Can Honey Be Organic?

Written by contributor NJ Renie.

We have been conditioned to think of honey as the quintessential natural food, but there is a reason that we, in the business, call the honey makers “workers.” The ugly truth is that honey is manufactured; a product of natural raw materials altered to meet the needs of selfish animals. But don’t despair folks, honey has more in common with a jar of your nonna’s marinara than the chilling uniformity of gas station snack cakes.

How is honey made?

During the honey flow a colony of bees will harvest nectar from millions of flowers. The quality and character of this nectar varies from plant to plant, flower to flower, and day to day. The beehive’s quality control engineers evaporate all this dubious raw material down to whatever seems like a good sugar/water ratio, all the while mixing in a few bazillion enzymes, some pollen, a little yeast, a secret ingredient or two, and presto! –honey.
Photo by Gianluca Cordellina

Of course, life in the honey factory is no picnic: conditions are cramped, turnover is high, deadly parasites and diseases run rampant, and the closest thing you get to time off is babysitting the boss’ kids! This is where the beekeeper comes in, and it is her job to keep the hive healthy in exchange for a sweet cut of the profits. Doing this organically can be challenging or impossible, depending on who you ask.

Is there organic honey or not?

The classic “no” argument goes like this: a good forager will travel a couple of miles from the hive to collect nectar and pollen. Can anyone know for sure that the millions of flowers within a two-mile radius are all non-GMO and untouched by man-made chemicals? No, and even if you could, nothing is stopping your bees from taking a drink from the highway runoff or breathing in the polluted air.

The “yes” argument is that organic has never meant 100% purity, but that the production meets an agreed upon organic standard. So, there is certified organic honey –just as there are certified organic tomatoes and pork chops.

But here is where it gets tricky for America’s honey-lovers…

I will preface this by saying that there are certified organic honey producers in the US adhering to the highest standards of organic production; but the USDA does not have organic standards for honey. Certified organic honey in the US is certified to the standards of the third party organic certifier (the same certifiers that certify tomatoes and pork). Sometimes the third parties are counties, states, organic farming organizations, or foreign governments, but the vast majority are privately owned businesses.
Photo by Fran Gambín
To add one more stone to that mountain of worry, when it comes to honey, enforcement is virtually nil. This means that any beekeeper with a printer can label her honey organic without any realistic fear of reprisal and nobody is double checking the certifiers” work.

Where do we go from here?

Well, that’s up to you. I suppose should tell you that small time honey producers abound and to get out to that farmer’s market and meet your local beekeepers, but I know we won’t all do that. Honey is a lot like that jar of marinara, probably OK out of Aisle 4, but the closer you get to the hands (or legs) of the maker, the better off you are going to be.

Where do you get your honey? How much do you know about the way it is made?

Comments

  1. We get our local honey from the same guy we get our grass fed beef from, Mill Road Farm.

    He is a local guy and sells at our farmers market. But you have to get here early or call ahead for honey, it goes quick every week he has it!
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  2. Here’s what th USDA has to say: “Honey may be certified to the NOP standards using the livestock and handling standards. Bees must be managed from the second day of life as organic, as with poultry. Feed organic feed; no prohibited substances. If certified in accordance with the NOP standards, they may be labeled according to the NOP regulations. Other standards may not be used in lieu of the NOP regulations for products labeled using the NOP logo or reference to the NOP regulations.” [NOP stands for National Organic Program.] The USDA is NOT a certifying entity. Organic certifiers in the US must be accredited by the USDA, and products labeled “USDA organic” must be certified by an accredited certification agency. Most of the honey produced in the US would not qualify, either because there are possible contaminants, such as pesticides, within a 5km (3mi) radius, or because the beehives are treated with synthetic pesticides/fungicides, or fed foods that are not organic. The restrictions also applies to urban areas. However, many people offer ‘organic’ honey, without understanding the full requirements, or because they are trying to pull a fast one. THis is, sadly, true of all ‘organic’ products, not just honey. However, if you see the USDA organic seal, you must ALSO see the certifying agent listed on the label, and you can contact them to verify its authenticity. It is a crime to use the USDA organic label fraudulently.

    • NJ Renie says:

      Yes, some NOP certifiers are using the NOP livestock standards to certify honey, but that is not the NOP standard (as I said before, there isn’t one for honey –note that they say “Honey MAY be certified to the NOP standards for livestock”, not MUST be.) Because the NOP standards for livestock have no reference to a foraging radius (or anything else present in an organic apiculture standard) and no follow-up testing, most honey could indeed qualify as organic.

      What it comes down to is that without a standard to define organic honey it is impossible to establish who is pulling a fast one and who isn’t. Perhaps it would be best to contact the NOP certifying agent and ask for a copy of their organic honey standards and decide if they measure up to your standards.

  3. Great and informative post! I had never thought about the “organic” aspect of honey.

    We have excellent farmer’s markets (a number of them!) around our town and many, many honey sellers. I’ve always heard that it’s important to eat local honey because it’s good for environmental allergies. We buy our honey by the 5 lbs container and it’s fairly priced at $18.00. We go through 1 per month, probably as it’s our main sweetener.
    We’re lucky enough to have a grocery store that highlights & discounts “Go Local” or “Local” merchants, so it’s what we’ve stuck with when we go grocery shopping. I recently read an article about beekeeping in Natural Life magazine, and it was fascinating. I had no idea most beekeepers who rely on sales of honey for their business give the bees sugar & water to survive instead of their own honey. Isn’t that best for the bees (and then us, who gets the honey)?
    Great post!
    Sarah M
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    • NJ Renie says:

      In the Northern US, most new bee colonies are fed sugar water for a month or so in the Spring when they are installed, i.e. don’t have any honey of their own yet. Sugar water is typical, but corn syrup is the large grower standard.

      But, yes honey is probably the best thing. Thanks for reading.

  4. Natalie Arnold says:

    I think that the honey that I get from my cousin who raises his own bees, collects, and packages his honey is about the best “organic” honey I can ever get. It also tastes 100x better than any store bought honey!

    You are right about not being able to control where the bees obtain their pollen and can’t eliminate GMOs from their mix. I hope evolution has made some sensor that GMO foods taste like the round-up crap in their genes. I can only hope since I don’t know what a bee tastes. lol.

    • NJ Renie says:

      Stranger things have happened.

      Note to self: Pitch cherry pie-flavored Round-Up to Monsanto, profit.

  5. i try to always buy local.

  6. Thank you for the explanation of the difference between these two honeys! I love my raw, organic honey, but I still want to try the manuka. It’s just so hard to find. I may just take the plunge and order online. Thanks again for the fabulous info!
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    • Why buy honey from literally the other side of the world? There are so many varieties from the USA I bet you have not tried (I’m assuming you are from the US). You want “organic?” Start with a lighter carbon footprint.

  7. Thank you for this post. I have questioned the term organic honey for a while now. I get my honey from a person who personally uses organic methods, but she says she cannot control a 4 mile radius and therefore does not claim organic. I appreciate her honesty, which is why I will continue getting honey from her.

    • Well, if there were an organic standard, it doesn’t matter what the forage area is. The standard could decide not to say anything about it, and therefore be “organic”. But there is none, so it doesn’t matter. Bees will fly significantly further than 4 miles in radius if they have to.

      But, there is no standard, thus, even if one wanted to be “organic”, they can’t be. That is what baffles me about this article. There is no NOP standard for honey. Period. The USA honors organic labeling from other countries, so you will see certified organic from, for example, Brazil, but we don’t have one.

      A strong standard is the Certified Naturally Grown standard. It is a strong standard for livestock and produce as well. And most would argue it is a better standard than the NOP anyway.

  8. This is very interesting! I’ve been wanting to look into this further, so thanks for the info.

    So far I have been content to buy honey that is local and minimally processed. I buy raw honey because it hasn’t been heated or pasteurized.

    This post has made me realize there is a lot I don’t know about honey :)
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  9. Awhile back my husband and I saw ‘organic’ honey in the store and we looked at each other like what? We never considered if it was or not, but good points, we love honey and our location we are stuck with what is at the grocery store!

  10. nopinkhere says:

    Interesting to think about. I don’t go out of my way to buy local honey, but I do buy near honey. I enjoyed your comparisons (“gas station snack cakes”)!

  11. I buy my honey raw at the local organic(ish) co-op. I really like the flavor and knowing that it is raw and still contains the good stuff. I do not know exactly where it comes from, but I have confidence in the efforts of the co-op to provide high quality groceries.

  12. Really cool post, highly informative and professionally written about honey.Good Job.I try to buy local
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  13. This is interesting, my dad is a beekeeper and I remember him talking about this. Bees travel up to 3 miles from the hive, so unless you can guarantee that everything grown within 3 miles is organic (dare I say that would probably be impossible?) the honey is not organic.

    The important thing though, is that compared to the majority of grocery store honey, the honey you get from your local farmer is considered single source. Most manufactured honey in the grocery store is just honey from lots of different locations (including overseas) mixed up together, much harder to regulate. Plus local honey has the added benefit of helping those who suffer from seasonal allergies.

    We always buy local honey, not only because I like knowing that it is from one location and helps with my sons allergies, but also knowing that the bees also help other local farmers by pollinating the crops that I can buy from my local farmers market.
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    • NJ Renie says:

      You are right. The “Product of” declaration on most supermarket honey looks like the lane assignments for the Men’s 200m Freestyle Relay: USA, Brazil, Canada, India, China, South Korea, Thailand, etc.” Throw in what it tastes like after it’s been on a boat/train/truck for a month+ and well, you get what you pay for.

      Of course, until the USDA establishes a standard (the word on the street is that it is coming down this year, we’ll see) and a testing program it is not just more difficult, but literally impossible to regulate such practices.

      Wow, your dad’s beekeeping and you’re buying local honey as well!

  14. I knew I had organic honey in the cupboard, so I ran to check it when I read this! :)
    The brand I have is certified organic by OCIA international and has the USDA organic certification. It is YS Organic Bee Farms. This is what they have to say about how their honey is organic according to their website:

    What is the major difference in organic from conventional beekeeping?
    Organic bee colonies are not maintained with the use of any chemicals!
    Terramycin for treating foulbrood disease,
    Apistan for Verroa mites,
    GardStar for treating small hive beetles, nor
    Bee Go to chase bees instead of using a smoker.
    We meet all the standards of Organic Certification including: GMO Free, Land Certification, Beehives Certification, Producer Certification, Processor Certification.

    How can someone say it’s organic honey when bees can fly wherever they want?
    The beehives are specifically placed in isolated areas away from any type of contamination (golf courses, agricultural areas, heavy traffic areas, landfills).

    Who certifies your products?
    National Agencies – NOP (National Organic Program), U.S.D.A. (United States Department of Agriculture)
    Independent Agencies – O.C.I.A. (Organic Crop Improvement Association)
    Kosher – CRC

    I guess I’ll be happy with that, because that’s probably as close as I’m going to find at the grocery store :)
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    • NJ Renie says:

      It is nice to see them answering questions, but claiming that the USDA-NOP has certified their products is misleading (as explained above), but I suppose they can only work within the framework offered.

      YS is Canadian and/or Brazilian honey, no?

  15. Thank you for this post, I have considered many of the implications of my food sources for other things but never honey. That’s because my grandfather is a hobby beekeeper, and has been processing and passing out honey to family members for years (maybe my whole life). So I know exactly who handles my honey and have even helped him before with the processing. True though that you can not confine the bees to only certain sources of nectar and water. My parents have started hives on their farm to help with pollination as well, so there may soon be another source for me.

    One thing that caught my attention in your post is about the crowded living spaces. Again, knowing the source of your honey helps with knowing how the bees are treated, but even the most stubborn beekeeper cannot force bees to stay in conditions they consider too crowded because bees will swarm when that happens, leaving the hive to find another location with a new queen. A good beekeeper will monitor hive conditions and add space as needed before this stress point is reached, either by adding boxes or another hive nearby. (If this wasn’t available to them, the swarm would try to find a natural crevasse to start their new hive, which is becoming harder for them to do as humans convert more and more of the environment to suit them. )

    Anyway, thank you for the thought provoking info!
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  16. We usually buy it in the summer at our local farmer’s market by the gallon. But I noticed the other day that our supermarket has bulk honey. They are small boxes that say “don’t life the lid – Live bee’s”. (which makes me really want to life the lid to see if there are really bee’s in there. But what’ the point of this if the bee’s aren’t able to get into nature? Couldn’t there be dead ones in there? Something about that seems pretty sketchy. What do you think?

  17. The personal loans seem to be useful for guys, which would like to ground their company. In fact, it is very comfortable to get a small business loan.

  18. Another reason to buy your honey from a local farmer (if you can). “at least a third of all the honey consumed in the United States was likely smuggled from China and could be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.” http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2011/11/09/most-honey-sold-in-u-s-grocery-stores-not-worthy-of-its-name/?iref=obnetwork

  19. I have bees and live in a rural area that has many organic orchards that luckily don’t spray crap so my bees are relatively safe. I feed them honey, not sugar, I don’t eat processed sugar, I don’t expect them to. If sugar were to be introduced to us today , we would outlaw it an illegal substance. My problem is where do I order organic bees from so I can start more hives. My supplier is no longer available.

  20. I don’t see how any commercial produce can claim their honey is organic unless they operate out of hawaii or own/control thousands of acres. It takes massive amounts of hives and locations to produce any amount worth putting on the market, these operations are so vast and complex there is really no way they can prove it.

  21. Where do we go from here? Yes, visit your local beekeeper. Make sure they are selling their own honey and no someone else’s (you usually can’t tell from the label). And if they are sell honey in January still… they are probably selling someone else’s.

    Also, there is a strong certified honey standard in the USA (also for livestock and produce). In fact, it is arguably a better standard than the now-corrupted organic standard. It’s “Certified Naturally Grown”. Growers, Farmers, Ranchers, check it out: http://naturallygrown.org/

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  1. [...] Can Honey Be Organic? | Simple HomemadeJun 8, 2011 … NJ Renie. Yes, some NOP certifiers are using the NOP livestock standards to certify honey, but that is not the NOP standard (as I said before, … July 4th, 2012 | [...]

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