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4/24/2017 CaveatEmptor:LettheBuyerBeward|BeeCultureemptorletbuyerbeward/ 1/6
By:Vaughn Bryant,Texas A&M
There is very little truth in honey labeling.
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ttp://“Houston, we have a
problem!” Those were
words that echoed around
the world on April 13,
1970, whenJack Swigert,
pilot of Apollo 13 reported an
explosion on his spacecraft that
caused the loss of almost all of their
reserve power and oxygen.
Fortunately, the story had a happy
ending because the astronauts were able to solve their problems as the World
listened breathlessly to every hourly report of progress.
“Honey, we have a problem!” That statement may not be as earth-shaking but for us
in the United States we do have some serious problems with the purchase and sale
of honey. I know this because I have been analyzing honey samples for more than 40
years and I have been working on this problem for almost as long. The major
problem is the identication and labeling of honey sold in North America. The
federal laws that govern labeling honey are minimal and pertain only to the
denition of “raw and natural” honey as being a product to which you cannot add
anything else such as additional water or other ingredients including high fructose
corn or rice syrup. The laws do allow a person to “remove” unwanted materials such
as insect parts and other debris, including all of the pollen in honey. It is this last
point that has created the biggest problem in terms of identifying the geographical
origin and oral sources of a honey sample.
The January 16, 2017, issue of TIME MAGAZINE featured a story on health called
“The growing ght against food fraud,” which focused on the misidentication of
foods on US grocery shelves. Their testing showed that for some products what is
stated on the label is not what is actually in the box or jar! One of the food items
they discussed was honey. They noted their testing found Italian olive oil that was
neither from Italy nor from olives, cumin spices consisting of ground-peanut powder,
and “natural” honey that was laced with antibiotics. But this is just the tip of the
iceberg! So why doesn’t the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforce truth in
labeling? For the most part they argue that they are overworked and underfunded
and that their primary concerns are investigating serious, life-threating outbreaks of
bacteria and viruses that endanger people’s lives. Therefore, checking the accuracy
of food labels is not one of their high priorities. After all, an incorrectly labeled honey
sample probably isn’t going to kill you!
Incorrect labeling on a jar of honey might not kill you but should you pay a premium
price for sourwood or buckwheat honey, tupelo or orange blossom honey, or even
Manuka honey when what is in the jar is cheap junk and not the premium honey you
think you are buying? I know about this problem because we have done a number of
investigations to discover if labels on jars of honey match the contents.
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In 2011, Andrew Schneider (AKA, the Food Watchdog) and I teamed up to see just
how accurate honey labeling might be in grocery stores throughout the U.S. We
purchased more than 60 jars of honey on store shelves in 10 different states and
Washington, DC. We then conducted pollen testing of each sample to determine the
geographical origin and oral contents. We wanted to see if the actual contents
matched what was written on the labels. What we discovered is that 76% of all the
honey samples purchased in grocery stores had all the pollen removed from the
honey. All of the varieties of honey sold at Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS pharmacies
contained no pollen. All of the small packets labeled as “honey” that were sold or
used by Smucker, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken contained no pollen.
Seventy-one percent of the honey samples we purchased that claimed they were
organic and from Brazil, actually did match the labels; at least we could prove they
were from Brazil but we could not prove they were organic. In other tests we
purchased “local honey” from roadside stands and in local grocery stores and found
that the majority of those samples were not “local” but actually came from distant
locations, often from some place in the Great Plains of the Central United States. We
also purchased honey at health food stores and from whole food stores that
champion their organic and wholesome foods only to nd that they also were selling
mislabeled honey, which often surprised them.
In one food store in Texas I purchased honey from a large ve-gallon container
labeled, “pure Texas Huisache honey.” That is a premium honey that comes from a
native Texas bush called Acacia farnesiana. When I analyzed the sample I discovered
that it was not Huisache honey; instead, it was a blend of honey from several
different locations, one of which was Texas but there was no trace of Huisache in the
sample. When the store manager was confronted with that information he replied
that he didn’t realize the label was wrong because the person who sold him the
honey said it was Huisache. When I suggested he might want to change the label he
said he didn’t think so because, “after all, that is what his customers wanted:
Huisache honey!” He added that probably most of those buying the honey didn’t
care what it was anyway.
So, do consumers really care what they buy? Do they mind paying top dollar for
mislabeled products that enable the sellers to reap huge prots by selling cheap
alternatives instead? Unfortunately, many people who enjoy honey don’t seem to
care what they buy so long as it is cheap. They will buy the cheapest honey product
regardless of what it says on the label. However, there are others who are
concerned. Those customers expect to get what they pay for. If they buy sourwood
or some other premium honey and pay a premium price, they expect the honey to
match the label.
(, we
can’t turn to the Federal Government for any type of help with this problem.
According to federal laws, requested by the USDA and then passed by Congress, the
United States has the following rules and denitions for honey produced locally or
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imported, and sold in the United
States. This law is part of the FDA’s
United States Standards for Grades
of Extracted Honey that went into
effect on May 23, 1985. One part of
that law states: “Filtered honey is
honey of any type dened in these
standards that has been ltered to the extent that all or most of the ne particles,
pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have
been removed.” Therefore, it appears that the FDA does not have any problem with
allowing honey to be highly ltered to remove all particles, including pollen grains.
Although legal, removing all of the pollen does have consequences. For example,
there is no way to prevent commercial honey companies from buying, producing, or
selling highly ltered honey where all the pollen has been removed. Unfortunately,
by removing all the pollen some of the food value of the honey and the taste is
altered from the original, pure, raw honey that is taken from the hive. In addition,
this law makes it possible for any type of illegal honey to become part of “legal”
honey sold commercially in the United States. For example studies show that in
2014, an estimated 91,000,000+ pounds of illegal honey was imported and then sold
in the United States with the vast majority of it going undetected because it
contained no pollen that could be used to conrm it was illegal.
content/uploads/2017/04/3Bryant.png)Once all
pollen traces are removed from honey
produced in other countries, some of
which carry high tariffs when imported
into the U.S., and honey that has been
illegally transshipped to other countries
and then exported to the United States
cannot be identied through traditional
studies. Those illegal honey samples can
sometimes be identied as to their actual
oral and geographical sources though
the examination of DNA, isotopes, or the
protein contents found in honey.
However, those procedures cannot be tested on honey produced in many regions of
the world because we lack the needed reference databases to use for standard
comparisons. In addition those techniques are time-consuming, require special
equipment and trained personnel, and they are expensive to conduct.
If the federal government isn’t going to police truth in labeling for honey sold in the
U.S., then what can any other state legislature or agency do; unfortunately, not
much. California, Wisconsin, and Florida all passed state laws that prohibit the
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removal of pollen from honey and also imposed truth in labeling laws for honey.
However, none of those states could enforce their laws because the Federal
Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) states that no State or any political
subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority any
requirement for the labeling of food that is not identical to the requirement of such
section by the NLEA. In other words, since the NLEA enforces the guidelines for
foods that are established by the FDA, and since the FDA does not require truth in
labeling for honey, then no State or agency in the US can require that honey be
labeled accurately. California legislators, who were upset by the rulings against their
truth in labeling laws for honey sold in California, tried another tactic. The
legislature then passed a law saying that any honey, which has had all of its pollen
removed, must state that on the label of the jar. Unfortunately, California lost that
case as well because companies, such as Sioux Honey pointed out successfully that
there were no federal laws that would require such action.
After these court defeats the North Carolina Beekeepers decided to try a new
approach, which could not be enforced by legal authorities, but could be used to
convince consumers what honey products could be trusted to be authentic. North
Carolina honey producers pride themselves on producing excellent sourwood
honey, which will command a premium market price. Because of this, the NC
beekeepers began to nd that a number of suspicious honey samples were
appearing throughout the state and were being sold as sourwood, when in fact many
doubted they were authentic. The solution was to agree among themselves that
they would only sell authentic sourwood honey and also agreed that their sourwood
samples would be tested to prove they were indeed sourwood. Authentic sourwood
honey that had been tested could state that on the label with the hope that
consumers would learn to look for the seal before purchasing sourwood honey.
Beekeepers also purchased suspicious samples that were being sold and had them
tested. If proven not to be sourwood then those selling the non-sourwood honey
were asked to remove it for sale. How successful this program will become and
whether other beekeeping organizations might try similar techniques remains to be
seen. This type of testing can also be used to identify true “local honey” from non-
authentic honey claiming to be locally produced.
There are others who are also trying to change the way honey is being labeled
inaccurately. Lawyers in a Northeastern law rm have been engaged by
conscientious groups who are trying a new approach to ensure truth in labeling for
honey products. The law rm has selected several dozen commercial honey samples,
that are produced by well-known companies, that claim their labels accurately
reect the contents in their jars of honey. This law rm then has the honey samples
tested to determine the country of origin and the nectar contents in order to check
the statements on the product’s labels. When the contents of the honey products do
not match what is written on the label then those companies are sent a copy of the
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test results and asked to amend what is written on the labels of their honey
products. Whether or not this will change the way some companies label their honey
products remains to be seen, but the effort is certainly admirable.
We have identied the problem and recognize that there are no current legal
methods to ensure truth in labeling for honey products sold in the United States.
There is no penalty for those unscrupulous individuals or companies who seek to
earn high prots by selling products labeled as premium types of honey when in fact
the contents are common canola or clover honey. Federal laws prohibit the adding of
anything to honey that is labeled as being honey, but those same federal laws permit
the removal of all sorts of particles including all of the pollen.
We need to petition our senators and legislators asking them to pass new laws
regarding truth in labeling for many food products, including honey. Unfortunately,
to date those types of attempts by individuals and even attempts by the American
Beekeeping Federation have fallen on deaf ears. I have often said that the
unfortunate reality is that the FDA will probably do nothing about truth in labeling
until some type of tainted honey causes the death of individual consumers.
Vaughn Bryant is Professor and Director of the Palynology Lab at Texas A&M,
College Station, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to these pages.
... Methods for melissopalynology analysis have been investigated for an accurate determination of the botanical and geographic origins of honey (Louveaux et al. 1978;Moar 1985;Von Der Ohe et al. 2004). The International Honey Commission has set standards for processing, analyzing and establishing the origin of honey samples, mostly out of concern for the identification of honey adulteration (Louveaux et al. 1978;Jones & Bryant 1998b;Song et al. 2012;Bryant 2017). It has been reported that counting and identifying at least 200 pollen grains from one honey sample is statistically sufficient to record the dominant floral taxa present in that sample . ...
Full-text available
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) colony maintenance depends on foraging workers to obtain food resources from flowering plants year round. Because diverse floral diets have a positive impact on honey bee health, identifying the plants preferred by foragers provides valuable information to manage bee-friendly habitats. Recent studies have utilized palynology to better understand honey bee nectar foraging preferences. Futhermore, the International Honey Commission has established standards for analyzing honey samples. However, standards for studying the plant taxonomic composition of honey bee pollen pellets have not been established. The goal of this project was to determine the minimum number of pollen grains that need to be counted to obtain an accurate floral taxonomic representation in a pollen pellet sample. To do this, pollen samples were collected from pollen traps placed outside honey bee hives, and a pollen subsample foraged by each colony was acetolyzed and identified to the lowest taxonomic level possible. Cohorts of 100 pollen grains obtained from homogenized pollen samples from three different colonies were counted successively 5 times for a total count of 500 pollen grains per colony. This was repeated for each of the replicates from the three separate colonies. We found no statistically significant differences in the number or proportion of floral taxa found between the 200 and 500 pollen grain counts in two out of the three colonies sampled. Species diversity index analysis suggested that the higher number of floral taxa found in some 500-grain counts were attributed to a relatively low presence of minor pollen types. Thus, a 200 pollen grain count seems sufficient to assess the predominant, secondary and important minor plant taxa present in a pollen sample, while a 500-grain count may be needed to elucidate a more specific taxonomic assessment of additional minor taxa floral types to determine a sample's geographic origin.
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