Frustrated by longstanding issues with accurate labeling, Vermont beekeepers are turning to testing to debunk false honey marketing claims seen frequently on supermarket shelves.
The tests will backup anecdotal claims with science.
The Vermont Beekeepers Association is working with UVM’s bee lab and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to test honey purity. The group aims to differentiate local honey from imported honey.
“If you call something a Vermont product, it better damn be a Vermont product,” said Mike Palmer, a St. Albans beekeeper who has been in the business for nearly 50 years. Too often, though, Palmer says claims on packaging aren’t true.
In particular, honey that’s labeled “local” irks him. “You look at it, and it’s packed in New Hampshire, and it’s a product of Argentina,” he said. “How can it be local if it’s a product of Argentina?”
“Those are the kinds of things we’re fighting against,” Palmer said. “It’s misleading. It’s not illegal. It doesn’t say Vermont honey, but it’s a misleading label.”
A new law that went into effect Jan. 1 prohibits producers from labeling out-of-state foodstuffs as Vermont made.
Argentinian honey should not be sold under a local label, says Abbey Willard, director of the agriculture development division at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “And it most likely didn’t meet the previous iteration of this definition and rule,” she said. The old definition included food originating in Vermont or within 30 miles of the point of sale, which meant some products from Canada could qualify in northern Vermont, for example.
“Honey is very specific in this new definition,” Willard said. “I understand that there have been challenges with honey products in the past.”
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Enforcement of the labeling law is driven by complaints, so a consumer or a beekeeper would have to flag a mislabeled product to the agency before it could be passed to the state attorney general’s office for enforcement.
Since the new definition went into effect a few weeks ago, the attorney general’s office has yet to receive complaints or concerns. She hopes businesses, consumers and buyers will “reach out to our office if they think there’s consumer deception or lack of clarity in food product claims.”
Andrew Munkres, president of Vermont Beekeepers Association, said the association provided input on the wording of the new local labeling law. The effectiveness of the new law will depend on the state’s follow-through on tracking misleading or deceitful marketing claims.
“It all depends on the enforcement now, doesn’t it,” Munkres said. “People will continue packing honey from out of state and putting their label on it.”
In some cases, Willard said it might just be a matter of educating a vendor. But other beekeepers from around the state were more skeptical.
‘They need to be fined’
Chaz Mraz is a third-generation beekeeper who runs Vermont Champlain Apiaries, which has been in operation since 1931. He worries that large manufacturers will continue to get away with mislabeling and misleading consumers.
“A lot of the big packers in the U.S. that are knowingly or trying not to know that they’re packing adulterated products, they need to be fined. They need to come down on them to not do it,” Mraz said.
“As a beekeeper, I can walk into a store and show you what are definitely charlatans and what probably aren’t just because of what I know,” he said. The problem is consumers don’t know the difference, he said.
Adulteration of honey has also long plagued the industry. About 40% of honey samples submitted to Apimondia for a 2019 honey competition were thrown out because they’d been mixed with other sweeteners, such as rice syrup.
Munkres said the state-level study, while small in scope, will help determine whether adulterated honey is being sold in Vermont.
“We know that it’s a problem,” said Samantha Alger, a professor who works at UVM’s bee lab. The bee lab is collecting samples for the study from across the state. When it comes to adulteration, “I’ve seen numbers as high as 70% of honey in the U.S. with an average worldwide at 30%,” Alger said.
While national and international evidence has primed some beekeepers to be naturally suspicious of honey from away, the state-sponsored study will cover new ground with its Vermont-specific focus.
“We’re doing it in Vermont because no one has done a study like this in Vermont,” Alger said. She said lab testing could help to distinguish the Vermont brand, especially if local production is relatively pure as compared with imported honey.
“The reason it matters is because Vermont beekeepers are competing on shelves with honey that’s produced much more cheaply,” Munkres said.
Beekeepers say the price differential is a sore spot in their business.
“The biggest problem for us is separating our brand,” Mraz said. “We have done the right thing for 90-plus years, and we have to compete against charlatan brands.”
The cost differential
Palmer has felt the pinch of this problem, too. He said as a Vermont-based business, it’s impossible to compete with honey from overseas. Palmer’s price per barrel is $2.50 a pound; honey from abroad is $1.83 a pound. “I pay a livable wage. I pay Vermont taxes,” he said.
“It’s possible that it’s cheaper because it’s not actually honey,” Munkres said. This study will be able to determine whether that’s true, and he expects results within a few months.
“One of the outcomes will be a level playing field for honey that’s produced locally and honey that’s produced out of the country,” said Cary Giguere, the director of public health and agricultural resource management.
The bee lab is testing the first 30 samples: 10 from grocery stores, 10 imported or non-local samples, and 10 directly from Vermont producers.
A UVM researcher picked up samples on Thursday from Palmer, who is eager to participate in the study. Beekeeping is Palmer’s passion, and he wants to help protect the tradition in Vermont.
“There’s nothing else I like to do,” he said.
He started working as a beekeeper after he took a UVM extension class in 1972.
“I was making maple syrup at the time and you think boiling sap, watching these little bubbles. At 3 in the morning I’m boiling sap — the bees gather it and the bees boil it and the bees package it; what the heck am I doing here looking at these bubbles?” he said.
Now, he teaches beekeeping practices around the world. “They call it the Palmer method,” he said.
“The movement of the bees, the noise and the smell,” Palmer said. “It’s like everything else in the world disappears.”
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