Standards and Definitions – Part II
Within the European Economic Community, the predecessor of today’s EU, the question of what honey was settled in 1974, when the various definitions (or lack of them) that existed in the nine member nations were harmonized.
The definition the EEC settled on ran as follows:
‘”honey” shall mean the foodstuff which is produced by the honey-bee from the nectar of blossoms or secretions of or on living parts of plants, and which the bees collect, transform, combine with specific substances of their own and store and leave to mature in honey combs. This foodstuff may be fluid, viscous or crystallized.’
In addition, the EEC laid down that honey should not have foreign tastes or odours, have begun to ferment or effervesce, have been heated to destroy or inactivate enzymes, have artificially altered acidity or contain any substances in such quantity as to endanger human health.
To ensure quality control was possible, technical limits were set on the levels of water, sucrose, invert sugar, insoluble solids, minerals, acidity, HMF and diastase activity. Individual nations could ignore the last two for a few years, but otherwise incompliant honey would have to be sold as Baker’s or Industrial honey.
Furthermore, they also ruled that ‘No product other than honey may be added to honey offered for sale as such’.
That would, you might have thought, have put the proverbial tin lid on the matter. And so, for several years, it did.
However, as the EEC expanded, it became clear that food labelling regulations weren’t up to scratch, and the European Commission proposed wholesale reform. Among these came, in 1995, a proposal for a directive on honey. Armies of bureaucrats duly slumped into action and, by 2001, their work was finished. As far as we are concerned, this resulted in the 1974 rules being repealed and replaced by Council Directive 2001/110/EC, which eventually landed in the UK as the 2003 Honey Regulations.
The main aim of all this was to ensure consistent labelling, and that claims about monofloral or geographical origins were accurate.
In addition, however, new compositional requirements were added. “Honey consists essentially of different sugars, predominantly fructose and glucose as well as other substances such as organic acids, enzymes and solid particles derived from honey collection. The colour of honey varies from nearly colourless to dark brown. The consistency can be fluid, viscous or partly to entirely crystallised. The flavour and aroma vary, but are derived from the plant origin.”
They also expanded the anti-adulteration clause, the final sentence of the 1974 definition, to become:
“When placed on the market as honey or used in any product intended for human consumption, honey shall not have added to it any food ingredient, including food additives, nor shall any other additions be made other than honey. Honey must, as far as possible, be free from organic or inorganic matters foreign to its composition. With the exception of [Baker’s honey], it must not have any foreign tastes or odours, have begun to ferment, have an artificially changed acidity or have been heated in such a way that the natural enzymes have been either destroyed or significantly inactivated.”
For the avoidance of doubt, and taking the 1981 Codex Alimentarius as a guide, they continued 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 added a new definition for ‘Filtered honey’, described as being ” Honey obtained by removing foreign inorganic or organic matter in such a way as to result in the significant removal of pollen.”
That, it would seem, would cover every possible eventuality. Or so it seemed. But as the bureaucrats were scribbling, genetically-modified crops were becoming a reality and the EU was being pushed to regulate these ‘novel foods’ in all their forms. That raised questions, not least about labelling.
When asked about GM in relation to honey in 1997, the European Commission wrote that they considered “honey unintentionally containing pollen transferred by bees from genetically modified crops does not constitute a novel food within the meaning of the Regulation. Therefore, the labelling provisions of the Regulation do not apply”
Not everyone agreed, however. Including, Karl Heinz Bablok, an amateur beekeeper who’d set up an apiary near the Bavarian State Agricultural Research Centre, where GM crops were being trialled. Being a suspicious sort, he had the pollen he was selling, and his honey, tested. He found both contained GM pollen and, having done so, reckoned it made his crop unsaleable, so he sued the State of Bavaria for compensation.
If he wanted a quick fight, he was disappointed. For the case, started in 2005, rumbled on like treacle until 2011 when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) was effectively asked to rule whether the EC’s previous answer was correct. In other words, was the pollen unsaleable, and did the presence of GM pollen mean the honey was a GM product, and thus need labelling as such?
The ECJ took a while, but eventually came back with two answers. First, as the pollen itself had, they reckoned, no reproductive viability on its own, so didn’t count as a GM organism. Technically, that meant he could sell it, but would need to label it if more than 0.9% of it came from GMOs. Secondly, and crucially, they ruled that the same applied to honey, where pollen should be treated as an ingredient, and thus if any more than 0.9% of the pollen within the honey was GMO-derived, it would also have to be appropriately labelled.
This might have helped Herr Bablok with his case in Bavaria, and it mightily pleased of anti-GM activists. But it didn’t please everyone. Honey packers and importers, for example, realised they’d have to start testing honey and pollen to check the proportion of GM – a tricky and expensive business at best. And if they found enough GM pollen, they’d have had to say so on the labels, which wouldn’t helped sales. Even worse, if the GM pollen came from varieties not authorised in the EU, they mightn’t be able to sell it at all. That prospect terrified the blenders, who rely on a broad range of honeys, from a variety of sources to achieve a consistent flavour. So, like all responsible industries, they went wailing to their MEPs and, by May 2014 had got some amendments made to the directive that, among a few other tweaks, added this:
“Pollen, being a natural constituent particular to honey, shall not be considered to be an ingredient”.
And so, thanks to the curiosity of Mr Bablok, the susceptibility of MEPs, London beekeepers need worry no longer. You might think we had no reason to worry, in any case. There aren’t many agricultural research stations in London, and there’s a ban on growing GM crops elsewhere in the UK. Crops for biodiesel and ornamental plants, are a slightly different matter, but the UK has a fairly comprehensive ban on growing both, for the moment. Although GM foods can be sold in the UK, they’re unlikely to get into honey, and the only ornamental permitted is a type of carnation that, at present, can only be sold as an imported cut flower. So, for the moment, our labels can stay as they are.
The contrast between the US and the EU is interesting. In theory, because the rules are more detailed, EU residents should know more about what’s in our food than US citizens. But it’s not as clear-cut as it looks, and there are some grey areas, not only over GMOs. Flavoured products, such as “Honey with a hint of cinnamon”, seem to be very popular at present, but looking through the Honey Regulations, and the EU laws they rely on, it’s not at all clear if they’re correctly labelled. Flavoured whiskies, for example, such as Diageo’s temptingly-titled “Urban Honey Spirit Drink”, cannot be called whisky, and I don’t quite see how a honey that obviously contains a ‘food ingredient’ counts.