The Mystery Behind Organic Honey

Written by Max Goldberg on February 22, 2011. Follow Max on Twitter: @livingmaxwell.

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.

However…

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 was supposed to be on the docket for 2011 but nothing official has been determined or decided so far.

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.

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45 Comments

  1. There are no USDA organic honey standards. Or corn standards. Or soybean standards. There’s just organic standards, period. Don’t make intentional use of things on the prohibited list, and you’re fine. All you need to do after that is to pay your certifier for a certificate and slap a label on your honey.

    Written by Eric Baumholder on February 22, 2011 @ 3:46 pm
  2. Max,

    I wrote a blog post a couple weeks ago on the bee population and colony collapse disorder and what mainstream media would have you believe and what is actually occuring. I appreciate you digging to the bottom of this and getting some answers. As always, they are not black and white but as long as we progress and improve, we are on the right path.

    Great piece. We share similar views.

    Written by Derek Henry on February 22, 2011 @ 5:23 pm
  3. Hi Eric,

    We are talking semantics here and I don’t agree with you. There are organic standards for several different food categories. Standards for livestock are not the same for vegetables for obvious reasons.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 24, 2011 @ 11:07 am
  4. Hi Derek,

    Thanks so much for your feedback. The system isn’t perfect and I agree with you — we have to continue to make improvements.

    I’ll look for your blog post.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 24, 2011 @ 11:21 am
  5. Hello Max,
    Thank you for this important and timely post. I buy my raw and
    unprocessed honey from bees hived and foraging in the Buena Vista neighborhood in SF from beekeeper Marina Shoupe. I share similar views
    with you.

    All the best,
    stephanie

    Written by stephanie haughey on February 24, 2011 @ 12:34 pm
  6. Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks so much!! I love buying raw honey and supporting local beekeeping.

    It is a dream of mine one day to have bees.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 25, 2011 @ 7:07 pm
  7. Max,

    Great piece on the complications of certification of organic honey.

    The only way to have truly organic honey is to not only control the
    environment in which the bees live but also the environment in which the
    bees are foraging. The honeybee will fly, on average, about three miles
    from its hive to gather nectar, pollen and water – that is an approximate
    area of just over 18,000 acres.

    Not only do we have to be vigilant about what we put directly in our hives but we
    must also be concerned about what the people three miles away are doing to
    their lawns, and rose bushes and what farmers are spraying at any given
    time of the year. Compound this with what may be getting dumped in the
    area waterways you see the beekeepers’ problem.

    The most important thing you can ask is WHERE did the honey you are buying
    come from? There has been, in recent years, a huge influx of tainted
    honey from China entering our country through circuitous routes which
    involve it passing through many different countries to be “laundered” to
    hide the origin of the honey. Much of this honey arrives at US ports and
    is quickly sold and resold – further masking its origin.

    The USDA is not perfect and there are certainly unscrupulous people all
    over the world. I am a small beekeeper who has partnered with like minded
    beekeepers to supply what we call certified American honey. I personally
    verify the source of the honey by being in the bee yard with the
    beekeepers through out the year and on the day of extraction. We don’t
    claim to have organic honey because we don’t feel it’s honest to say so,
    but we do have great tasting honey that I personally stand by. I’d love
    for you to try it.

    Please feel free to check out my website for more information or drop me a
    line if you have any questions.

    Best regards,

    Jeff
    trubeehoney.com
    Arrington, TN

    Written by Jeff on February 26, 2011 @ 12:15 am
  8. Thanks so much Jeff. It is great to hear from a beekeeper about this issue and to get an “insider’s” perspective on this.

    I have checked out your site and it is fantastic.

    Thanks again for your input.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on March 1, 2011 @ 9:38 am
  9. Hi Max,
    Good article. As a followup to Jeff’s comments: Not only do we need to think about the bees’ foraging range, but we also need to be concerned with how far chemical pesticides and herbicides can be carried by the wind, potentially a much greater distance than a bee’s range. I think that this topic would definitely need to be addressed if setting up organic standards specifically for honey.
    I would also add that in addition to asking “Where does the honey come from?” consumer should ask themselves “How is it processed?” Most commercial honeys are pasteurized which kills many of the beneficial enzymes that are found in honey. Our products are not heat pasteurized, and every jar contains a lot number which makes it traceable back to the individual hives from which it was gathered.
    Anyway, while there is a lot to discuss, as long as there are producers like Jeff contributing to the dialogue, and doing the right things, we will eventually get to an “Organic” standard for honey that will benefit both producers and consumers alike.
    Regards,
    Mark
    P.S. Jeff-I too checked out your website and agree with Max..It is fantastic! I wish you all the best.

    Written by Mark on March 7, 2011 @ 1:02 pm
  10. Hi Mark,

    I don’t have any data about how far pesticides can be carried by the wind. This would seem to apply to all crops, not just honey. Maybe Jeff could comment about this.

    Certainly, raw food is preferred by many people for that reason — it kills the beneficial enzymes. When I can buy raw, such as honey, nuts or superfoods, I try to do so.

    Thanks so much for your feedback.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on March 7, 2011 @ 2:42 pm
  11. the answer is simple. Honey can be considered as “organic” if it would meet two main points: 1. there should be no additives added to the finished product, such as sugar, syrups etc. which is a common practice, at least where I come from 2. the bees should be kept to collect honey in an area that has no GMO crops grown and little to no industrial pollution, a really large organic farm/farms ideally. Since bees operate in a large area, this means only a few places on earth still untouched by industrialization and soils treated with pesticides can be considered for such honey.

    Written by Alex on March 13, 2011 @ 8:35 am
  12. Hi Alex,

    The other important point is what is being used in the hives. That is where they use a lot of chemicals.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on March 14, 2011 @ 2:44 pm
  13. U.S. honeybees need your support! Buying “organic” honey from Brazil or China does not help the survival of your local honeybees. Support your local beekeepers!

    Written by Joy McEwen on March 17, 2011 @ 12:36 pm
  14. Hi Joy,

    You are totally right. Unfortunately, a majority of the certified organic honey does not come from within the U.S. I am hoping that that changes.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on March 17, 2011 @ 2:49 pm
  15. Hi Max,

    Curious to know if you emailed Joe Dickson re my last email
    re WFM USDA organic honey?

    All the best,
    stephanie

    Written by stephanie haughey on March 28, 2011 @ 3:27 pm
  16. Hi Stephanie,

    I have not emailed him yet but am planning on doing so sometime soon. I will let you know when I do and what he says.

    Thanks so much for asking!

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on March 29, 2011 @ 12:16 pm
  17. Sweet. Thank you, Max.

    All the best,
    stephanie

    Written by stephanie haughey on April 1, 2011 @ 12:14 pm
  18. When I see the USDA Certified Organic label on a jar of honey, and that honey comes from the USA, it makes my blood boil. Why? Because the supplier is participating in a lie. They absolutely know there is no organic standard for honey in the US. What they are taking advantage of is either (a) a loophole in process, or (b) are simply lying. And… Certified Organic sourced from other countries is always suspect, regardless of product.

    Heck, there isn’t even a standard for what honey is yet.

    Anyway you slice it, it is intentional deception. And if the USDA turns a blind eye, “Organic” becomes tarnished – its meaning eroded.

    Certified Naturally Grown has a clear standard that is simple to verify and aims to keep bees and the honey they produce clean and healthy! I recommend CNG to any beekeepers that want to advertise to their customers their superior sustainable practices. It’s a standard that is high quality, clear, honest, and well respected.

    http://www.naturallygrown.org/programs/apiary-standards (their even readable!)

    Good luck to y’all.
    -todd, beekeeper

    Written by Todd on June 1, 2011 @ 7:54 am
  19. Hi Todd,

    Thanks so much for your feedback and perspective.

    In regards to honey, the fact that certifiers have such leeway to determine what is organic and what isn’t is certainly cause for concern. However, establishing organic honey guidelines is something that is on the agenda this year.

    The reality is that most consumers have no idea what CNG is or means. Many more consumers do know what the USDA seal means.

    While the USDA/NOP is by no means perfect and has many holes/problems, it is something that I support. Hopefully, they get the situation with organic honey straightened out but I can certainly understand your frustration.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on June 1, 2011 @ 3:03 pm
  20. This is a complex topic as is the world of the honeybee and trying to ‘keep’ them as a whole. Our hives are certified by Certified Naturally Grown. We are certified for our management practices. That’s truly all one can ‘certify’ as bees forage at least four miles form their hives. What most folks don’t realize is the chemical cocktail that goes into beehives that are not certified composed of pesticides and antibiotics. What most folks don’t realize, is there are very few truly organic keepers out there.

    Written by sally on June 14, 2011 @ 8:12 pm
  21. Hi Sally,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. Question: If bees forage 4 miles from their hives, can’t we certify that those 4 miles haven’t been sprayed? You saying that doesn’t go into the equation (I think that is what you are saying) and yet we can certify those 4 miles as clean. I’m just a little confused. If you could clarify, that would be great.

    I appreciate your input!

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on June 15, 2011 @ 3:52 pm
  22. Your article has reached us also since the topic has confuse many honey customers.
    I’m a beekeeper in Canada where things are and aren’t much different from the US.
    “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.”
    is not a true statement.
    It’s used in the hive NOT IN THE HONEY to treat for varroa and is removed after a precise time frame so when the honey flow starts and the honey supers with comb that hasn’t been exposed or fresh foundation are put on the honey is not at all affected.

    semantics? no just hope the media would get the facts straight cause your statement is misleading!
    READ THE LABEL Eat local honey is where it’s at and no one should trust imported stuff in North America.

    Written by Walter on January 20, 2012 @ 7:11 am
  23. Hi Walter,

    I believe it is semantics and that people understand the message that is being conveyed. I do not believe it is misleading.

    Are you saying that Apistan strips and coumaphos do not impact the honey at all?????

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on January 20, 2012 @ 5:23 pm
  24. I am from the eastern part of the US and have kept bees for many years, I have had to deal with both Varroa and Traichial mites, and hive beetles. I have lost entire bee yards due to mites and winter die off. Keeping bees in the US is very difficult. Near imposable without some form of medication for the mites. However I have been doing some Mission work in Brazil for the past 4 months and I can easily see a much more organic product coming from Brazil. One the bees are Africanized, two there is no foulbroad and mites are not a problem here ether. there is miles and miles of nothing but forests, entire states with no industry hardly at all. I am currently helping an Indigenous village get started in Beekeeping in the Amazon region. We do not have these vast areas of unspoiled and uncontaminated lands in the US.

    Written by Bob on October 7, 2012 @ 1:33 pm
  25. Hi Bob,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It is a perspective that I have not heard before, and the industrialization and massive use of chemicals here in the U.S. is no doubt interfering with the ecosystem and bees.

    I appreciate your feedback.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on October 8, 2012 @ 2:24 pm
  26. It’s not hard to believe the bee gathering is completely organic. Clover grows like a weed almost anywhere. So to think farmers are using pesticide or fertilizer is quite unlikely. Plus bees are choosy, if the flower doesn’t attract them they will pass on by. More likely to find soda in their diet than in unappealing flowers. But the simplest answer is no honey can be ” certified ” organic without a complete interrogation of all bees residing in the hive. Then we will know!

    Written by David on January 14, 2013 @ 8:04 pm
  27. I have hives in Alameda, an island off Oakland in the San Francisco Bay. I don’t use any chemicals in my hives, ever. I am also on the end of the island where the breezes come straight from the Bay, minimizing urban air pollution, with a lot of wild and feral foliage, and very little car and truck traffic. However, since I cannot vouch for every owner of every yard on the island, I could not in good conscience call my honey “organic”, even though it is probably about as pure as about any honey on the planet.

    Written by Jack Mingo on January 28, 2013 @ 6:27 pm
  28. Hi Jack,

    My guess is that many other small beekeepers employ the same practices as you do. The big question is the amount of pesticides sprayed on nearby plants.

    Thanks for sharing your bee practices!

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on January 29, 2013 @ 12:00 pm
  29. I live in the NYC area and would like to know if you would be willing to share the name of the beekeeper you buy from.

    Thank you!

    Written by Gabrielle Carletti on February 16, 2013 @ 12:38 am
  30. Hi Gabrielle,

    I haven’t bought honey in a while and will get back to you on this.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on February 18, 2013 @ 9:20 pm
  31. Good day Mr.Maxwell!
    I’m trying to stay sane while seeking organic for my daughter & I! ..See, I just got home from the store, then I came across your article. But before i open this jar, i am hoping to check out yourrr opinion. Is it possible if you can tell me if this jar 100% raw honey, from a small u.s. food chain store, that has Organic print on it, a USDA/Organic stamp, is a product of India, & says certified by Q.A.I…is it legit or a front????
    Thank you for any insight you might know & I appreciate your works.
    Be Well!
    -jennifer

    Written by jennifer on June 12, 2013 @ 10:49 pm
  32. Hi Jennifer,

    QAI is legitimate. They are the biggest organic certification agency in the world. Here is their website. http://www.qai-inc.com/

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on June 17, 2013 @ 7:22 am
  33. […] I wrote about earlier this year, there is no such thing yet as USDA certified organic honey. Even though there is honey […]

    Pingback by The Risk of Buying Conventional Honey on November 14, 2013 @ 6:42 pm
  34. Great article Max. Thank you for conducting the research. I personally think the beekeepers should start a industry “trend” themselves if the USDA cannot come up with one and eventually mass populations that want certified organic honey will be on the case of the USDA to push them for these regulations. As I have seen, there are a lot of beekeepers that do not know when to pull out their apivar strips in time for the honey flow, thus contaminating the honey stores and selling it out on the local farmers markets. There has to be some medium of regulation or some method of physically testing the honey to prove its organic or at least to a certain level. Thanks again for this article and feel free to visit our website anytime. http://www.kybeeco.com Thanks again! Nicholas

    Written by Nicholas on December 20, 2013 @ 10:26 am
  35. If the label is meaningless, what’s the point of it being there?

    Put it another way: if “USDA Certified Organic” is really a self-certification, what is “USDA” doing there? Shouldn’t it be “self-certified organic”?

    Is this really misleading bordering with criminal, or is it just me? :)

    Written by Alex Gerulaitis on December 31, 2013 @ 5:25 am
  36. Regardless of abuse of the organic certification, wouldn’t you prefer the supplier to be striving towards the organic standards? Even if there isn’t a specific honey standard many of the livestock and plant standards still apply. The whole organic certification on finished goods is controversial as well. There are many products that cannot be organic but certain things require these ingredients and are still certified organic. (Salt for example). The USDA certified our organic line since 95% of the ingredients are organic and we maintain organic integrity where possible.
    On a side note, since I work in food manufacturing, I would say that organic is not as important as some type of GFSI standard (such as SQF) and implemented HACCP programs. Organic does not imply safe from foreign material and microbial hazards (of course honey has a .7 water activity). I would prefer my honey to be free from metal from improperly checked sieves or centrifuges than worry about where my bees may be foraging.

    Written by Steve on January 3, 2014 @ 12:06 am
  37. […] explain. But I’m not crazy about the addition of brown rice syrup (organic or not). And while organic honey is kind of dumb, at least that indicates there is a fighting chance that it’s actually honey and not some […]

    Pingback by Deflowering Organic Bread | FUSSYlittleBLOG on March 21, 2014 @ 9:16 am
  38. […] to this article, U.S. honey producers can label their honey “organic” if they think their honey meets European […]

    Pingback by The Truth About “Organic” Honey | Bee Hill Naturals on March 31, 2014 @ 6:13 pm
  39. Replying… years later. :)

    “The reality is that most consumers have no idea what CNG is or means. Many more consumers do know what the USDA seal means.”

    Disagree. Consumers may or many not have any idea what CNG means. But what is worse is that consumers *think* they know what USDA Organic means… and they don’t. Which is arguably far worse.

    If what this article is stating is true and they allow “USDA Organic” to land on honey bottles (note: there is *still* no organic standard for honey in the USA — this is 2014) then the Organic standard has been officially compromised. The consumer is being lied to. Allowing the use of the label in this way is merely greenwashing.

    This greenwashing does a disservice to honey, the beekeeping community, consumers, and Organic and Better-Than-Organic movements.

    Folks are beginning to distrust USDA Organic as a label. For all the obvious reasons. We hope the standards board cleans up their act and improves the standard. Part of that strictness needs to be ensuring there is an actual standard before allowing a label to be used. Otherwise… what’s the point?

    So, for now, CNG is it. That is the only alternative. Luckily… it is a good one. And yes, more and more people know what it is and what it means.

    -todd, beekeeper

    Written by Todd on May 22, 2014 @ 6:43 pm
  40. I happen to have the brand you show in the picture – did you research them at all? Any thoughts on this company?

    Written by Merle on July 15, 2014 @ 3:35 pm
  41. But wait new USDA organic standards specific to bees and honey are forthcoming this fall and open for public comment for one year.

    http://www.reginfo.gov/public/do/eAgendaViewRule?pubId=201404&RIN=0581-AD31

    Follow my Facebook page for my views as a full time beekeeper for the past 20 years while producing raw artisan honey in central MN

    https://m.facebook.com/AmesFarm

    Written by Brian Fredericksen on July 15, 2014 @ 8:37 pm
  42. Hi Merle,

    I have no real opinion on this brand, either good or bad. One of my favorite brands is Wedderspoon. http://livingmaxwell.com/wedderspoon-organic-beechwood-honey

    Written by Max Goldberg on July 18, 2014 @ 11:37 am
  43. I’m a hobby beekeeper and the stuff in that jar is unlike any honey I’ve seen before. Thick and opaque, looks more like peanut butter than honey.

    Chris
    Baton Rouge

    Written by Chris on August 7, 2014 @ 12:46 pm
  44. […] The Mystery Behind Organic Honey – livingmaxwell – I see organic honey on the supermarket shelves yet is there such a thing as certified organic honey? It is a very legitimate question and one I answer here. […]

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  45. […] The Mystery Behind Organic Honey – livingmaxwell – I see organic honey on the supermarket shelves yet is there such a thing as certified organic honey? It is a very legitimate question and one I answer here. […]

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