Honey Adulteration and the Precarity of the U.S. Beekeeper

Honey, true honey, is the masterful work of bees using dehydration and knowledge of the flowers to transform, through complex interactions, nectar into a sweet, fragrant, complex, and mineral rich substance without compare. The attractions of honey are numerous. Honey is healthier than other sweeteners, a source of antioxidants, unprocessed, and sustains the viability of beekeepers and bees. Bees and beekeepers are critical to growing much of our food, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds.

But the honey we think we are consuming—whether from our local grocery store, online retailers, or in food products such as bread or dipping sauce—may not include much real honey at all.

Honey is a natural substance created when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered and stored in the honeycomb by honeybees.  Adulteration occurs when any substance other than pure honey is added, which compromises the chemical composition of honey.  Some common forms of adulteration include dilution with sugary syrups such as corn syrup; feeding bees sugar water during the times when they are gathering nectar; overheating; ultrafiltration to remove pollen and naturally occurring enzymes; and the extraction of honey before the bees have fully reduced the moisture. All of these processes create a product that is not honey. This alteration makes it harder for regulators and certifiers to communicate clear information to consumers about the product they are buying.

Chart from Ron Phipps’ article: Retail, Wholesale, Beekeeper and Imported Honey Prices

As the chart above shows, over the past five years, the wholesale price for honey in the U.S. has remained about $5.00 or more per pound with some dips in the market [Ron Phipps p. 2]. At the same time, the price paid to U.S. beekeepers has steadily declined. For example, Dakota beekeepers went from being paid $2.00 per pound in 2015 to $1.50 per pound in 2020 [Ibid]. During the same period, India and Vietnam honey import prices declined in the same time period from about $1.50 per pound to $0.75 per pound [Ibid]. The explanation for this paradox is adulteration. Or, as Ron Phipps puts it, this “means there have been high profits for a few and huge losses for beekeepers” [Ibid at p.1].

Hiatt’s goal is to get honey prices to a fair and sustainable level. For all of us that love real honey, and for the very viability of foods that need to be pollinated, we rely on beekeepers, who in turn require a fair value for their honey to stay in business. And for those U.S. beekeepers to harvest honey for U.S. markets, a more robust framework is needed to regulate the supply chain and certification of honey.

In a turn of the phrase “time is money,” American entomologist Bernd Heinrich says “To bees, time is honey” [Bernd Heinrich, Bumblebee Economics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004) at XXV]. A single honeybee can harvest up to 150 kilograms of nectar per year, and if a beekeeper maintains about 20 hives in one place—a common practice for commercial beekeepers—this is about 1 million bees in one area [Dave Goulson, A Sting in the Tale (London, UK: Penguin Random House, 2013) at 95]. So, to beekeepers too, time is honey, but beekeeping remains undermined by the money the U.S. market will pay.

Watch for future blog posts in this series on the law and policy of honey adulteration, including an examination of how honey is adulterated and the scope of honey fraud, an overview of the California lawsuit, and the many ways we can oppose honey fraud and encourage legitimate production of honey that makes the livelihoods of U.S. beekeepers viable and protects our ability to grow the food we like to eat.

This infographic can be printed for distribution.

*Terra Duchene is a graduating LL.M. student at UCLA (2021), and an Ontario licensed lawyer holding a law degree from Windsor Law where she held positions including Editor-in-Chief for the Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues, Senior Editor of the Canadian Bar Review, and co-organizer of two food law panels. Terra’s interest in food law is praxis oriented and she enjoys foraging and fermenting.

Victoria Russell is a rising third-year law student at the UCLA School of Law enrolled in the Critical Race Studies Program. She is a member of UCLA BLSA and recently participated in UCLA’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Victoria is passionate about civil rights and public service.

Candace Yamanishi is a rising third year law student at UCLA Law (2022). She currently serves as the Symposium Director for the Journal of Environmental Law & Policy and as a research assistant at the Resnick Center for Food Law & Policy. This summer Candace is working as a summer associate at a large firm in downtown Los Angeles. Candace plans to stay involved with food law issues through pro-bono and volunteer work post-graduation.

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