Further Solutions to the Honey Fraud Problem

This is the fourth of four posts by students in the UCLA Law Food Law and Policy Clinic on honey adulteration, honey litigation, and potential policy solutions to the problem of honey fraud.

By Terra Duchene, Aris Prince, Victoria Russell, Candace Yamanishi*

This post outlines the actors who can make a significant impact to the honey fraud problem and suggests potential starting points for solutions.

Beekeepers like Chris Hiatt are desperate for a solution. Honey adulteration is a threat to the survival of U.S. bees and beekeepers, which in turn, is a threat to food growing in the U.S., since 1/3 of the food grown in the U.S. depends directly or indirectly on bees. Just as the bee is endangered, so too is the U.S. beekeeper. The livelihood of essential beekeepers, the well-being and survival of honeybees, and, ultimately, the success of crops that are essential to our agricultural system, are being severely endangered by the relatively unknown but extremely large-scale adulteration of honey. Ultimately, putting a stop to honey fraud is vital to our environment and those who dedicate their lives to cultivating it. We must end honey adulteration in all its forms. 

The honey supply chain is immensely complicated, leaving consumers to shoulder the burden of distinguishing real honey from adulterated honey. This burden inevitably harms honest beekeepers who cannot compete with adulterated honey’s low prices.   

To hold the honey importers, packers, and testers who help facilitate honey fraud accountable, retailers must care about the origin, the quality, and the purity of the honey they put on their shelves. Retailers like Costco, Walmart, Kroger, and others hold the power to decide what products they sell, market, and display; they have the power to curtail the honey adulteration problem. These retailers have the ability and responsibility to aid in controlling the honey adulteration problem by putting pressure on entities from which they are purchasing honey. According to U.S. beekeepers, large retailers like Costco and Kroger are known to blend U.S. honey with cheap foreign honey. Because retailers are the ones marketing the authenticity of honey products, it is absolutely essential that the retailers demand that the honey they purchase be unadulterated.  

Furthermore, industrial food producers share responsibility for ending honey fraud. It is crucial that these producers demand and ensure that the honey they are using to make cereal, granola bars, bread, and other products is real. Because honey in these products is mostly used for flavoring and is generally not sold exclusively as a honey product, the adulteration more easily goes unnoticed by the food producers and the consumers. Honey fraudsters are aware of this chink in the armor and are capitalizing on it.  

General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios is one of the most popular cereals in the U.S. and rakes in millions of dollars in profits each year. The UCLA Food Law & Policy Clinic (“The Clinic”) asked General Mills where it purchased the honey it processes and whether it conducts tests to detect adulteration. General Mills responded with a vague response, “[w]e have strong internal requirements and programs to ensure that all imported ingredients and products are obtained from safe and reliable sources.” The company touted their compliance with country-of-origin labeling requirements but failed to answer any of the Clinic’s questions directly. 

The Clinic also contacted Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, and asked the simple question of where they purchase honey and whether they have it tested. Like General Mills, Unilever punted on the question and responded with a vague and empty answer to the Clinic’s questions: “[n]atural flavorings and spices are used to enhance the flavor of our products and help make them delicious and unique, so we don’t share for competitive reasons. Rest assured, Unilever places the highest priority on the safety of our products and consumers.” 

These responses demonstrate the industries’ complete lack of concern when it comes to honey adulteration. The industries’ indifference in having adulterated honey in their products is ripe opportunity for the honey fraudsters who are utilizing these billion-dollar industries to advance their fraudulent activity. This cannot be tolerated. Industrial food producers must stop playing their part in honey fraud.  

Consumers are not powerless in this situation but can play a powerful role in solving the honey fraud problem. Buying local honey from a honey farmer, educating oneself with the origins of different honey, and knowing which companies are engaged in truthful and honest honey production who can vouch for the honey source and processing methods are some ways that consumers can help the honey fraud problem. Consumers must educate themselves about the products they purchase; they must be aware of how their decisions affect the food system. When consumers choose to purchase adulterated honey, they are incentivizing the honey fraudsters. Consumers should not take labels at face value; they can understand the misrepresentations being made. Companies like General Mills and Unilever flaunt safety, reliability, and accountability, yet these companies do not care whether their products contain real honey. Consumers can and should make decisions that will prompt change in these companies’ priorities.

While the private sector and consumers can play a substantial role in curbing honey fraud problems, federal and state governments have an even greater responsibility to stand up against honey fraud. In 1996, the National Honey Board came out with suggestions for definitions of honey, honey product, and imitation honey. Unfortunately, these suggestions fell on deaf ears. The definitions were not adopted and currently, there is no official U.S. federal definition of “raw” honey. If legislators had defined honey the way the National Honey Board did back in 1996, honey adulteration might not have become the major problem it is today. The government can effectively combat honey fraud issues by adopting the definitions of honey set forth by the National Honey Board. This first step, followed by enforcement, communication, and accountability would be significant progress in combating honey fraud. 

In addition to adopting an official U.S. federal definition of honey, the system for labeling honey products must be improved. Currently, the USDA grading system for honey is essentially meaningless. A grading system for extracted honey published by the USDA provides general standards for filtered and strained honey. The USDA grading system is voluntary and no enforcement or accountability is performed. Because the USDA grading system fails to cover essential characteristics of honey, in effect, two honey products could legally be graded as Grade A honey and share identical labels that might say, “100% Organic Clover Honey from California – USDA Grade A,” yet be completely different honey products. Furthermore, under the USDA Rules and Regulations, honey does not require official inspection to carry official USDA grade marks. The USDA grading system fails to cover purity or added ingredients like sugar or syrups, and other components of honey. The grading system lacks key characteristics and should not be the only determining factor in selecting which honey can be imported and sold in the U.S. The state of Florida is the first state to create and enforce a honey identity standard. This is a huge step in the right direction to combat honey fraud. Other states should follow in Florida’s example.

It is clear this problem cannot be solved by a single group working in isolation. Rather, this is a collective action that requires the input, education, and advocacy of many. Each of us can and should do our part. 

Professor Michael Roberts, Executive Director of the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law, proposes short-term and long-term solutions as part of an integrated systems thinking approach.

According to Professor Roberts, “honey fraud has so many different elements; it is a retail problem as well as an ingredient problem. Because the problem is multifaceted, we need an integrated approach that brings law, science, and industry together to work on solutions. In my view, retailers and litigation are two important tools. Smart litigation will fill the gap on accountability which is missing because of government inaction. It can be a challenge for retailers to manage global supply lines, but they are in a unique position to hold fraudsters accountable and respond to consumer demand for authenticity. The long-term solution involves a global approach. Honey fraud is a trade issue, which is a global problem requiring global solutions. These global solutions call for participants like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to assist countries develop legal strategies to eradicate honey adulteration. The solution to honey fraud is multitrack; there is no silver bullet. Finally, when dealing with solutions to honey fraud, we need to be cognizant of the inequities that fraud perpetuates. We should abhor a food system that reserves authentic honey (and other products) to only those consumers who can afford the premium.” (Quoting Professor Michael Roberts).

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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