Honey: What’s In a Name – Misleading Labels Lead to Consumer Confusion
Don Fraser PharmD MBA SPHR
VP – Alamo Area Beekeepers Assoc
The surge in interest in beekeeping among budding hobbyist beekeepers brings about a variety of questions in my beekeeping classes.
Questions From The Students in my “Honey I’ve Got The Bees” Class
• I want “local” honey (allergies). Do you or your fellow beekeepers sell “local” honey?
• Is your honey “filtered?”
• Advertisers promote “pure” honey? What is “pure” honey?
• My friends told me to buy “raw” honey. What is “raw” honey?
• Where can I find some “organic” honey?
• Is your honey “Kosher?”
• Is your honey heated (pasteurized)?
• Do you have any “local-raw-unpasteurized-kosher” honey?
Yes! I have been asked every one of these questions over the past few months. I am only surprised that I have not been asked if my bees produce “gluten-free” honey.
The consumers are clearly confused. Producers and sellers of honey have tremendous leeway in the terms that they use to describe their product on their honey labels. In 2014 the “Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the USA Department of Agriculture (USDA) solicited comments on how a Federal standard of identity for honey would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry and U.S. agriculture. You can find a copy of this Federal Register document at the following address:
I find it helpful to step back and look at things from various perspectives – the consumers, the commercial dealers of honey (think “big box stores”), the governments (USA and ex-USA), and the hobbyist beekeepers (think “farmers market” – local beekeeper).
Consumers buy honey for a variety of reasons. Some eat it simply because it is sweet. Others because they are connoisseurs of coffee or wine and appreciate the subtle nuances of taste between the different varieties of honey. Consumers who ask if the honey is “pure” are concerned about adulteration of honey with corn syrup or other products that are less expensive than honey. When consumers ask about “filtered vs unfiltered” they usually want honey with pollen in the honey – preferably “local” pollen because they ingest honey to help reduce pollen allergies. Consumers who ask about “raw” honey do not want honey that has been heated because higher levels of heat can denature the pollen protein in honey.
Fact vs Fiction
Consumers must understand that is “buyer beware” when they purchase honey. If you do not believe me then read the references listed below and then do a search on Google, Yahoo or one of the other internet web sites.
If consumers really want “local” honey then they should connect with their local beekeeping association to find beekeepers in their area that are willing to sell surplus honey or become a hobbyist beekeeper. In most cases the hobbyist beekeeper cannot sell honey because she/he does not have access to a “certified kitchen.” Let’s face it most hobbyist beekeepers do not produce enough honey to go through the certification process.
Commercial dealers of honey deal with hundreds of thousands/millions of pounds of honey. These companies buy honey from beekeepers that can supply large quantities of honey. The honey is placed in large vats…heated…filtered and packaged. They may sell directly to consumers via big box stores or sell to companies that have established a “Brand Name” in the marketplace.
The Big Box stores that buy and sell honey are focused on cost (buy low/sell high) and products that have a high turnover (sell well). Local hobbyist beekeepers do not produce enough honey to interest the big box stores because: a) they are not able to produce enough honey; b) cannot product honey at a low enough price for the Big Box store to make a profit. It is a Catch 22 situation for the small time hobbyist beekeeper and those that do decide to expand their operation need to match their demand/supply lest they fall into the trap of having a very successful brand but not enough product.
Commercial dealers of honey are forced to buy lots of honey from other countries. Americans eat a lot of honey and there is not enough USA honey to go around. Cost is also a factor since ex-USA countries (e.g. China) have often been accused of dumping low cost and “filtered” honey to mask the original source of the honey. Note. Ultra filtration removes the proteins in the honey that can be used to identify the source of the honey.
USDA regulations that strengthen the honey labeling requirements will benefit commercial dealers of honey by forcing ex-USA suppliers of honey market their honey in an ethical fashion.
The USA Government
The US government has a variety of customers – both internal and external.
Members of congress who generate legislation and regulators who make the rules and hopefully have the personnel and money to enforce the laws. If we apply the “follow the money” rules of discovery we find that members of congress want to be re-elected….lobbyists representing companies donate large sums of money to congressional campaigns…legislation that is passed and regulations written often serve a very narrow segment of the population. If consumers want better clarity with respect to honey labeling then they need to: a) educate themselves about the issues; b) educate their government representatives; c) support (by voice and financially) organizations that represent their views and can be a strong political voice; one that can help enact legislation that is viewed favorable by the public.
In the past 10 years we have seen a surge of interest in beekeeping. I suspect that much of that interest is because of:
• Increased consumer awareness of the importance of honey bees and other pollinators in our food supply
• CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder)
• Emphasis on nutrition and knowing where your food comes from
• Back to nature movement – focus on environmental issues
• Desire to source “local…raw…unfiltered…unheated…unifloral” honey
What would I like to see the USDA and other government agencies do to encourage the ethical promotion of honey?
The USDA rating system – US Grade A, B or C focuses on Moisture Content, Absence of Defects, Flavor & Aroma, Clarity, and Color. Moisture is a key component – too much water content and that can lead to fermentation. Absence of defects – just say honey should not include “bee parts.” It is a term consumers can understand – just strain the honey properly and that will eliminate the vast majority of bee parts, wax and propolis. Why is Flavor and Aroma included in the grading system? Flavor and Aroma is a personal issue and is open to subjectivity yet this category is weighted very heavily in the aforementioned scale. Clarity or transparency is a topic for consumers to weigh in on. Should “air bubbles be a factor – if honey is poured it will have air bubbles…wait a few days and the bubbles should be gone…pollen grains – consumers want pollen in their honey. Why should pollen be part of the USDA grading system? Color – personal consumer preference…although there are exceptions (linden or basswood honey) most dark (amber) honey will have a stronger flavor. I am not sure that we need to categorize honey into: water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber and dark amber. If we reduce the categories to: White – Rose (new category) – Amber, the beekeepers who submit honey samples for state honey competitions would have an easier time entering their honey in the proper category on their entry forms but that is a story for another day.
The USDA rating system and FDA should consider developing a two-tier system. One set of rules for the “Big Boys” that either produce/import/sell large quantifies of honey e.g. over 10,000 pounds a year and a second tier for the hobbyist beekeeper who wants to grow her/his operation but does not have the financial resources to jump through all the hoops that the “Big Boys” need to perform.
The “Big Boys” need to stop labeling honey that is misleading. A company should not be allowed to state on their label – “…product of USA, Mexico, Argentina, Ukraine and Uruguay. Packed by T.W. Burleson & Son Inc, Waxahachie, Texas). This is a case where the Company Brand has become bigger than the supply of honey or a honey supplier simply does not want to spend the money to more accurately label their product.
The “Big Boys” should not be allowed to list Texas (fill in the State) Honey simply because it is packaged in the state of Texas (fill in the State).
The “Big Boys” should be forced to test each batch of honey for antibiotics.
Organic Honey…bees fly 1 to 3 miles or more to source nectar and pollen. Unless I put hives in the middle of a 1000 acre (or more) field that has been certified organic, how can I even think of calling the honey organic? Has the honey even been tested before this type of label is used? Read Max Goldberg’s article – The Mystery Behind Organic Honey and you will get a good idea of the lax regulations in the USA that govern labeling of honey products in the US. There are no “organic honey” rules; no approval process that makes any sense yet companies still market the products as Organic. Big Box stores do not check and Consumers happily buy anything marked “Organic.”
Pollen analysis is becoming more popular among beekeepers that sell honey. There is still a lot of work to be done in the field of pollen analysis since some plants produce a lot of honey but limited amounts of pollen.
Consumer Focused – Honey Labeling
• Specify by State (US) or Province (Canada) or Country – where the honey is sourced
• Create an easy to read label that tells the consumer what has been done to the honey. Honey needs to be strained to eliminate “bee parts, wax and propolis” but does not need to be filtered as this step removes pollen. If honey is crystallized it needs to be slowly heated at moderate temperatures to liquefy and bottle it. Set limits on the temperature so the pollen protein is not destroyed. If the term “Local” is used the county (US) where the honey was produced should be listed on the label.
• Contact information – name, address and e-mail address for the company selling the honey.
• If honey is blended with corn syrup it should not be allowed to be called honey.
• If flavorings such as orange, lemon etc are added the honey label should specify what ingredients have been added.
Maybe the Bud Light Super Bowl commercials had it right and we should focus the discussion on whether honey is “Tastes Great! Less Filling.” My vote will have a check mark on the “Tastes Great” section of the evaluation form! “Tastes Great – Local Honey” would be even better.
Tags: honey labels, USDA, local honey, filtered honey, ultra filtration, pure honey, raw honey, organic honey, kosher honey, pasteurized honey, federal standards for honey labels, adulterated honey, China honey, consumer education, USDA honey rating system, Grade A honey, Grade B honey, Grade C honey, honey moisture content, honey flavor, pollen; denatured pollen protein, antibiotics in honey, pollination, fruit tree pollination, vegetable pollination, pollinator, honey bee plants, pesticides and bees, CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, Organic Beekeeping, Alamo Area Beekeepers Association, Texas Master Naturalists, Native Plant Society of Texas, Honey I’ve Got The Bees, texmanbees
Anon. United States Standard of Identity for Honey. August 20, 2014 http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=AMS-FV-14-0025-0001
Anon. USDA Honey Grading. Honey Traveler http://www.honeytraveler.com/types-of-honey/grading-honey/
Goldberg M. The Mystery Behind Organic Honey. Living Well. February 22, 2011.
http://livingmaxwell.com/organic-honey-certified Living Well – Guide to Organic Food & Drink
Pilizota V, Tiban NN. Advances in Honey Adulteration Detection. Food Safety. August/September 2009. http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/augustseptember-2009/advances-in-honey-adulteration-detection/
Schneider A. Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey. Ultra-filtering Removes Pollen, Hides Honey Origins. Food Safety News. November 7, 2011 http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/#.VDLciYWxqP8
Don Fraser Pharm.D MBA SPHR, Vice-President, Alamo Area Beekeepers Association, 208 State Hwy 46 East, Boerne, TX 78006. texmanbees.wordpress.com (blog)
Don Fraser completed a BS Pharmacy (University of Manitoba), a Hospital Pharmacy Residency (Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto), a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD; University of Texas at Austin/University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, a Residency in Drug Information (University of Texas at Austin/University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio), M.B.A. in Marketing (Georgia State University in Atlanta). In addition, Don is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by the HR Certification Institute and the Society of Human Resource Professionals. He is a former Assistant/Associate Professor of Pharmacy at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and a founding Associate Editor of Pharmacotherapy with Russell Miller, PharmD. Ph.D.
• 7 plus years beekeeping experience
• Vice-President of the Alamo Area Beekeepers Association
• Developed the “Honey I’ve Got the Bees” course in 2010 and have taught the course to hundreds of adults and children in South Texas
• Texas Master Naturalists awarded 6 CE Credits for the Introductory “Honey I’ve Got The Bees” class in 2014.
• Beekeeping Blog – Honey I’ve Got The Bees texmanbees.wordpress.com