In August 2010, 15 U.S. Senators asked the FDA to implement a honey standard as a measure to help law enforcement.
"Having a national standard of honey identity," the letter states, "would enable enforcement officers at the border or within the United States to establish that the honey is what it is represented to be. Additionally, a standard of identity will protect consumers and aid American buyers and sellers of honey."
It wasn't the first such letter to the FDA.
Appeals signed by congressional members and honey industry experts all wrote to the FDA in 2006, 2007 and 2009, but all efforts failed to move the agency to action.
"Where we're really concerned is if the public finds that there is so-called 'funny honey' out there, how are they going to tell the difference," said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "And whose job is it to sort all that stuff out? The FDA."
Despite repeated attempts, the FDA declined an interview, but spokeswoman Tamara Ward responded in an e-mail.
She wrote the FDA had been unable to continue its examination of a pure honey standard due to a "lack of resources and other priorities."
The statement continued: "Proposing a new rule requires multiple factors and utilizes personnel such as policy developers, regulation writers, economists and lawyers. It would not be an efficient use of agency resources to enact a rule with no means of enforcement."
According to its website, the FDA already has standards of identity for more than 280 food products, including lard, margarine and bacon. But honey continues to be emblazoned across bottles of barbecue sauce or loaves of bread without having to meet a standard definition. So a product claiming to be honey might actually be a sweetener that only looks like honey.
"The public, like on a lot of things, they're uninformed," said Warren Nelson a 62-year-old retired Nebraska State Trooper and honey packer for more than 10 years. "And so they're looking for the best deal they can get, and if the label on it says that it's honey, then it must be honey."
States Pass Their Own Honey Standards
Rather than wait for the FDA to act, states have begun implementing their own standards for pure honey, beginning with Florida in 2008. Soon after, California and Wisconsin set their own standards. Most recently, in March, Nebraska became the fifth state to pass a "pure honey standard." At least two states have bills in legislation—New York and Maryland—and as many as a dozen others are considering the issue.
States like Florida and Nebraska used an existing definition of honey as a model. The Codex Alimentarius—latin for "food book"—was commissioned by the United Nations as international guide for trade in food goods. In essence, it defines honey as a product made by bees with nothing added, and nothing removed. But because the Codex is only being used as a starting ground, states could work subtle nuances into their regulations.
The result could be a patchwork of standards that vary from state to state, which could complicate the process of enforcement that much further.
"Different standards in different states could impede interstate commerce," the FDA said in its statement. "FDA will take that into consideration as it moves forward with its review of the petition."
State Sen. Annette Dubas, who sponsored the Nebraska honey standard bill, said she hoped that if enough states passed their own versions of a pure honey standard, it would force the FDA to create a national standard.
"Hopefully this action will cause a reaction at the federal level," she said.