Find honey from local hives here!

Organic-produced honey, like many exotic honeys, commands a higher price in the marketplace.  But to be sure you are getting what you pay the extra price for, it is important to know what "organic honey" means, at least in the United States.

Organic honey is (at present) an illusion

Alex Wild, who teach a university beekeeping class, says (see the full article here in Scientific American):


Since beekeepers don't own the tens of thousands of acres surrounding their hives, they have no control over what their bees are bringing home.
Organic honey isn't impossible. It's just beyond of the ability of most beekeepers. Bee yards situated in isolated spots deep in the Adirondacks, or mountain valleys in sparsely-populated New Mexico, can probably pull off honey free of agrochemicals. Most beekeepers operate within a bee's flight of pesticides, however, making "organic" honey an illusory proposition. ....
Certainly some of the honey labeled as "organic" may actually lack pesticide traces. But I'd not count on it. None of the certification protocols take into account the newly-documented problem of wax contamination, and most underestimate the real foraging radius of a large bee colony.
Mr. Wild makes a good argument; since beekeepers cannot control where bees go to collect nectar, they can't assure that all sources are organic and free of pesticide residues.  On the other hand, a honey that is produced from hiveslocated in a pristine wilderness area would be as close to "organic" as any honey could be, whether they are certified or not.

What is "Certified Organic"?  The NOP (U.S. National Organic Program)

The USDA has strict honey and labeling requirements for most organic products. Honey is an exception. The federal USDA does not inspect or certify apiaries for organic honey. But, there are certifying agencies that will certify honey as organic. 

The draft/proposed organic honey standards are:

  1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge). Policy on genetically modified organisms (pdf)
  2. Produced using allowed substances. View the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
  3. Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.(which do not yet exist for honey)

So, if a honey is produced in the U.S., at present, there really are no clear standards. Most independent certifying agencies in the US follow the NOSB’s recommendations See this article for more information about the lack or Organic Honey Standards in the U.S. So, some agencies certifying honey as organic, using whatever standard they desire. For example, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certifies some apiaries, such Pu'u O Hoku Ranch in Hawaii as organic. CCOF using both the organic livestock guidelines and the NOSB 2010 draft apiculture standards.

And since there is an exception for organic farmers who sell $5,000 or less of their honey, they can use an organic label without any inspections or oversight at all. It's another loophole.


But how is there Certified Organic Honey sold in the U.S.?

In addition to being certified as organic by using an arbitrary standard, honey imported from outside of the US it is considered Organic if it meets the country of origin's organic standards (as well as US standards - the latter do not yet exist). Honey from the UK, European Union countries, Canada, and Singapore should be good, since they have strict organic standards in place.

But honey from other places like China, Thailand, Brazil is questionable. And most organic honey imported to the U.S. comes from Brazil. Brazil is well known for fraud and compliance issues in their government. So just how "organic" it is, is questionable.

You will see advertising like this:

Our USDA certified Organic Honey is from organic certified beehives. These special hives are located in remote regions of Brazil where the honey bees forage on various wildflowers, free from herbicides and pesticides. No chemicals can be used on the hives.

And this example:

Our USDA certified Organic Honey is produced by organic certified beehives. These special beehives are located in remote regions where the honey bees can forage for nectar from various wildflowers, that are free from herbicide or pesticide applications. Enjoy this unique gift from nature! Sourced from Brazil.

And they can say it is certified, because they imported the honey from Brazil, where it had been certified.  But what does that even mean, really?

Can a honey be labeled “organic” without being certified?

Overall, if you make a honey and want to claim that it or its ingredients are certified organic, your final honey would need to be certified. If you are not certified, you must not make any organic claim (under NOP) on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package*. The beekeeper may only, on the information panel, identify the certified organic ingredients as organic and the percentage of organic ingredients.

Remember, it's also catch-22, since there are no organic honey standards under the National; Organic Program (NOP) at present. To further confuse the issues, the USDA says "

“USDA-accredited certifying agents may certify beekeeping operations under the existing organic regulations for livestock (Sections 205.236 – 205.240).”


The bottom line

For the most part, a label that says "Organic honey" in the United States is pretty meaningless at present since there are no national standards and no one to inspect or enforce them.


Whether the honey says it is certified organic or not, look for a location away from urban areas and large conventional agricultural areas that use pesticides. For example, most blueberry growers do not use pesticides. Or beehives located in a remote forests. This is the best way to get the purist honey: know where it really comes from and choose a remote location!

Additional References

  1. USDA NOSB 2010 Apiculture DRAFT Organic Honey Recommendation
  2. European Union organic honey standards
    According to EU standards, “The siting of the apiaries shall be such that, within a radius of 3 km from the apiary site, nectar and pollen sources consist essentially of organically produced crops and/or spontaneous vegetation and/or crops treated with low environmental impact methods [as defined in other articles of EU Council Regulations]. … The above mentioned requirements do not apply where flowering is not taking place, or the hives are dormant.”
  3. Canadian organic honey standards : “a 3,000-metre buffer zone between the hives and GE crops and other prohibited substances including agricultural pesticides, herbicides, systemic seed treatments, and sewage sludge.”