One question has been really bothering me as of late: Is there such a thing as USDA certified organic honey?
Despite the picture you see above, there is good reason for me to have serious doubt. Here is why.
In the past, I have spoken to numerous local beekeepers and when I asked them if their honey is organic, they have all told me that there is no such thing as USDA certified organic honey.
Yet when I go to the market, I see one or two brands of honey that have the USDA organic seal on the label. Almost all of the honey that has the seal on it comes from Brazil, which has made me wonder whether there is some type of corruption going on with the certification.
Last week, I decided to get to the bottom of this and had a conversation with Garth Kahl, a Latin American specialist at Oregon Tilth, one the country’s largest and most well-known organic certification agencies.
(For those who don’t know, the certfiers are 3rd party agencies approved by the USDA. Their main job is to enforce the USDA’s national organic standards and to tell farmers and food manufacturers whether they are in compliance with these standards. If they are in compliance, these businesses can then use the organic seal.)
In the beginning of our conversation, Garth told me that most honey is certified to EU standards and that a majority of organic honey is coming out of Brazil or Mexico.
He informed me that the two main criteria for organic honey are:
- The few surrounding miles (where the bees can fly) must be certified as organic and not contain any pesticides or chemicals.
- What is used inside the hives must not contain any synthetic chemicals that are prohibited by the EU.
Garth then went on to say that some U.S. certifiers are granting certification to apiaries based on USDA organic rules for livestock. Yes, livestock.
When I caught my breath and told him that all of this was very confusing and didn’t make much sense, he understood completely.
It then begged my next and most obvious question: Are there USDA certified organic standards for honey?
The answer is No. There are no standards for USDA certified organic honey. They do not exist.
If that is the case, how can these companies put the organic seal on their products?
A logical question, right?
Given that there are no national standards for organic honey, the USDA’s National Organic Program has said the following.
Certifiers can certify honey but the USDA would not give any guidance in terms of crtieria to be used. Each certifier must use its own criteria, whether it is based off of the EU standards or not.
So even though there are no USDA certified organic standards for honey, this explains how and why some brands of honey carry the USDA organic seal.
When I heard all of this, I kind of shook my head in disbelief.
Garth went on to tell me a few other things that made all of this a little bit more understandable. Or palatable.
1) The organic industry has grown much faster in the marketplace than the corresponding regulatory body, the USDA National Organic Program, and the rules have just not kept up. MAKES SENSE
It also doesn’t help that funding dedicated to the USDA/NOP has been relatively miniscule over the past several years. AGREED
2) Getting new rules approved by a governmental agency is never an easy thing to do. All interested parties fight brutally hard over exactly what should be considered organic and this debate/haggling can last years. AGREED
3) Determining the rules for organic honey certification will be on the docket for 2011.
Some people may not want to buy organic honey from Brazil as they believe honey should always come from very close to where they live.
If this is the case and you are buying non-organic, local honey at your farmer’s market, there is one very important question you want to ask: What is being used in hives?
Two things you do not want to hear are Apistan strips and coumaphos. These are toxic chemicals used in conventional honey to kill Varroa Mites in the hive.
The USDA organic program is by no means perfect but it is the only one we have. It is imperative we continue to support organics so that funding continues and improvements to the system are constantly made.