Can honey be organic?

WHEN READER MARC WONDERED ON THE CTF FACEBOOK PAGE about how honey could be organic, it made me curious: Can honey really be organic when bees are flying all over the place encountering who knows what kind of flowers and water sources?

The National Honey Board defines organic honey as:

Honey produced, processed, and packaged in accordance with State and Federal regulations on honey and organic products, and certified by a State Department of Agriculture or an independent organic farming certification organization.

Independent organic certifier Quality Assurance International has strict guidelines about bee sources, hive location and structure materials, use of antibiotics and chemicals, and processing methods.

And this seemingly well-informed Yahoo Answers responder had this to say (he even has source notations, although the footnotes were no where to be found so I was unable to verify):

According to USDA regulations, honey cannot be labeled certified organic if its production uses even traces of prohibited chemicals, drugs or antibiotics. Non-organic beekeepers routinely use sulfa compounds and antibiotics to control bee diseases, carbolic acid to remove honey from the hive and calcium cyanide to kill colonies before extracting the honey¹, and of course conventional honeybees gather nectar from plants that have been sprayed with pesticides. The Lancet, a prestigious international medical journal, reported in 1993 that conventionally produced honey may contain residues of these chemicals and should be used with caution², which is one of the reasons many of us jump for joy when we find a reliable source of certified organic honey.

HHOWEVER, THE PRODUCTION OF ORGANIC HONEY ISN’T THAT STRAIGHTFORWARD. Bees travel up to 5 miles from the hive to find flowers and some studies show they will fly as far as they have to go. Setting up hives surrounded with a five mile radius of organic flowers, crops, and water is problematic, even if we could guarantee the bees wouldn’t fly any farther away.


The Seattle pi, in December 2008, published an article about the myth of American organic honey. It said:

Government, academic and industry experts insist that U.S. organic honey is a myth. With rare exceptions, this country is too developed and uses too many agricultural and industrial chemicals to allow for the production of organic honey.

“Like other foods from free-roaming, wild creatures, it is difficult — and in some places impossible — to assure that honey bees have not come in contact with prohibited substances, like pesticides,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a national advocacy group for the research and promotion of organic food.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture research, he said, shows that the average hive contains traces of five or more pesticide residues.

The article continues:

Jerry Hayes, chief of the apiary section for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said there are no organic standards for honey in the United States because honeybees forage in a 2 to 2 1/2-mile radius of their colonies.

“They’re flying dust mops and will pick up unbelievable amounts of environmental contaminants,” Hayes said.

Some countries do produce organic honey (Canada and Argentina). Some countries (China) produce honey that has been repeatedly boiled and combined with other syrups. This honey has lost the nutrients that may make honey a healthier option.

But while honey labels are required to have country of origin, many don’t list it and the USDA doesn’t strictly enforce this regulation.

The bottom line: When buying honey, remember: producing organic honey has many challenges and is virtually impossible in the U.S. Don’t spend more for an organic certification. You are better off buying local non-organic honey which helps build resistance to local allergens. Look for a country-of-origin label. If you can’t find one, or it’s China, skip that brand because you won’t know what you are really getting.

1 comment for “Can honey be organic?

  1. Corey
    November 3, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Found this website relating to chemical use in organic crops, not honey necessarily I know, but relevant nonetheless.

    Organic farming can sometimes even be more toxic to the environment because the ‘natural’ pesticides that are allowed are not as effective…so the farmer has to use more of them, and if/when they run off into the surrounding environment there are higher levels of the chemical. Organic doesn’t mean chemical free, just free of synthetic chemicals.

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