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December 03, 2016
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Honey without pollen?; Push for a national standard

A honey bee collects pollen from an Echinacea flower.
TRR photos by Fritz Mayer

REGION — Bees make honey from nectar and pollen; therefore one might think that honey would contain quite a bit of pollen. But, in fact, up to 75% of honey sold in grocery stores contains no pollen. The issue is spelled out in an article published in Food Safety News in November 2011, which tested 60 many brands of honey (www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey).

Of the lack of pollen, the article said, “The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies.” Many beekeepers in this U.S. are pushing for a standard that would require that products sold as honey must contain pollen, but some of the big packers are opposed, and it’s not clear when or if there will ever be a national standard.

The current push can be tracked back to the 1990s, when according to documents on www.rochesterhoney.com, U.S. courts ruled that China was illegally “dumping” cheap honey in the U.S. and a 215% tariff was imposed on Chinese honey. But most of the honey that comes from China and other overseas countries is heated and “ultra-filtered,” which not only removes the pollen from the honey, but also makes it nearly impossible to determine the origin.

In any case, cheap honey, sometimes adulterated with substances like corn syrup and sometimes containing antibiotics, which is illegal in the U.S., continued to flood the U.S. market. In 2006, various honey organizations petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to come up with a national standard and definition of honey.

Year after year, officials at the FDA stalled, and finally in 2011 said they were not going to create a national standard for honey. In the meantime, some states started to move on their own. First Florida, then California and North Carolina adopted their own honey standards, which said, among other things, that honey had to have pollen.

At least one industry source said those laws could not be passed today, because of opposition by some of the major honey packers in the U.S. The large packers are able to buy honey from China, pay the 215% tariff and still make a profit. Some are also in favor of ultra-purification because it extends the shelf life of the honey and it also renders the honey “crystal clear,” which is reportedly what the honey-buying public wants.

Sullivan County producer Jim Kile said heating the honey up as high as the overseas processor do, as high as 160 degrees, ruins the quality and taste and then, “you don’t have honey anymore, you have heated goo.”

Recently, there have been several cases of major companies admitting to trying to avoid paying the high tariff on Chinese honey and have settled with authorities. In February, for instance, the U.S. Justice Department announced that two packers, Honey Holding of Texas, and Groeb Farms of Michigan, two of the nation’s largest honey suppliers, were charged with avoiding $180 million in tariff payments. Honey Holding agreed to pay a $1 million fine, and Groeb agreed to pay $2 million.

Meanwhile, the push to adopt honey standards in other states such as New York and Pennsylvania has stalled. Some of the more influential packers were successful in getting a provision inserted into the 2012 Farm Bill that would have compelled the U.S. Department of Agriculture to force the FDA to adopt a national standard. The Farm Bill was not passed in 2012, and if it is passed at some point in the future, it is not clear what the position of the FDA will be regarding the question of pollen in honey.

Some of the large packers are siding with a definition of honey that does not include pollen, and in which honey that does contain pollen would be the exception rather than the rule.

Many producers would prefer that honey without pollen should not be considered honey at all, but some other product. Pat Bono, second vice president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association, said, “honey has pollen.”

A beekeeper named Nancy Gentry wrote a letter in the American Bee Journal that said, “The mantra of the FDR years, ‘The government is your friend; the government will protect you’ is no more. We live in a global economy where neither the federal nor state governments will ever again, or at least not for a long time, be able to protect their citizenry from those who put our food supply at risk or sell our consumers deceptive products, or in the case of honey, adulterated junk.”