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You might be forgiven for thinking those bear-shaped containers in the supermarket always contain pure honey. In fact, there’s little regulation when it comes to honey, and imitation products cut with corn syrup or other sweeteners are often substituted for the real thing. Maryland and other states are taking the step to define what constitutes pure honey, and the beekeeping community is abuzz. Join Kojo to explore what it means for you and your family.
- Nancy Gentry Master Beekeeper (certified by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Program); Owner, Cross Creek Honey (Interlachen, FL)
- Ed Mordan President, Frederick County Beekeepers Association
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIHoney, it's one of the world's oldest foods. Where does it come from? Well, even small children know that. Honey comes from bees. That is bees make honey, period. So why are beekeepers buzzing, pushing their elected officials around the country to pass laws defining exactly what honey is? Well, these days Americans are consuming more than 400 million pounds of the sweet stuff every year. And the market is ripe for imitators who are trying to make money and pass off lesser quality products as honey.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo what exactly is honey and how can you know if what you're eating or serving your family is actually pure honey? Joining us in studio to discuss that is Ed Mordan. He is the president of the Frederick County Beekeeper Association. Ed Mordan, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ED MORDANThank you. Happy to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of WJCT in Jacksonville, Fla. is Nancy Gentry. Nancy Gentry is a master beekeeper and owner of Cross Creek Honey Company in Interlachen, Fla. She's been campaigning for state-by-state adoption of a honey standard for more than five years. Nancy Gentry, thank you for joining us.
MS. NANCY GENTRYThank you.
NNAMDINancy, last fall on this show we introduced our audience to the term honey laundering, that is products labeled honey that may have questionable origins and ingredients. How long has this been a known problem in the beekeeping world?
GENTRYI think you can define 2001 as the point where which we really had to start dealing with circumvented honey. The reason why I set that date is because prior to 2001 Chinese honey was coming in at a ridiculously low price and there was tons of it coming in. So obviously this was doing great damage to the U.S. honey industry because when a honey producer got ready to sell their honey to a packer they could not sell their honey for that ridiculously low price of Chinese honey. So needless to say, the U.S. honey industry was in very big trouble.
GENTRYThey went to Congress in 2001, these are the industry groups, and they said, you need to do something. This has got to stop. So Congress passed a 215 percent tariff on honey coming in from China. Well, immediately all honey coming in from China disappeared because obviously, they didn't want to be burdened by this 215 percent tariff.
GENTRYImmediately we then began to see countries that were exporting honey to the United States that had never been able to produce that particular color of honey. Usually the most prime is extra white honey. And all of a sudden they were, you know, bringing tons of it over. Malaysia was a good example because there's only 45,000 beekeepers in Malaysia. And yet tons of honey was coming from Malaysia and it was the really, you know, good extra white stuff. So, you know, it was apparent that honey was being circumvented in order to avoid that 215 percent tariff.
GENTRYAt that point, we saw cut honey coming across the border that was labeled honey. We saw something called packers blend, which was never subject to the 215 percent tariff that had 60 percent honey and then 40 percent some type of cut syrup. And there's at least 15 types of syrup that have been developed that can mimic that chemical composition of honey. So then we really were in trouble with all of this circumvention because not only did we have adulterated honey, but since the honey was being circumvented it too was coming in at a very, very low price.
GENTRYSo what we have now is what we call a two-tiered market. We have that circumvented honey coming in at, you know, very bad prices. And then we have the U.S. honey industry, which is still providing, you know, citizens with honey (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDICan you give us, Nancy, a basic definition of what honey is and what it is not?
GENTRYThe standard that we're trying to get adopted is what is known as the revised codex standard of identification of honey with some deviations. That honey -- or that standard, excuse me, places markers that will help somebody determine whether or not that substance is honey. For instance, in the standard, the substance cannot be greater than 23 percent moisture content. If it's higher for that, then it's deemed to be adulterated. It has a maltose content, a glucose content. It has a pollen issue. So those are the types of markers that are used to determine if indeed the substance is honey.
NNAMDIEd Mordan, the bottom line, it comes from bees.
MORDANYes. Honey is something that bees collect nectar and they go to the flowers, collect nectar. It goes into their honey stomach. It then goes to their comb. They then regurgitate this into a comb. The beehive is little more than a big dehydrator. It evaporates a third, depending on the nectar source, of the water away. When that comb is filled they put a capping on it, which is more beeswax. And it's like grandma filling her Mason jars. That's exactly what it is. They're putting it away, they're saving it for the winter.
MORDANWhen that entire frame is capped, we then cut the capping off, we put it in a extractor or spinner. That's all it is, hand cranked, doesn't go fast. And it comes out and it's collected in the bottom. It's then, I'm going to say filtered, only because here's a...
NNAMDII brought show and tell.
MORDANYeah, it's a 600 micron film which is about, I don't know, half the size of a window screen, kind of.
NNAMDIYep, it looks like about that to me.
MORDANThis is window screen here and this is the filter.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, it is about half the size, probably one-third.
MORDANAnd, yeah, something like, I don't know. And that filters out the big chunks of wax and little bee bits and what have you. And from that it goes into a jar. So honey is something that is made from a bee from a nectar source or also could be bees also harvest from an aphid, what do they call them, honey dews -- this little bug.
NNAMDIDon't ask me.
MORDANYeah, I know, it's the honey dew -- it's an aphid. They'll milk them. And that's the other source of nectar.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. What do you use honey for in your household? Do you have a favorite type of honey? Have you noticed a difference in your honey? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or to join the conversation, go to our website, kojo.org. Ed, it's my understanding that you take issue, jokingly, with being called a beekeeper. You say no one really keeps bees.
MORDANNo, you don't keep bees. Bees are wild animals. We put a box out there and we put bees in them and we hope that they stay. There is no -- you know, they're not in a cage. They are wild animals that we maintain. We...
NNAMDIAnd you don't train them. They train you?
MORDANOh yes, they certainly do train me. Well, my first year of beekeeping, I thought, wow, it's the end of the day and I come quick, check out my bees. And I realized it was going to rain, but, oh, I can get in there and open them up and see what it'd done before it rains. So I open up my hive and I'm looking into the hive. And about that time, they're coming at me and I get tapped, bang, bang. And I'm like, stop, ah, eek. And realizing that the bees were just saying, hey, you moron, it's gonna rain, why are you taking the roof off my house, you know?
MORDANNow they train you quite quickly, as a matter of fact. And the object is to figure out how a bee thinks, what it wants to do and kind of nudge them to do it in a way that makes your life easier.
NNAMDIIn that direction. Nancy, you have been fighting to legally standardize a definition of honey for years now. And it's my understanding you're frustrated with the federal government's response to this problem. Why?
GENTRYWell, yes. My campaign has been for state-adopted honey standards. Now the reason this initiative got started is because the FDA -- in March of 2006, the honey industry groups presented this revised codec standard of identify for honey. They presented it to the FDA. And that standard was based on an international standard that had been adopted by an organization within the world trade organization that was designed to foster trade. Interestingly the FDA attorney was part of that committee and they adopted this international codex, but the FDA would not do so.
GENTRYSo that's 2001. So the honey industry got busy and they took that international standard and they vetted it. They took out every clause that they felt the FDA would take issue with, and they fully expected that the FDA would adopt the standard. So this is March 2006, and it's presented, legal petition. By August 2006, the FDA cited other priorities and lack of resources, and so the petition was denied.
GENTRYI come into the picture in August of 2007, and really I'm just a little wet-behind-the-ears beekeeper, and I probably will always be that. But I was sitting at lunch with members of the Honeybee Technical Council in Florida, and the Florida State Bee Keeper's Association, and they were talking about how the honey industry is doomed. I mean, we'll never be able to complete with honey that is adulterated. It's coming across the borders and it's, you know, obviously cheap.
GENTRYSo I hear this and I feel real sorry for these guys. I didn't know anything about it. I mean, I'm not working at the national level. I'm a small beekeeper and just starting a honey business. So I go home and I'm been married 45 years to a real mean and nasty trial attorney, and also a lobbyist in Tallahassee, Fl. So I go home and, you know, that many years, you pick up a lot of law as just a law wife.
GENTRYSo I said my husband, I said, you know, why have we got to keep knocking on the door to the FDA with our little hat in hand, why can't we get this adopted state by state? So we will have standards of identity in the United States and at least the state will be able to, you know, have the possibility of enforcing the standard, and eventually with all of these state standards, the federal government is gonna have to address this situation.
GENTRYSo I got it in Florida in July '09, California adopted in October of '09, and then I just started going around the United States. So now we had...
GENTRYThat's right. There's Florida, California, Utah, Nebraska, Wisconsin, I think Oregon is...
NNAMDIOregon is on the way.
GENTRYYes. It's gotten to that point where they know it's gonna be, but they've got that 90-day lag time, and then of course, Maryland.
GENTRYBut it's important to remember that there's about 15 other states that are also pursuing state honey standards. So we are a voice. We have become proactive and we see this issue of state standards beginning to cause a little problem with the FDA in terms of interstate commerce because not every state adopted this revised codex that had these little deviations, or what I call the U.S. codex. They didn't adopt it verbatim, so they tweaked it a little bit.
GENTRYSo now I have honey packers calling me and they say, okay, Nancy, who's the next, you know, what's the next state that's adopted, and then they have to, you know, see whether or not they're gonna be able to meet that standard and the standard here and there. So it's become a real problem, you know, for honey packers already, and that's good. I mean, I feel sorry for the honey packers, but, you know, it's putting pressure on the FDA.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about the definition of honey or the laws being passed in several states, including Maryland, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you think there are other products, edible or non-edible, that scream out for state-adopted standard definitions, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can also send email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nancy Gentry. She's a master beekeeper and the owner of Cross Creek Honey Company in Interlachen, Fl., and Ed Mordan, he is president of the Frederick County Beekeeper Association. Here is Nina in Washington D.C. Nina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NINAThanks for your marvelous shows always, Kojo. I have a question about the heavy metals content in honey coming from industrial zones, or ones that are in the flyways of industrial zones.
NNAMDIThey heavy metal content?
NINAYeah. For instance in Chinese honey or American honey coming from areas where the bees and the plants are exposed to toxic pollution.
NNAMDICare to talk about that, Nancy?
GENTRYYeah. Yeah. She's right. When I worked on state-adopted honey standards, I was going strictly for adulteration, so honey cut with syrup, okay? But, you know, if you expand that definition and you include contaminates, then yes, there is definitely a problem there, unfortunately, and it's not all honey. I want to emphasize that. But, yeah. We find antibiotics in honey that have a zero tolerance in the presence of food here in America. Yes. There is heavy metals -- there is contaminants coming in in some of this bogus honey, and that's dangerous, you know.
GENTRYThat's a real problem. I mean, you know, this is just not honey. In three year's time, the amount of imports coming in from China went from 45 billion to 64 billion, and that's only three years. FDA can only inspect one percent of all the food ingredients coming into the United States, and then they only test about, you know, half of that one percent, so it is a big problem. And thankfully, it's a little easier to detect those contaminants like the zero tolerance antibiotics and, you know, debris that shouldn't be there and heavy metals.
GENTRYThose are a little bit easier to detect than this issue of cut syrup, but we have to face the fact that, you know, we just don't have adequate inspection at our borders to be able to inspect and do it...
NNAMDIAnd somebody has an issue about that, but Nina, thank you very much for your call. I'll get to that other call in a second, but first you, Ed Mordan.
MORDANIn the honey purity law, one of the things that is pointed out is also not only that it added stuff to honey, but taking stuff away from honey. And one of the concerns is people or manufacturers that are superheating the honey and high-pressure filtering it through a ceramic screen, thus removing all pollen and whatever. Pollen works as a finger print so that honey can be tested for space of origin. You've got pollen from wherever and then, you know, where's it from.
MORDANSo, if the label needs to mark the country of origin, and also there has to be pollen in there to allow as a fingerprint. We have EPA laws that restrict issues of certain pesticides and such in the United States. Other countries don't. So if we have pollen in the honey, which the Maryland law requires, that gives you a fingerprint for testing. You can't test for everything, but you can test for a place of origin, and that's easier.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Rhonda who says, "I am everything but honey vegan. I am not sold on the idea that consuming honey is harmful to the bees. Will you please ask your guests to comment on the process of honey extraction and whether the often-heard vegan concerns about harming bees and stealing their honey is real or unfounded?" And we got a caller who couldn't stay on the line in Columbia. Andrew asks, "Would your guests consider bees fed sugar water, not nectar, as honey-producing?" I'll start with you, Nancy Gentry.
GENTRYYeah. First, the thing to talk about is the issues that the vegans have with bees. We never are in a situation to where we would take so much honey from those bees that we would put that colony life in stress. Never would we do that.
NNAMDIBecause people have realized bees make honey to help them lie through the winter.
GENTRYThat is correct. I mean, this is the way that they, you know, put food away in their pantry, the same thing, you know, that we do. I mean, we can have fresh stuff, but then, you know, winter comes around and we've got to have canned stuff as well. So we're never in a situation to where we put the colony at stress, and this may mean that we've got to leave a whole box of honey on there in order for them to make it through the winter, and it's dependent upon where you live as to how much honey you're gonna have to leave there.
GENTRYNow, the issue of sugar water. Let's take Florida, for instance. Of course, we're a wonderful tropical environment. We have many, many wonderful nectar flows, but there are times during the year when nothing blooming. In other words, their pantry is getting very low, and here again, why in the world would we put the colony at stress. So we do feed them sugar water, but bees are not (word?) bees. When there is a nectar flow that comes in, they won't drink that sugar water, and of course, you know, good bee keepers take the sugar water off. We just don't need it.
GENTRYLet me go back. I forgot something about vegans. A lot of people are under the impression that literally the bees kind of regurgitate something out of their stomach. The little honey stomach is nothing more than kind of a little holding area for the nectar. It has nothing to do with any issues pertaining to the bees' stomach, digestive tract, or anything else. So what that little honey bee who's gathered that nectar and puts it in her kind of little honey packet, she takes it back, another little nectar bee meets her at the hive, and they put their little tongues together and it's something called trophallaxis.
GENTRYAnd the little honey goes out of -- the nectar goes out of that honey holding area, and then it goes into the other bees, you know, similar thing or identical thing, and then the little nectar bee puts that honey -- puts that nectar right there in the hive. She's packing the nectar in. This allows that little other nectar bee to go right back out and start, you know, visiting 5200 flowers.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jonathan who said, "I've cut out honey and now use agave maple syrup or jams in its place. Why? I'm no longer confident that the supply chain is not contaminated, combined with Chinese and Indian honey. Honey producers are being very shortsighted in their business approach. They're mixing good honeys with the cheap stuff, corn syrup and the like to increase profits. That's why I'm told even a product that says U.S. honey cannot assure consumers it's pure. Thank you for initiating and continuing to cover the issue of bees and honey over the past few years."
NNAMDINow, Ed Mordan, with your show and tell, there's two packets. One of them says pure honey. It's from McDonald's. It says Grade A pure honey. Another one says honey, ingredients, U.S. Grade A honey. What should I take from these packages?
MORDANWhat should you take from -- taste them and see. I brought also a jar of Ed Mordan's honey. So the answer is I know the Ed Mordan's honey is honey.
NNAMDIIt's pure honey.
MORDANWell, honey is pure.
MORDANHoney is something -- this is made from a bee, from nectar, and it's honey. There's a little wooden...
NNAMDIA little taste test here.
MORDANYou can tell by how thick it is. I know that that is 18 percent, which is the requirement for honey, so you can see how thick it is.
MORDANThat is some late-season honey.
NNAMDIOkay. I've tasted the Ed Mordan honey. Now with the other end of the stick, I'm going to be tasting the pure honey from McDonald's.
MORDANIs it as thick?
NNAMDINo it is not. It's fairly thick, but it's not quite as thick as the Ed Mordan honey.
NNAMDIAnd what's the difference?
MORDANWell, I don't know. I would...
NNAMDIIt's not quite as delicious as yours.
MORDANI didn't pack that honey so I can't tell what's in that honey. It is made in the United States.
MORDANIt is listed as United States honey. I have a feeling that that honey would have been heated and microfiltered. That's done for preserving and to keep it from crystallizing. The downside to that would be the using it -- some people feel that pollen is needed for -- you take that to eliminate...
NNAMDII don't know.
MORDAN...allergies. For allergies and that kind of thing, you want local honey. I don't know, I'm no doctor. But whenever I'm selling honey at the fair, everybody wants the closest honey. So there will be no pollen in that, and it will also be heated killing enzymes and such, and it's an issue of processing. It's a processing step which is not allowed, according to the Maryland law, so it kills good stuff in the honey, and it's got to take out flavor.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Terry in Bethesda, Md. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRYHi. I have a question and maybe you just eluded to it, that it's better to eat the honey from your area and so I've been honey from local Bethesda beemaker people, and also they sell some pollen, little jars of pollen. So I wondered if that really makes a difference.
GENTRYYeah. The issue of allergies.
GENTRYI'm the first one not to make health claims about honey because I'm not a doctor.
GENTRYThe overwhelming number of my customers do indeed buy honey because they have discovered that it does improve their ability to ward off those histaminic reactions when the allergy season comes along.
GENTRYNow, you know, I want to educate you just a little bit, okay? When people are buying honey, you know, they're thinking, well, there's pollen in the honey, and that's the pollen that I'm allergic to. In reality, there is definitely pollen in the honey, with no doubt, and that's what honey standards are saying you know, that you should only remove the pollen that is unavoidable in the process. I happen to believe -- I know I went to a major symposium on honey and health back in January '08 at a national Convention, and I listened to presentations all day long.
GENTRYThere had 267 presentations, they chose 12, so you could see how selective they were. And the bottom line, the conclusion there was, even though we don't know all of the benefits of honey, that if you take a tablespoon of honey every day, it's definitely going to have health benefits to you. My bet is, is that yes, you're taking the local honey, and you are getting some pollen, but some of the pollen that you're allergic to, the bees bring it into the hive, the cuticle is so hard, they cannot break it. So bingo, it goes right through their digestive tract. So I yes, there's definitely a pollen issue, but I feel like that tablespoon of honey everyday is really, you know, helping them, you know, have a stronger immune system.
GENTRYI want to address that one remark from your listener about agave. I know a lot of people are, you know, using that now as a substitute. I think it's important to remember that honey is the perfect food. They found it in the tombs of the pharaohs, clay vessel, liquid wax, you opened it up, it probably didn't taste very good but you could eat it. Honey is a wonderful combination of proteins, vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, antimicrobial properties.
GENTRYIt goes into the liver as a simple sugar of nothing more than fructose and glucose, so there's no necessity to kind of reconfigure that sugar, and so it's kind of an immediate boost to the major organs. There's people that say if they take it at night, they feel really up and let's get out of the bed and get going the next morning. So, you know, I would say yes, a lot of people are using agave, but I still contend that if you're going to consume any kind of sweetener, that honey is the one that has the tremendous food value in addition to being sweet.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Nancy Gentry is a master beekeeper and the owner of Cross Creek Honey Company in Interlachen, Fla. She's been campaigning for state-by-state adoption of a honey standard for more than five years. Thank you so much for joining us.
GENTRYThank you so much. I appreciate being able to talk about my passionate subject.
NNAMDIEd Mordan is the president of the Frederick County Beekeeper Association. Thank you so much for joining us.
MORDANBeen wonderful, thank you.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineers are Andrew Chadwick, Timmy Olmstead and Kellan Quigley. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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