A huge disconnect exists between beekeepers and consumers in the United States - and it hurts both.
American beekeepers are positioned to help meet U.S. consumer demand for locally-produced, healthy food, but are finding it hard to compete with the lower prices of inferior quality and often mislabeled foreign-produced honey.
Spokesmen for U.S. beekeeping organizations say honey sold on grocery store shelves may be labeled “US grade A” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it often is a mixture of honey from several foreign countries. Often, it has been fraudulently adulterated with corn syrup or other cheaper ingredients.
Sweetwater Science Labs, an independent testing lab in Missouri, recently told the BBC that roughly 35-40% of consumer-instigated honey testing it conducted over the past 18 months was either adulterated, of false origin, or of poor quality because it had been overly processed, such as being overheated.
The publication, Food Safety News, reported that more than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce.
The testing showed that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of grocery store products labeled “honey.” The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar fail quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies.
The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
The late Dr. John T. Ambrose, N.C. Cooperative Extension Service beekeeping specialist (state apiculturist) from 1975 to 2000 and professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, prepared uniform standards for honey in 2010.
The N.C. State Beekeepers Association approved the standards and began negotiations with the N.C. Department of Agriculture (NCDA) for incorporating them into rules and procedures that govern food safety. The standards still haven’t been adopted into food safety rules.
The standards say that to be sold as honey, a product must be made by bees from plant nectar and contain no additives or adulteration. They also require that the country of origin be identified.
If the honey is marketed as being from a specific floral source, such as sourwood, the honey must contain at least 51% nectar (from pollen coefficient analysis) from that source.
The N.C. State Beekeepers Association approved and uses the standards but hasn’t been able to get state government to incorporate them with rules and procedures governing food safety.
Beekeepers can pay to have samples of their honey analyzed by the Palynology (study of spores, pollen, and nectar) Laboratory at Texas A&M. Some beekeepers believe this type of analysis is the basis needed to advocate for uniform honey standards and truth in labeling on containers of honey.
In particular, it could help western North Carolina beekeepers build consumer confidence and leverage the quality and popularity of sourwood honey so they could be compensated accordingly.
Sourwood honey produced in the Blue Ridge Mountains and foothills of North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia has long been recognized as one of the world’s best varieties of honey. Wilkes County is in the heart of this region.
More should be done to market honey produced in North Carolina, especially sourwood. In support of this, the NCDA should adopt the standards already approved by the N.C. State Beekeepers Association and steps should be taken to help beekeepers get honey analyzed.
Meanwhile, consumers can take advantage of opportunities to purchase locally produced honey at farmers markets and other local retail outlets.