Standards and Definitions – Part I
You may never have heard of Bertha Cardona who, in January 2011 bought a jar of HoneyTree’s Market Pantry Honey, for around $3, from a Target store in Redlands, California.
She took good care of her purchase, it seems. Because, nine months after buying it, and reading an article on the Food Safety News website, she decided to take action. Or, more accurately, some friendly lawyers decided to attempt a class action on her behalf. It was one of several in California and Florida around that time, presumably prompted by the same article, that stated that “the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey“, and that most of the retail jars of honey they’d tested contained no pollen at all.
These cases seemed to have some merit. In both California and Florida, state law provides that “no pollen or constituent particular to honey may be removed except where unavoidable in the removal of foreign organic or inorganic matter“, and the honey they’d bought, in all probability, wouldn’t have contained any pollen at all.
Not everyone was happy about this, not least the honey packers, and attempts were made to put a lid on these challenges, all claiming that nobody wanted pollen in their honey in the first place. National Public Radio posted an article, the National Honey Board (NHB), a branch of the Agriculture Marketing Services (AMS) division of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), issued a press release titled “Honey Without Pollen is Still Honey” and honey packers joined in too, updating their websites in an attempt to reassure. Burleson’s, for example, reassured customers that it used “an industry-standard microfiltration system to remove suspended solids. (Honey in … and honey out!)“, and justified filtering as important as it “removes bee parts, wax and solids, including the majority of pollen that can hasten crystallization … the number one consumer complaint in regards to honey.“
When Bertha’s case came before the honorable George H King, however, the good judge threw it out. The reason was that federal law outranks state law, and federal law had no definition for honey. Which meant that labelling had to reflect the ‘common name’ of the product, which was ‘honey’, whether or not it had been filtered. Not labelling honey as ‘honey’, filtered or otherwise, would have been a breach of federal law for, unless it’s been adulterated by the addition of things, it must still be honey. And so he dismissed the case with prejudice, a pattern repeated in all similar cases.
This probably surprised the folk at Food Safety News, and seems to have surprised some consumers. Yet, if they’d done their research properly, they would have found that the USDA has a voluntary, but presumably legal, grading system for honey that’s been in force for many years and that requires ‘Grade A’ honey to contain only ‘a trace of pollen’. That looks very much like official, federal encouragement to filter the pollen out of honey.
Things might have been different. For In 2006, a number of producer and packer associations, worried by the threat of counterfeit honey, petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to adopt the definition of honey from the Codex Alimentarius, a set of international food standards, compiled by the World Health Organisation and the US Food and Agriculture Organisation, that are promoted as voluntary guidelines that nations can choose to adopt into national law. Where honey is concerned the Codex includes the recommendation that “No pollen or constituent particular to honey may be removed except where this is unavoidable in the removal of foreign inorganic or organic matter”, and so it was as well that the FDA did not adopt the Codex definition into federal law, what with pollen removal by filtration being a “commercial norm” in the words of the petitioners.
But in October 2011, five years later, the FDA formed a conclusion and denied the petition. In a letter to the producers’ legal representative, a Ms Kirsten C Gunter, Esquire, they concluded “that no standard of identity for honey was necessary“. They pointed out that according to “Webster’s New World College dictionary, honey is ‘a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs’“, and reckoned that was good for enough anyone. The risk of adulteration, they reckoned, could be solved by existing labelling regulations and inspection regimes.
While the FDA was deciding to leave things as they were, however, a scandal that Bloomberg called the “Largest Food Fraud in US History“, was emerging. A scam that ended with two major packers and assorted brokers being charged for avoiding $180m in import tariffs by disguising the origin of imported honey by, among other things, ultrafiltration. (I should point out at this point, that neither of the firms was prosecuted, choosing to cooperate and pay some modest fines instead.)
Rumours of this had been rife beforehand, however, and a few large US honey packers had reacted by setting up True Source Honey in 2010, a paper-based initiative that aims to certify honey that’s been legally and traceably sourced, and was free from adulteration. True Source, however, has as much to say about pollen as you’d think.
But that hasn’t stopped people worrying about ‘ultrafiltration’, even in the light of the National Honey Board’s explanation, which stated that ultrafiltration “involves adding water to honey and filtering it under high pressure at the molecular level, then removing the water. It is a much more involved and expensive process which results in a colorless sweetener product that is derived from honey but is not considered “honey” in the U.S.“.
Those worries might be justified. For although the NHB mightn’t consider ultrafiltered honey to be honey, the FDA, and Webster’s dictionary doesn’t seem to make the same distinction. Happily that, again, may change. Last year, as a result of the 2014 Agriculture Act, the USDA was charged with developing a Federal Identity for honey, launched a consultation, and are now, we presume, working out the details. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the packers consider pollen grains among the “defects”, whereas several other submissions, from retailers, beekeepers and the public, are keener to adopt the full Codex definition.
It’s easy, for those of us in Europe, to snigger at the squabble and laugh at how commercial interests mean that, in the land of the free, consumers know less about their food than we do. But sniggering might be premature. In the next thrilling installment, I’ll aim to show why that might be.