Organic Honey: What’s Behind The Label?

by Nicola Temple on April 27, 2012

Most of us who support organic farming practices are likely to reach for the certified organic honey label rather than the non-organic brand. But not so fast!  There are some things you should know about US certified organic honey before you buy.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to reveal some shocking conspiracy covered up by bee-reaucracy (sorry, couldn’t resist). For instance, overcrowded cramped living conditions…oh wait a second?! It’s OK they like it that way.

Kidding aside, it’s just that when it comes to honey and the organic standards in the US, things are still being sorted out.

As far as my research shows, there are currently no regulations adopted by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) for organic honey…yet. I add the yet, because it has been in the works for a while.

In October 2010, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) made a formal recommendation to the NOP for apiculture. As yet, these recommendations have not been approved by the NOP.

organic honey

Standards for organic honey have yet to be adopted by the National Organic Program. CC image courtesy of Gleb on Flickr.

But how come there are USDA certified organic labels on honey in the US?

First, many of the certified organic labels are on imported products. Honey imported from other countries must comply with both the US standards as well as the exporting country’s standards. Obviously, depending on the country where it’s coming from these standards may range in their degree of ‘strictness’. However, because the US doesn’t currently have adopted standards specifically for bees, they are considered livestock and must comply with the relevant regulations.

Second, some certifying agencies in the US will certify domestic honey if it meets the NOSB’s set of recommendations. These recommendations are quite rigorous and anyone with even the most basic understanding of bee biology would understand the challenges of compliance.

Highlights from the recommended standards for organic honey

Please visit the complete list of recommendations if you’re interested, but here are a few highlights to give you a sense of the situation for organic honey producers.

1)      The apiary must have been under continuous organic management for no less than a year prior to the removal of any honey from the hive.

2)      The producers must have an organic management plan in place that is in accordance with the provisions in the standards. This plan must include a map of the apiary showing the location of the hives, where they can potentially forage and distinction of organic and wild land, non-organic areas and human housing.

3)      The recommendations dictate what materials can be used to construct the hives. They must be made of non-synthetic material, including wood and metal and it can’t be treated with any prohibited substances including lead-based paints on the exterior.

4)      Honey producers can provide supplemental feed to their bees but it must be certified organic and they can’t provide organic sugar syrup less than 30 days prior to the honey harvest.

5)      The bees must be provided with organic feed and water. Well, as you can imagine, with a roaming radius of up to 2-3 miles from the hive, this can be a serious challenge! Essentially the potential foraging zone for the bees has to be certified organic. The recommendations do recognize that the bees may occasionally forage on non-organic land and so this won’t mean the certification label is revoked. However, the producer has to demonstrate as part of their organic management plan that there is minimal risk to the organic integrity of their product.

6)      Finally, there are a number of recommendations regarding the management of pests and disease that are in keeping with organic practices. The main divergence in terms of bees is that they recommend that folic acid and lactic acid be allowed as a pesticide control for varroa mites, but they be used only after the last honey harvest.

The foraging issue, as you can imagine, must be a nightmare for producers seeking the certified organic label and it is really all about location, location, location. The producer in this video has a pretty unique situation with hives placed in a very specific valley, but he talks a little more about the challenges of producing organic honey:

They discuss processing in the next one:

So, with this information in mind, you may still want to reach for that certified organic honey. After all, to be certified they have met the standards recommended by the National Organics Standards Board and it is always good to support organic agriculture. However, I will also say what I’ve said in many of my previous articles…local is still the best choice. I personally get far more satisfaction buying at a market from someone I know, where I know generally where the bees are foraging, than a big unknown on a supermarket shelf.

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