Legal Recourse for Self-Regulation in the Honey Industry

This is the third 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*

The American honey industry has been aware of the honey fraud problem for a long time. This post outlines fraudulent conduct in the honey certification space and describes a new California lawsuit that tackles honey adulteration.

 In 2010, four North American honey packers and importers set up a certification program called True Source to guarantee the origin, safety, and purity of honey. Since the program’s creation, True Source participation has flourished. True Source representatives told the UCLA Food Law & Policy Clinic (“the Clinic”) that as of January 2021, 40% of honey sold in the USA and Canada is True Source Certified, and there are 820 participating companies: 22 packers, 23 importers, 95 exporters, and 680 beekeepers.

The True Source concept is simple. In theory, honey certified by the organization is regularly tested by third party laboratories for authenticity and is designed to allow honey to be tracked from the consumer, back through the supply chain, to the country of origin and the beekeeper who harvested the honey from the beehive. (True Source Standard; Complaint). The True Source participants are supposedly required to comply with specific standards (the “True Source Certified Standard”) to ensure the traceability and authenticity of honey at each stage in the supply chain.

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What is Adulteration?

This is the second 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*

Honey is made when the nectar and sweet deposits from flowering plants are gathered, stored, and dehydrated in honeycomb by honeybees. By definition, honey is a pure, single ingredient natural substance free of other substances or sweeteners. Honey adulteration occurs when real honey is added to or altered in such a way that it modifies its natural composition and integrity.

Adulteration occurs in a variety of forms, the most common being dilution with cheap fillers, sugary syrups, or other additives. This dilution increases the sugar content as well as changes the color and texture of the honey. Some honey producers extract the honey from the honeycomb prematurely[R(1] , or even substitute the nectar usually used to feed honeybees with sugar water to increase honey production and enhance their honey’s sweetness. Other common forms of adulteration include super heating and ultrafiltration or “resin stripping,” which remove pollen and naturally occurring enzymes to “improve” taste and smell and prevent the crystallization that retailers and consumers often find unattractive. Pollen removal is also an effective way to obfuscate efforts to track honey by adding local pollen after removing the foreign source pollen so that adulterators can circumvent labeling laws. Honey blending is another non-obvious form of adulteration where different honeys are blended in varying amounts and often misrepresented as a single type of honey. According to Amina Harris, Director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, a honey that has been labeled “Orange Blossom Honey” may be composed of only 28% orange blossom so long as that is the highest percentage present. The other 73% can be composed of any random mixture of various types of honey.

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

This is the first 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*

Honey litigation is in the news again. Like previous honey lawsuits such as the Honeygate scandal—in which honey fraudsters were arrested for selling fraudulent honey that passed through U.S. Customs with fraudulent country of origin documents—the honey lawsuit filed March 29, 2021, in United States District Court, Eastern District of California, is targeted at actors responsible for flooding the U.S. market with cheap adulterated honey. Unlike previous lawsuits, this lawsuit focuses on a different set of victims: U.S. beekeepers who have been overwhelmingly harmed by adulterated honey flooding into the North American market.

Numerous commercial beekeepers in the U.S. are sitting on millions of pounds of real honey that they cannot sell. Why? Because the market is flooded with cheap, adulterated honey from out of the country, and producers of real honey in the U.S. are forced to sell at a loss. The Food Law and Policy Clinic at UCLA, an experiential course that partners law students with local and regional non-profit organizations and community groups to advocate for food movements, was paired with lifelong American beekeeper Chris Hiatt. Hiatt is fighting for the survival of his second-generation family business, Hiatt Honey, which has been owned by five Hiatt brothers for over five decades. Hiatt advocates to keep commercial beekeepers in business by preventing the continued proliferation of adulterated honey and honey fraud in the U.S.

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Addressing Honey Fraud and the Pollination Crisis

by Diana Winters

The scope of honey fraud is enormous.  Demand for honey has doubled in the U.S. in the past 25 years, but production has not kept up. The increase in demand for honey has coincided with a critical decline in honey bee populations globally.    So to keep consumers’ honey pots full with cheap honey, producers have increasingly cut honey with cheaper substances like corn syrup.

As adulterated honey takes over the mass market, beekeepers and legitimate honey producers cannot recoup their expenses by selling pure honey and are going out of business.  The loss of these businesses has dire consequences for our declining honeybee population, which in turn has repercussions far beyond honey production. 

Those trying to solve these two problems—honey market fraud and the loss of bee populations—must recognize that they are inextricably linked.  The failure to do so may be catastrophic. This is because the decline in honey production is the least of our worries when it comes to declining honeybee populations; the consequences of reduced pollination are far worse.  Three out of four fruit or seed crops need pollinators to continue producing, and the loss of bees has led to what some see as a pollination crisis.

Commercial beekeepers’ revenue comes from the sale of both honey and pollination services.  When beekeepers go out of business because they cannot compete on price with honey producers mixing cheaper products into honey, they also cease providing pollination services. 

But this linkage has not been effectively addressed by policymakers. One reason is that the declining honeybee population is seen as an environmental problem, while fraud is an economic one, and these problems are addressed by different federal agencies.  Notably, a 2014 effort by the White House to address the pollination crisis did not include the FDA, the only agency with the authority to address honey adulteration.  Moreover, the FDA’s approach to honey fraud has been anemic.  It focuses on labeling rather than stronger action like setting out a specific formula or method of production for honey.  

Michael T. Roberts, Executive Director of the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at UCLA Law School, has published a white paper with the support of the American Honeybee Producers Association that identified an approach to stopping honey fraud while also saving the honeybee.

First, federal agencies—including the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA— must work together to adopt food-systems thinking with the twin goals of addressing pollination and honey production.  If the White House fails to order coordination among these entities, Congress should legislate this coordination.  And regardless of whether the White House or Congress act, the FDA should take immediate action against honey fraud.  Next, retailers should work with the American Honey Producers Association to develop strategies to address honey fraud and to save pollinators.  For example, in the absence of governmental standards, retailers should consider creating private standards in the supply chain to counter fraud. 

Moreover, all the stakeholders in this pollinator economy—including regulators, retailers, and beekeepers—must educate the consumer on the value of unadulterated honey. 

Currently, there are overwhelming incentives and an absence of consequences for food manufacturers to engage in honey fraud, and this takes a vast toll on consumers, the legitimate honey producer, and pollinators.  To fix this, we must make the connection between healthy pollinator populations and pure, authentic honey as clear to everyone as it is to beekeepers and legitimate honey producers.

Resnick Center faculty and staff recent speaking events

Executive Director Michael T. Roberts recently spoke by Zoom for the San Marino Rotary Club on the “Role of Food Law in everyday consumer products: Olive Oil and Honey. How do we know what’s in our plates?” Regarding the presentation, he commented, “I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of questions from the members. We ran 30 minutes overtime, as questions about Ractopamine (animal drug) and Isotopes (chemical fingerprinting) surfaced.” A video of the talk is here.

Also this week, Assistant Director Diana Winters participated in a Duke Law Food Law Society Zoom panel on Slaughterhouses and Covid-19, with David Muraskin from Public Justice, Hannah Connor from the Center for Biological Diversity, and Delcianna Winders, the Director of Lewis & Clark Law School’s Animal Law Litigation Clinic. The panel discussed failures in food safety and worker protection regulation that have led to the rampant spread of Covid-19 in meat processing plants.

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