Definition of Organic Honey
The term “organic” when applied to honey is the subject of continuing controversy in the U.S.
Did I say organic? Heck, forget organic – even the word honey itself is not yet defined in U.S. law, and any jar of honey can be adulterated with cheaper ingredients like corn syrup and still be labeled quite legally as “pure honey” – unbelievable but true. If it is found to contain an illegal substance, then it will be taken off the shelves, but that aside, there is no test for true honey – you could in theory sell a jar of colored sugar and water as honey.
OK, getting back to organic:
The organic label is widely abused by disreputable producers and importers, probably because producing honey to organic guidelines is complex and expensive, and as there is no legal definition for organic U.S. honey, why bother? There are various beekeeping association recommendations and guidelines (not laws) for organic honey production. These state amongst other things that land within a certain radius of the hive, say four miles (where the bees are likely to fly) has to have adequate organic sources of food and a low risk of the bees collecting contaminated nectar, say from crops sprayed with chemicals, or from freeway or urban pollution. This means of course that if a law came in along those lines, only a few U.S. producers in really remote areas would be able to produce organic honey. This may explain why there is no such law for U.S. honey:
U.S. Organic Honey
Honey is currently NOT included in the USDA’s National Organic Standard according to a recent policy statement by the USDA’s National Organic Program. This basically means that there is no legal definition of organic U.S. honey. However, the USDA does allow honey to be labeled “organic” provided its producer has had its honey certified as organic by one of the 120 or so USDA-accredited certified agents; typically this applies to honey imported into the U.S. The big problem is this – the policy states that a non-U.S. producer’s certifying agent must apply rules as strict as the U.S. rules – but there are NO U.S. rules specifically for honey, which is why it is some people argue it is easier to gain organic status for non-U.S. honey, some of which would not be considered organic by the average consumer.
Arthur Harvey of the International Association of Organic Inspectors, who is also a Maine beekeeper, stated in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper at the end of 2008 that “what the USDA has said is that you can certify any product as organic as long as you comply with existing regulation, but there are no regulations for honey. That means the green USDA organic sticker on honey is meaningless.” In fact, the USDA states that honey should never be labeled with the USDA organic logo at all. Instead it should carry the logo of the accredited agent that certified it as organic.
Jerry Hayes, chief of the beekeeping section of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, confirmed that there are no organic standards for honey produced in the United States, but in fact Florida is leading the way in ensuring honey quality. It already has 15 inspectors and a laboratory dedicated to this task, and is soon to pass a state law that will define exactly what a jar must contain if it is to be labeled as honey at all, let alone organic. It is hoped that this law will eventually be used as a template for a national law that will end all of the confusion.
Organic Honey in Europe
In Europe, the rules on organic honey are very clear, and the law in Europe is so strict that it is very difficult for beekeepers to comply with it. European rules state that within a radius of three kilometers from the apiary site, nectar and pollen sources must be essentially organic (not necessarily exclusively organic, but an inspector would have to be satisfied that the risk of contamination of the bees’ food by road pollution or industrial plant was small). This is only the tip of the iceberg and there are many more rules relating to the hive construction; hive management and honey processing too.
Unbelievably, the UK rules are tougher still. The Soil Association (authorized by the European Union to certify UK products as organic) applies stricter rules than the European ones, for example the bees’ nectar and pollen sources must be essentially either organic or wild/uncultivated within a four-mile radius compared to the EU’s three kilometers.
The result of the strict rules is that even the very best of UK and European honeys are unlikely to be labeled organic, even though they may actually be of far superior quality than so-called organic honeys from elsewhere in the world.
Organic Honey Buying Tips
What does this all mean for people looking to buy genuine organic honey? Well, you’re going to find a ton of organic honey on the shelves of any major supermarket, but because most likely all of it will be produced outside the U.S. and Europe, you really can’t be sure what the organic label means without doing a lot of digging around to check out the certifying body stated on the label. Oh, and if there is no certifying body stated on the label – forget it!
I cannot emphasize enough that you really need to be careful when you see honey imported from some parts of the world that is labeled organic. Sometimes honey is labeled organic totally wrongly, and deliberately so. Worse still, because of the lack of a legal definition in the U.S. for honey itself, let alone organic honey, unscrupulous producers and importers have been known to sell honey that has been diluted with a mix of sugar and water or corn syrup.
If you want a truly organic product, you need to do some research for yourself. Try to look for a producer who uses totally organic beekeeping methods – no chemicals or pesticides used in the beehives, for example. This information is often proudly proclaimed on the websites of the best producers. Also look for a producer who has all of the beehives in remote areas that are totally wild. This is, of course, a rarity. Also check out the agent that certified the honey as organic – see if you can find out what rules they apply and how rigorously they enforce them.
One final note – even what I would consider genuine organic honey can still be heated and processed, thereby no longer being raw honey and losing a most if not all of its nutrients. The type of consumer who looks for organic is in my opinion quite likely to want raw honey, so please check out my page on raw honey for vital information before buying.