Honey Labels Put Customers in Sticky Situation

Honey comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, but you can’t determine if it’s local by just reading the label. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Honey comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, but you can’t determine if it’s local by just reading the label. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

With no set guidelines and no one really checking, consumers are left to figure out what local means

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The labels are decorated with such phrases as “Local Honey,” “New England Honey” and “Local Raw Honey,” and some are even marketed as medicinal. But who is actually monitoring these claims? Nobody really. It’s up to consumers to find out if the marketing claims are true, and if they’re not careful, they can wind up buying repackaged bulk honey from South America.

“The word ‘local’ has become a marketing term, and there are those who use very deceptive labeling practices,” said Chris Combs, a backyard beekeeper and founder of Giving Bees a Chance. His advice? “Get to know your beekeeper, just like you should get to know your farmer or brewer. Ask questions. Ask to see their apiary.”

Jon Nelson, of B.B. Nelson Apiaries in Woonsocket, R.I., has seen firsthand the deceptive labeling practices used by people he calls “packers.” He said these people buy what is commonly referred to as “bucket honey” — 60 pounds of honey in a 5-gallon pail — from distributors and pack it into jars affixed with labels that claim the honey is local or at least infer the honey is something it is not.

Nelson knows this practice is commonplace because he sells bucket honey to buyers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He said he’s seen buckets with the McLure’s label removed and “Rhode Island Honey” written across the lid. He’s seen buckets with glue lines from where the distributor’s label was peeled off.

He buys bucket honey at wholesale for about $2.30 a pound and sees it selling for $18-$23 a pound under another label that purports the honey to be raw and/or local. Nelson said he knows a local beekeeper who sells bucket honey, labeled as local, for $350 — the market rate for those 60 pounds of distributor honey is about $230, he noted. He said he knows of a southern New England “beekeeper” who tried to sell bucket honey, again labeled as local, to a Woonsocket store for a wholesale price of $30 a pound. The store declined.

“I wouldn’t care if they were selling this honey for $5 a pound and saying it came from the moon,” Nelson said. “But when you’re charging $18 for bucket honey that pisses me off.”

This practice of creative labeling isn’t illegal, at least not in Rhode Island, Connecticut or Massachusetts. In New Hampshire, however, any honey labeled as “New Hampshire” honey must have been entirely produced in the state.

The Massachusetts labeling law for honey reads, in part, “No person shall package, label, sell, keep for sale, expose or offer for sale, any article or product in imitation or semblance of honey branded as ‘honey,’ ‘liquid or extracted honey,’ ‘strained honey,’ ‘imitation honey’ or ‘pure honey’ which is not pure honey made by honey bees. No person, firm, association, company or corporation, shall manufacture, sell, expose or offer for sale, any compound or mixture branded or labeled as ‘honey’ which consists of honey mixed with any other substance or ingredient.”

The law doesn’t address labeling claims such as “local” or “raw.”

There’s very little to honey labeling requirements in Connecticut. Rhode Island’s labeling requirements are slightly less weak, stipulating that “Rhode Island Fancy Grade Honey shall be honey that is produced in Rhode Island and is free from overheating, fermentation, honey-dew pollen, objectionable flavor from floral source or paint or smoke, carbolic acid or other foreign flavor, odor or dirt.”

Basically, packers just need to avoid using the term “Rhode Island Fancy Grade Honey” when selling in the Ocean State.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) runs several seasonal farmers markets where honey is sold. The burden of proof is squarely on the consumer. In a recent e-mail to ecoRI News, DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati wrote, “While the honey does not have to be local and there’s not a mechanism to determine where the honey is actually from, patrons at the farmers markets can speak with the vendors if they have any questions about the product or want more information.”

ecoRI News also contacted the Food and Drug Administration about honey labeling requirements and asked if the federal agency has any rules that govern the use of words and phrases such as “Local” and “New England Honey.” An agency press officer responded via e-mail that the “FDA does not have a definition for the terms you are referring to but does require that all food labeling claims be truthful and not misleading to the consumer.”

Her e-mail included links to FDA Label Claims and to the agency’s Label Claims for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements. There was nothing to address the shadiness of labeling distributor honey "local" among all the jargon.

Last year, the FDA did issue new guidelines that require companies to label any honey that isn’t pure with “blend of sugar and honey” or “blend of honey and corn syrup,” depending on the ingredients. The policy change was the result of organizations such as the American Beekeeping Federation petitioning against the common food industry practice of misrepresenting “pure honey.”

“Many people buy local honey for the pollen from the plants that they're allergic to. That’s why they want it,” Nelson said. “Relabeled bucket honey from another part of the country or world isn’t going to provide that."

Combs said be leery of any beekeeper that claims his or her honey is organic or pesticide free. “I don’t know what organic honey is,” said Combs, who has been a practicing hobbyist beekeeper for nearly a decade. “Bees can travel three to five miles. You can’t control that, unless you have a huge property and build some enormous fence.”

The Blackstone, Mass., resident mentioned several questions consumers should ask beekeepers, depending on their level of honey curiosity: Where are your hives? How many bee yards do you have and how many hives in each? Do you use chemicals on your hives? Do you buy bulk honey?

Jon Nelson surrounded by his hives and bees at his friend’s farm in North Smithfield, R.I. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Jon Nelson surrounded by his hives and bees at his friend’s farm in North Smithfield, R.I. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Buy the bucket
Bucket honey is pasteurized at 200 degrees Fahrenheit and filtered, according to Nelson. The countries of origin of the honey Nelson buys from New Hampshire-based McLure’s and sells are the United States, Argentina and Brazil. He said much of the clover honey McLure’s sells comes from clover fields in North and South Dakota.

Besides clover honey, Nelson said McLure’s sells orange blossom, cranberry, blueberry and alfalfa honey by the bucket.

“McLure’s sells good honey, but I wouldn’t say it’s local,” Nelson said.

In fact, testing honey to find out the country/place of its origin is virtually impossible. “There is no reliable method for determining the regional origin of honey,” said Dana Krueger, president of Krueger Food Laboratories Inc., an independent food testing and consulting laboratory in Chelmsford, Mass.

He said it’s not technically possible for most food testing labs to test for a honey's origin, but he did note that in certain cases one would rule in or out certain origins based upon certain parameters. But there are limitations, he said: pollen doesn’t necessarily tell you the geographical origin, it tells you what plants it’s derived from; and a lot of commercial honey in the North American market is filtered so it doesn’t contain pollen.

To the best of his knowledge, Krueger said only one laboratory in North America is doing this type of work and that’s an academic lab at Texas A&M University.

Combs said some beekeepers buy bucket/bulk honey when they overextend themselves. They sign retail honey contracts and then fall behind. To keep up with the demand, they buy bulk honey to avoid having to pay a contract termination fee. He said he knows one southern New England beekeeper who had to do just that, for a short time, and didn’t feel good about it.

“Of course, someone could just buy bulk honey and slap their label on it. Then they’re not making honey; they’re just a distributor,” Combs said. “You have to trust supermarkets did their homework.”

Rumor mill
Jeff Mello has heard the rumors — he’s even addressed them on social media — that his honey isn’t 100 percent local. He blames Farm Fresh Rhode Island for spreading them.

“Farm Fresh started the rumor,” he told ecoRI News during a June 5 phone conversation. “They wanted to send a beekeeper from Massachusetts to tour my facility and see how it operates. I said absolutely no. I’m not having a competitor check out how I do things.”

Jesse Rye, Farm Fresh’s co-executive director, said there was nothing sinister behind his organization asking Mello to give an out-of-state beekeeping professional a tour of Mello's Aquidneck Honey operation. Rye said such tours are standard operating procedure.

Farmers market patrons pay a premium for goods purportedly from local farms or producers. These tours, Rye said, are just meant to give Farm Fresh a look at an operation and establish a relationship with the proprietor.

He said part of Farm Fresh’s job is to make sure vendors are following market policy. Rye said the tours aren’t about making owners reveal their business secrets.

Rye said Farm Fresh visits about a third of its vendors annually. This summer, the Pawtucket-based organization is managing 10 farmers markets, working with 53 farms, including livestock and aquaculture, and about 60 other food vendors.

In the organization’s history, only three vendors, based on farm/operation tours, have been banned from Farm Fresh markets, for lack of transparency and/or not growing what they claimed they were, according to Rye.

Once a regular at Farm Fresh markets, Aquidneck Honey hasn’t been an approved vendor since March 2014, for noncompliance with the organization’s farm tour process, Rye said.

Aquidneck Honey also is no longer a vendor at Aquidneck Growers’ farmers markets. The company’s vendor application wasn’t renewed by the Aquidneck Growers’ Market one year, and Aquidneck Honey then missed the application deadline the following year.

The Whole Foods Market on Waterman Street in Providence clearly markets Aquidneck Honey as a local product. The product’s own labels say the honey is ‘New England Honey,’ ‘Pure Raw Local Honey’ and ‘Pesticide Free.’ (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The Whole Foods Market on Waterman Street in Providence clearly markets Aquidneck Honey as a local product. The product’s own labels say the honey is ‘New England Honey,’ ‘Pure Raw Local Honey’ and ‘Pesticide Free.’ (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

During our June 5 phone conservation with Mello, he was asked if he would be willing to give ecoRI News a tour of his operation and talk about beekeeping. He said he would, but noted that July would work better. ecoRI News contacted him, via e-mail or voice-mail message, on July 6, 9, and 17. Mello responded to the July 17 e-mail, writing, “Still moving Frank and placing bees on MV...”

A July 12 Facebook post by Aquidneck Honey said the business was moving to 75 Tupelo St., Unit 9, in Bristol, R.I., from 307 Oliphant Way in Middletown.

Mello never responded to a follow-up e-mail sent by ecoRI News on July 20, nor one sent nearly a month later, on Aug. 18. ecoRI News left a voice-mail message a day later.

Aquidneck Honey has been featured by local media. An October 2011 video by Rhode Island Monthly featured Mello talking about his business and the business of beekeeping.

In a June 2011 story in the Middletown Patch, Mello is quoted as saying, “My hands are in this honey every step of the way” and “Every wildflower in Rhode Island goes into this honey.” According to the story, Mello has more than 800 hives located all over Rhode Island.

According to a July 2013 RI Local Magazine story, during harvesting season, which is typically mid-summer to early fall depending on the weather, Mello dons his bee suit to collect honey from his more than 2,500 hives in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

A November 2013 story by EastBayRI said Aquidneck Honey is bottled from honey produced in 1,568 individual hives throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut.

Mello began keeping honeybees in 1996, in Newport, R.I., with a couple of hives, according to the Aquidneck Honey website. “Needless to say, we have come far since the beginning with only 2 hives. We are now responsible for over one thousand hives, which cover the entire state! Having only 1 hive in my yard, that leaves hundreds of hives to pollinate our farms, estates and backyard gardens alike with our chemical free honeybees."

During our short June 5 phone conversation with Mello, he said competition and jealousy were behind the rumors. He told ecoRI News he gets all of his honey from the Northeast, from hives in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

ecoRI News bought a 1-pound jar of Aquidneck Honey on July 4 at a Providence Whole Foods Market for $12.99. The label read “New England Honey” and “Pure Raw Local Honey.”

We asked Whole Foods Market how it investigates such claims. In an e-mail to ecoRI News, Whole Foods local forager Rob Williams wrote, “We are in the middle of reviewing exactly how to enforce or investigate ... As all products that we bring in, we like to schedule an actual visit to the farm or the production facility.”

He also wrote that “as far as our internal labeling of local products, our local program is now defined that if it is from New England it is local. That may be changing to restricting the use of local to the state within which the store is located."

Williams said Whole Foods is looking at requiring honey suppliers to sign an affidavit verifying that their honey meets the above criteria if it is to be labeled “local.”

ecoRI News had the 1-pound jar of Aquidneck Honey — as well as an 8-ounce jar ($6.49) of Boston Honey Co. honey, which was on the same Whole Foods Market shelf — tested for fillers by Krueger Food Laboratories. Both samples contained no traces of filler.

“Results are consistent with a pure honey,” according to both reports.

The local honey of Jon Nelson, of B.B. Nelson Apiaries in Woonsocket, R.I., ranges in color and taste. He gives most of it away to family and friends. He has hives at his Woonsocket home and at this farm in North Smithfield. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The local honey of Jon Nelson, of B.B. Nelson Apiaries in Woonsocket, R.I., ranges in color and taste. He gives most of it away to family and friends. He has hives at his Woonsocket home and at this farm in North Smithfield. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Hives of activity
The Boston Honey Co., based in Holliston, Mass., has hives in Massachusetts (1,200), New York (500) and Georgia (400). Owner Andy Reseska recently spoke with ecoRI News on the phone for a half-hour as he was preparing for a month-long trip to New York to work the hives.

He said false claims and deceptive labeling practices hurt his business and the industry in general. He knows it’s done, and there’s little he can do to stop it.

Boston Honey Co. has been a family run business for 15 years, and Reseska said it took time to build the necessary infrastructure, which now includes two extractors, including a 22-foot one and a smaller one for specialty honeys, trucks and a forklift.

Besides himself and his wife, the business employees four other full-time people, including Reseska’s son who runs the Boston Public Market store and a person in Georgia. During honey harvests, Reseska said kids are hired to help.

Boston Honey Co. is one of the 37 full-time vendors at Boston Public Market, a “year-round market featuring fresh, locally sourced food” that opened last month on Hanover Street. Boston Public Market officials visited Reseska's operation before approving the company’s application.

The company sells Massachusetts Raw Honey, Northeast Harvest and Southern Raw Honey, among other products.

In Blackstone, backyard beekeeper Combs keeps two hives, plus two at a farm in Smithfield, R.I., and one each in Burrillville and Little Compton, R.I., and Sutton, Mass. He said there are some 40,000 to 50,000 bees in each of his seven hives.

Combs said his hives produce different amounts of honey depending on weather and other variables, such as how much pollen and nectar was available. He said he takes 70 or so pounds from his strong hives. “I could take more, but that’s their food,” he said. “I don’t like stealing their food.”

He gives most of his honey away to friends and family, and sells some to a local restaurant.

Nelson, of B.B. Nelson Apiaries, also gives most of the honey from his 28 hives away to family and friends. For honey that he does sell, he said he charges a wholesale price of $15 a pound.

“I don’t have time to sell,” said the part-time beekeeper who works as a self-employed general contractor to pay the bills. “Honey doesn’t go bad, so I have plenty stacked up in the house."

Nelson said his hives — at his Woonsocket home and at a friend’s farm in North Smithfield, R.I. — combined produce between 900 and 1,700 pounds a year, including both the spring (June) and fall (September/October) harvests. He leaves plenty in the hives for the bees to survive the winter.

At his home in Woonsocket, where ecoRI News recently spoke with him for three-plus hours about honey, bees and beekeeping, and where bees ruled the air, we sampled from several of 23 jars of local raw honey, collected from hives Nelson has rescued over the years from trees and buildings in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

These jars of varietal honey ranged in color from nearly clear to white to dark brown, and their flavor ranged from coffee strong to apple-juice weak, depending on what flower the bees had fed on. His local honey has names like Ocean Rose — from beach rose in Jamestown — Linden and Sunflower. His dark honeys are from golden rod and buckwheat pollen collected in the fall.

The taste and smell of each one sampled was different, even to a novice taster. Some of the jars were totally crystallized, slight crystallized, or not at all, such as an 8-year-old sample. In some jars, you could see pollen and pieces of propolis, also known as bee glue and used in traditional medicines for thousands of years.

Nelson, a member of both the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association and the Worcester County Beekeepers Association, said since Rhode Island lacks fields of clover, local clover honey is difficult to produce. He said local blueberry honey also is difficult to get. He also noted that any honey that claims to be raw better have some particles floating in it.

During ecoRI News' visit, Nelson opened up several of his backyard hives, pulling out single frames dripping with honey, including one he said weighed 5 pounds; it felt heavier. He proudly showed off his extractor, bolted to the concrete floor of what was once a garage, that he built himself, with some help from a friend who welds.

“I don’t make honey; I steal it,” Nelson said. “Any beekeeper who says they have a year-round never-ending supply of local honey is full of malarkey. Buying a bee suit doesn’t make you a beekeeper."

Annette Birman, owner of Annie B’s Honey Farm in Cumberland, R.I., said she sold 5,000 pounds of local honey last year. She said she has numerous hives in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including these 10 at her farm. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Annette Birman, owner of Annie B’s Honey Farm in Cumberland, R.I., said she sold 5,000 pounds of local honey last year. She said she has numerous hives in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including these 10 at her farm. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Queen bee
Annette Birman, who playful refers to herself as “queen bee,” began beekeeping as a hobby in 1996 with a single hive. Now, nearly two decades later, Annie B’s Honey Farm has “numerous hives,” which last year, Birman said, allowed her to sell 2.5 tons of honey.

ecoRI News recently spent an hour and half visiting with Birman at her 2.5-acre farm/home in Cumberland, R.I. She said she has numerous hives in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, at the farm and on the property of 15 to 20 customers. She said her hives are started with 3-pound packages of bees bought from an apiary in Georgia. She said there are up to 250,000 to 300,000 bees in each of her hives.

Annie B’s Honey Farm sells four varieties — Dark Wildflower Honey, Pure Blueberry Honey, Clover Honey and Orange Blossom Honey. Birman also sells honey skin cream, lip balm, candy, soap and straws, and pollen pellets.

Birman said she began her orange blossom honey experiment four years ago, after building a greenhouse that now houses 20 orange trees, according to her last count, and six to eight hives. So far this year, those hives have produced some 800 pounds of honey, she said.

Birman wouldn’t disclose the greenhouse’s location, except to say it was on property in Rhode Island that belongs to a customer. She said she doesn’t give tours of her orange grove because it’s on private property. Asked how big the greenhouse is, Birman said, “Good sized, but I don’t have the exact measurements.”

Standard variety orange trees, on average, are 25-30 feet tall. Dwarf orange trees range in height from 8-12 feet. A standard-sized navel orange tree, according to a quick Internet search, must be about 20 feet from other trees to have enough room to grow. Birman said she cuts back the trees to manage their size.

In an e-mail to ecoRI News, Birman wrote that she gives her locally grown oranges "out to my friends and family. Any extra I give to the RI food pantry."

All of the honey sold by Annie B’s Honey Farm is from a ‘200-mile radius,’ according to its owner. (Annette Birman)

All of the honey sold by Annie B’s Honey Farm is from a ‘200-mile radius,’ according to its owner. (Annette Birman)

She said her blueberry honey comes blueberry fields in Massachusetts. She estimated that her bees have produced 3,000 pounds of blueberry honey so far this year.

During our Aug. 26 late-afternoon visit to the farm, Birman showed ecoRI News 10 of the 15 hives she said are on the property. She told ecoRI News she wasn’t up to opening the hives. According to the Annie B’s Honey Farm website, the operation has 50 hives.

Birman said all of the work, bottling and labeling the honey and making the other products, is done in the farm’s honey house — a small kitchen area in the basement of one of the property’s three buildings. The only work not conducted at the farm, she said, is honey extraction, which is done at a beekeeping operation in Warwick, R.I. She hired the business’ first full-time employee this year, and she also employees two part-time workers. She said she also has a few volunteers who help with the business.

She said her honey is “pure,” “raw” and “natural,” and nothing is added or infused. She said all of the honey she sells is from her hives.

“All of my honey is local honey from a 200-mile radius,” said Birman, noting she filters out all particles, unless there is a special order.

Annie B’s Honey is sold at various stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including at Dave’s Marketplace locations and at some Tom’s Market locations. Birman said she also sells at events in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, and ships her honey to buyers in California, Virginia, New Hampshire and Vermont.

When asked how consumers can tell if honey is local, Birman said, “I’m honest and very religious. I preach it and live it.”