Class-action suit demands adherence to ‘honey honesty’ standards

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April 24, 2012 – April 24, 2012 – While Vermont is known for being super-strict about what can be called “maple syrup,” Florida, along with a handful of other states, is equally demanding in regard to another popular natural sweetening agent.

The Sunshine State, Maryland and Wisconsin are among the states that now have honey “standards,” or laws about what can and can’t be called “honey.” And violating these standards can get you in a sticky legal mess.

In Florida, recent class-action lawsuits have been filed against some big retailers, including Target and Walgreen’s for allegedly selling honey without so much as a trace of pollen.

The Florida standard specifies that “you cannot remove pollen except what is unavoidable in removing debris,” claims J. Andrew Meyer, an attorney involved with the current litigation, “If you filter (honey) to such an extent that you take all the pollen out, that’s not unavoidable, and if you sell that as honey, you’re in violation of the Florida honey standards.”

The processing of honey via “ultra-filtration,” a method of heating and filtering that removes all pollen, was first publicized last year by Food Safety News after it had tests performed on honey being sold in ten states at numerous retail outlets. What they found was that more than three-fourths of honey sold in the U.S. was so highly processed as to be totally devoid of pollen.

“I’m not saying whether pollen has any specific health benefits or not, That’s not the thrust of the lawsuit — we’re not putting pollen on trial,” Meyer maintains.“The important thing is that pollen is needed to identify the source of the honey; that’s one of its major benefits. Without pollen it’s very easy for Chinese honey to make it into the market.”

Pollen is a honey’s documentation or fingerprint, the only way to tell where it came from. And Chinese honey, which is cheap, often contaminated with drugs or pesticides or cut with low cost sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, was hit with a big import tariff in 2001 in an attempt to keep it from flooding the U.S. market. According to Food Safety News, to circumvent the ‘dumping’ tariff, Chinese honey is often shipped to other countries with altered documents and switched shipping drums and passed off as coming from a tariff-free origin. Without pollen, its origin would be impossible to trace.

FDA tells beekeepers: ‘buzz off’

In 2006 a citizen petition was filed with the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the American Beekeeping Federation and four other honey groups calling for a federal honey standard that would, among other things, set the pollen issue straight once and for all.

“The petition sat there and it sat there and it sat there because the FDA said they didn’t have any time to get to it,” said Mark Jensen, President of the American Honey Producers Association. “Around 2011 the FDA returned it to us and said, ‘sorry, we’re not going to take care of this,’ so as far as a federal standard goes it’s kind of in limbo right now,” Jensen added.

“There’s been a lot of effort in the past with the FDA,” said attorney Meyer, “but there’s no federal standard. Florida was the first state with a honey standard.”

“The important thing for consumers is they know what they are getting,” Meyer added. “If you see imitation cheese, it’s labeled as such. If honey has been altered, then consumers need to be educated so they can make a choice.”

And how to make that choice if you don’t live in a state that demands ‘honey honesty’? Meyer suggests buying from a farmers market or local supplier, rather then from a retail chain. “That’s the best way to know you’re getting the real deal,” he says.

Not to mention the best way to keep local beekeepers in business.