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Hidden honey: A standard for what’s in the jar may be on the way

on February 4, 2015

Jars of honey line the walls of the Bee Healthy Honey Shop, in Oakland, California. The shelves are shaped like honeycombs and the sweet scent of nectar is overwhelming. Honey from Ethiopia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Yemen and Hawaii, as well as local varieties, are sold here, along with honey cosmetics, beeswax candles, and various beekeeping paraphernalia. Pictures of bees and a bright yellow sign welcome customers to the shop with the tagline “Save the Bees, Save Nature.”

Founder and owner Khaled Almaghafi, originally from Yemen, oversees about 250 hives throughout the Bay Area, in Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, Orinda and Santa Clara. Almaghafi is just one of an estimated 125,000 beekeepers in the United States. Demand for honey in the U.S. has been growing over the past fifteen years while honey production has declined. To meet a growing need for the sweet stuff, imports have increased sixty percent since 2000 and the price of honey has nearly tripled. Today about two-thirds of the honey in the U.S. is imported, causing some undesirable consequences, including the use, in some cases, of additives by producers and processors.

After many years of prompting by the honey industry, the FDA is in the process of deciding if there should be a federal standard for honey to guarantee the gooey stuff is in fact honey and that consumers know where it comes from. While large honey companies welcome nationwide criteria and it could protect consumers, these standards could also make it more difficult for producers like Almaghafi to sell on a smaller scale.

Different kinds of honey are offered at Bee Healthy Honey shop in Oakland

Different kinds of honey are offered at Bee Healthy Honey shop in Oakland

The story of honey in the U.S. begins with honeybees. Nationwide, the bee population has been declining since the late 1940s. The number of managed U.S. honeybee colonies shrank from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million today. Gene Brandi, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, a national organization working on behalf of beekeepers and the beekeeping industry, attributes the declining bee population to a combination of factors: the California drought, pesticides, varroa mites and a “lack of good bee forage,” essentially, the flowers that provide bees pollen. As he explains, the Midwestern monoculture of corn and soybeans has left the bees without much nectar.

In an effort to stretch their supply, some of the larger honey packers have been knowingly purchasing mislabeled and potentially altered honey to sell it cheaper than companies that test their honey for quality. Some honey from China has been found to contain illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. Studies have found pesticides and high fructose corn syrup in honey as well. Global producers may also be mixing honey from several countries, meaning that what is marketed as honey from one country could, in fact, be from somewhere else. And some producers say there needs to be better labeling for honey’s moisture content. With a standard moisture content of less than 23 percent, honey will not ferment; however, with higher moisture content it could go bad.

Bee Healthy Honey sells local honey as well as honey from around the world

Bee Healthy Honey sells local honey as well as honey from around the world

Last April, the Food and Drug Administration came out with voluntary labeling standards. The 2014 Farm Bill charged the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, with submitting a report to the FDA to decide if it would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry, and U.S. agriculture. The public had until October 19, 2014 to submit comments.

Though Almaghafi did not submit a public comment, he believes it could be a good idea, at least to promote American honey. Honey is a big business. The U.S. consumes over 400 million pounds of honey per year and bees are integral to the agriculture industry. Honeybee pollination adds over $15 billion in value to agricultural products each year in the United States.

To protect consumers as well as producers, the National Honey Board, an industry-funded group focused on educating consumers about the benefits and uses of honey, approached the FDA to establish a honey standard in 2002. Brandi, who served as chairman, recalls FDA officials saying it was not a priority. Four years later, honey groups petitioned the FDA and that same year, in 2006, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture sent a letter to the FDA urging standards for honey. The letter argued that honey with added ingredients should be labeled. After several years, the FDA denied the petition, saying that no standard for honey was necessary.

Since then, many states, including California, have established their own honey standards. While some industry standards are accepted, Brandi said, “There is not a legal definition for honey.” Brandi believes it would be a “simple thing to do, and it would benefit consumers.” The international Codex honey standards, used by the World Trade Organization, state that honey should not have any added ingredients and it should have a moisture content that does not go beyond 23 percent.

Some producers believe new federal standards will ensure foreign competitors will not undercut them, while others worry about cheap products flooding the market. According to Southern California beekeeper Susan Rudnick, there is not nearly enough regulatory oversight. “Our country needs a strict, rigorous, and testing-backed definition of standards for honey,” she said.

Michael Bush, who is considered a “sideliner” in beekeeper jargon, because his operation is not big enough to be commercial, believes a federal standard could be beneficial, depending on how it is implemented. Author of “The Practical Beekeeper, Beekeeping Naturally,” Bush said the current lack of standards mean he could sell “a jar of water” and pass it off as honey. Bush has 200 hives in Nebraska. “We already have a bit of a dilemma as it is,” he said, because with varying state standards, larger operations must abide by individual state laws. Without a federal standard, it can be difficult for beekeepers to obey the laws in all states.

With decreasing U.S. production and rising demand, the honey industry has been faced with “honey laundering” from countries trying to sell their products on the American market. Since 2000, domestic honey production continued to decline while imports climbed. In 2001, in order to stop Chinese honey from overwhelming the U.S. market, the Federal Trade Commission imposed import tariffs, but Chinese honey importers began shipping honey through other countries. A 2011 analysis discovered over three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores contains no traces of pollen. Pollen, which is used to tell where honey comes from, is taken out in ultra-filtered honey. In other words, extreme filtration can be used to disguise the honey’s country of origin. Experts believe much of the honey entering the country goes through this process and may be from countries such as China.

Though many beekeepers believe a nationwide standard would be a good idea, if certification and testing are too rigorous or demanding, it could be problematic for small-scale honey producers. A federal standard could “make or break the little guy who has two hives in his backyard and wants to sell a few pounds of honey,” Bush said.

Now that the public comment period has ended, a report will be given to the FDA, and the commissioner of the FDA will make a decision. Whether or not there is a federal standard, Almaghafi will continue to sell honey and work with bees. As for how to ensure honey is pure, Hael Almaghafi, Khaled’s cousin, who also works at the shop said the best way to buy honey is locally or from a farmer’s market. That way, you know who is selling it, he said, because beekeepers “care about what they’re doing.”

Lead graphic by Jeremy Lin.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated the USDA would make a recommendation on the honey standard when in fact the FDA is responsible for deciding on a honey standard.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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