One would think that the definition of “organic” would be fairly straight forward. Think of family farms from the turn of the last century. For the most part, they used sustainable farming techniques that worked from generation to generation. Crops were the result of natural fertilizers, crop rotation, no synthetic, or harmful pesticides or herbicides. Livestock and animal products such as milk were produced without synthetic medicines, chemicals or hormones; fed organically produced plant-based food; no additives; and perhaps even consideration of animal welfare, or humane treatment.
How do these methods apply to bees and honey?
Organic standards as they apply to honey production
The European Union has been a major contributor to these guidelines and other countries such as New Zealand have followed suit.
- Hives must be placed near clean water, organic crops or natural, synthetic chemical-free vegetation and away from non-organic plants and polluted areas (industrial, urban areas etc).
- No additives (sugar, corn syrup, sweeteners, non-compliant honey etc.).
- No chemical residues (synthetic pesticides or other materials such as cleaning products or repellents, antibiotics or synthetic medicine, etc.), hives must be made of natural materials and if painted, using non-toxic paint.
- To be labeled, ‘raw’, honey cannot be heated above 110 degrees F (such as during extraction). This destroys beneficial enzymes that are an intrinsic component of honey. Heating also degrades the flavor.
- If starvation is imminent, bees must be fed organic supplements (honey, sugar, fruit concentrate etc).
The United States has no such guidelines for the organic production of honey, but use general organic farming certification for honey labeling purposes. Why no explicit organic guidelines? One reason is it is practically impossible to regulate without testing all honey for residue. Since bees can fly up to 3 miles in search for nectar, it is difficult to be sure they do not feed on contaminated nectar from crop spraying or industrial sources. In practice this is only possible in natural parks and remote wilderness areas, or tightly controlled farmland with no synthetic or harmful chemicals of any sort in very large geographic areas… difficult to find in the United States and many industrialized countries. Nevertheless, this testing is done in other countries by measuring for specific chemicals and enforcing maximum residue levels. Ironically, harmful pesticides seldom find their way into honey since the bee never makes it back to the hive with contaminated nectar. Millions of bees are killed every year through the indiscriminate use (and proscribed use!) of pesticides. In fact, many pesticides have been outlawed because of their disastrous effect on bees. Many normally-used pesticides are toxic to bees and some have been linked to honey bee colony collapse disorder. Some have been banned or restricted in many countries including the United States.
Legally, to label honey “organic” the beekeeper must meet the organic standards recognized by the government and then be certified by a government or government sanctioned certification agent. Surprisingly, in the United States, the USDA 100% Organic seal is no guarantee. The truth is, there are few federal standards for honey, no government certification and no consequences for making false claims. From the USDA Rules and Regulations, “…honey does not require official inspection in order to carry official USDA grade marks and since there are no existing programs that require the official inspection and certification of honey,…”
Note that in order to support and encourage small beekeepers, USDA procedures allow a honey producer to label their honey (or other products) as organic without the certification process if they sell less than $5,000/year, but follows the USDA organic guidelines, such as those selling at small farmers’ markets. They still must be truthful in their label claims and comply with the new government standards.
So ultimately we must trust the honey producer, whether large operations and ‘certified’ with products on supermarket shelves, or small beekeepers selling products from a doorstep or farmer’s markets. For those so inclined, the best method for determining the quality of honey is to get to know your local producer and ask about their process and honey, or read their website. Many beekeepers are starting to post up-to-date information about their honey. Let them know your concerns and vote with your pocket book. Best of all, when you buy directly from the farmer you are supporting family farms. It is an ideal way to appreciate fresh, truly unique, delicious honey.
Alternatives to Certified Organic Honey
Many bee farmers follow organic guidelines but may not be government certified. For many smaller bee farmers, government certification is a time-consuming and expensive process that in and of itself does not improve the quality of the product. Reporting and paperwork can become substantial relative to the ongoing time and effort to simply run the apiary. Still valuing organically produced food, farmers work together to follow standards and inspect, train and mentor their peers to produce fresh, local honey, and part of the fresh, local appeal comes from the known, honest reputation of the bee keeper. Alternative certification programs exist for the smaller organic beekeeper/farmer who want to preserve high organic standards and remove financial barriers that tend to exclude smaller farms that are selling locally and directly to their customers. See below for alternative certification programs.
Example Organic Honey Standards (From Quality Assurance International)
Organic Honey Standards by Country:
There are no specific standards for organic honey, but there are standards for farming (which are helpful but don’t guarantee anything about honey produced there):
- USDA Organic Labeling and Marketing Information
- USDA Organic Certification: Required by farms wishing to label food, “Organic”
- USDA Organic Production and Handling Standards
- COMMISSION REGULATION (EC) No 889/2008 (pdf – 11MB)
Beehives must be placed within land that is essentially only organic crops or uncultivated areas for a 4 mile radius. These strict guidelines mean that is almost impossible for any UK producer to be certified as organic.
- Compendium_of_UK_Organic_Standards (pdf) (See Annex 1, page 52)
Alternative Certification Programs
Certified Naturally Grown - USA (www.naturallygrown.org)
Inspections are carried out by peer beekeepers. At least one should be someone in the local network. It’s up to each participating beekeeper to identify who will conduct the inspection (ideally an experienced beekeeper with a commitment to natural practices) and to agree on a date and time for the inspection to take place. At least two inspectors per season must visit the apiary.
- Certified Naturally Grown Apiary Certification Standards
Wholesome Food Association – UK (www.wholesome-food.org.uk)
Each year, at the start of the season, all affiliates wishing to use the WFA symbol must complete a signed pledge detailing their production methods, having checked that they comply with WFA principles.
This pledge must be made available for inspection by customers, retailers and distributors. Producers selling at farmers’ markets or farm gate should keep a copy of their pledge and the principles available to show their customers.
- WFA Honey Producer’s Pledge