America and Honey Regulation

honey_jarNot realizing that the FDA doesn’t have a strict honey regulation policy, most American consumers think nothing of grabbing their favorite brand off the shelves and tossing it in the cart. However, due to lack of regulation, that “honey bear” we all love could be filled with imported honey that is contaminated with antibiotics or heavy metals. Yum.

Many countries have honey standards that measure the composition of the honey, type (blossom or honeydew), and analyze the pollen. The European Union, France, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Canada, England, and Spain, for example, all have some form of honey regulation. These countries have also forbidden the import of Chinese honey for two reasons: it’s cheap and typically full of contaminants. These regulations are designed to protect citizens as well as stop the exceedingly low prices from disturbing the market and putting local apiaries out of business. So why is the United States the odd man out?

First we must look at a “Food Code” known as The Codex Alimentarius (enacted in 1963). It was started by the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) with the purpose of developing consistent international food standards to “protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.” After the Codex’s creation, a working definition was made for honey.

Fast forward to March 2006. The U.S. is experiencing a major honey supply shortage and so tons of unadulturated foreign honey hits the market. Because there are no regulations in place to protect against this, the American Beekeeping Federation and a few other associations turned in a citizen petition requesting that the FDA adopt a U.S. standard of identity for honey similar to what was enacted by the Codex. The petitioners gave three reasons for this request: to clarify what the term “honey” means and promote honesty in labeling of the product, to fight debasement of honey by aiding enforcement and industry compliance, and to promote honesty and fair dealing within the food trade. It failed.

Five years later in 2011 the petition was denied again because it “did not provide reasonable grounds” for the petitioners’ rationale. They also added that the goals in the petition could “be achieved by our existing authorities and a standard of identity for honey would not promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers.” This is a simple ruling for a very complex situation, and so blame lies on all sides of the fence. And while the U.S. does enforce country-of-origin labeling on honey products, many feel that the disservice to consumers lies elsewhere. Efforts for regulatory reform are ongoing, but any significant change seems far off.

Because of the failure to get national regulation, many have turned to state measures. At this point, several states have created standards and many more are in the process. These standards seem to be all different, and have experienced various amounts of success. What is honey? What’s the difference between pure honey and raw honey? These are the questions they have to tackle before a working regulation will shore up the cracks through which contaminated sources get into our stores.

In the meantime, mindful consumers do have one great option: source local. Though all of the terms are still largely misrepresented in this area as well, it’s a lot easier to do your homework on the producer to make sure that what you’re sticking in your mouth is what you think it is.

By Liz Sterling