claiming they, too, have been conned by Neary. In her most recent post earlier this year she said “2017 welcomes the new victims of the never-ending Brian Neary Saga”.

Her sleuthing had uncovered an undated article that appeared in the Afrikaans tabloid, Die Son. It tells the story of a Table View businesswoman who claimed Neary was a “lowlife conman”. The paper quoted Cherel-Maria Scott who said she had met Neary, then aged 43, on the SMS chatline Flirtline. He swept her off her feet – and then borrowed R15,000 from her, which she never got back. Their fling had ended in a physical fight involving the police. According to Die Son, Neary did not deny assaulting Scott.

Asked by Noseweek to confirm where he was buying his agave and to comment on accusations made against his name and business by his ex-wife and others, he responded: “If you want to believe this crazy bitch (Rothmann) you do what you want to do.

“Listen, I’ve been making this fucking product for ten years. I don’t need anybody snooping around.”

He said Rothmann was trying to extort money from him by “talking kak” about him. “That is it. Honest truth”. He claimed it was related to a settlement agreement from their divorce.

“Do what you want to do. I am not going to talk to you. Don’t fucking phone me again you fuck.”

Noseweek then questioned how he made his product when his certified farm owned by Moolman had never harvested a single agave plant and that no one in Graaff-Reinet had sold him the plant in 15 years. 

“Listen boet I’ve got my own fucking farm where I harvest my own fucking products you cunt. Go fuck yourself, alright”. He hung up without explaining where the farm was located.

The Agave blues

Agave is a Mexican plant best known as the main ingredient of Tequila. The plant somehow found its way into South Africa a few hundred years ago and has proven to be a steady supplier of emergency feed for farmers in times of drought. It requires almost no water to grow, making the Karoo and hinterland an ideal climate for its cultivation.

The two main types of Agave are Maguey and Blue Agave; locally it is known as Garingboom.

The plant is often touted as a substitute for sugar. It takes between seven and 14 years to grow to harvest. Once ready, the leaves are stripped and the core, known as a piña, remains. This is then boiled at a low heat of about 600C to reduce it to simple sugars called agave nectar. One of the main components when boiled is called inulin or fructosan. The inulin helps with bowel movement and managing weight.

The rest, fructose, is higher in calories than sugar and about one-and-a-half times sweeter, but it has a lower glycaemic index and is believed not to cause sugar levels to spike. Diabetics use it as a sweetener and it is often used by Vegans as a honey substitute.

There is no consensus as to whether fructose is healthier or better than regular sugar but that is irrelevant to the organic retail sector where it has a market.

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