U.S. Honey

BEE CULTURE – August, 1998

by Joe Traynor

“Perception is reality to most people, and U.S. honey sellers are missing a golden marketing opportunity.”

. . . For purple mountains’ majesty (aerial shot of Wyoming mountainside, covered with flowers – camera zooms in for a tight shot of honey bees working these flowers). . . Across the fruited plain . . . (follow the bees to a hive, then inside to a comb of honey; then, with rapid-sequence images, follow the comb to an immaculate honey house). . . follow the honey as it is poured into a glass jar, the jar finally resting on a kitchen table where a typical American family is gathered for breakfast. As the music fades, a voice-over intones:
. . . American honey – you know it’s good . . .

The above is a script for a proposed 30-second TV spot designed to increase sales of U.S. honey.

Let’s face it. Cheaper imported honey will always be available to both packers and consumers. In order to maintain or increase prices for U.S. honey, the industry must show the consumer that it is worth paying 20 cents more per pound for home-grown honey. The U.S. consumer must be convinced that U.S. honey is worth that extra money.

One way to improve prices for U.S. honey is to establish consumer loyalty to a particular brand and/or to a particular flower source (you can’t import Montana clover honey). Like the honey industry, the U.S. wine industry is faced with cheap imports from Chile, Argentina, Australia, Italy and a host of other countries. Many U.S. wine labels, and varietals, continue to command a premium price because consumers feel they are worth the extra money.

The biggest reason to pay more for American honey is so obvious that it can be overlooked: American honey is made in the U.S. The free-trade climate and NAFTA have served to increase agricultural imports to the U.S. but it has not been a smooth ride for these imports. In the past year there have been numerous stories about tainted produce – food contaminated by pesticides, fungi and bacteria. These incidents have shed a glaring light on a fundamental weakness of food imports: their safety (and their perceived safety).

The American consumer is willing to pay more for food that she (he) knows is safe. The U.S. honey industry has been lax in exploiting this Achilles’ heel of imports. A stamp or seal should be placed on each jar of U.S. honey with the seal signifying that the honey has been tested for contaminants (chemicals) and has been produced under sanitary conditions (this is not a new idea; it has been proposed by others in the past but is particularly timely now).

Such a program would require some rules, regulations and inspections, anathema to most beekeepers, but strong medicine is often necessary when the patient is in serious condition. Most honey, both imported and domestic, is subject to tests for chemical contamination but honey-house inspections are another story. Certainly there should be some guidelines for honey-house and honey barrel sanitation. The U.S. bee industry could come up with a code, enforced by spot or annual inspections conducted (preferably) by bee industry personnel or, as a last resort, by a government agency. Publicizing this code and using a code or seal on containers to denote that the product inside has been subject to rigorous health and safety standards could be a boon to the sales of U.S. honey.

In conjunction with, or as an alternative to such a “certification” program, honey packers should be required to place the country of origin on all containers of honey sold in stores (again, not a new idea). This is not an unreasonable request, as canned goods imported from other countries state the country of origin as do imported wine bottles. Just because foreign honey is packed in the U.S. doesn’t mean it should be exempt from similar labeling. Most consumers are aware that most of the produce found in the grocery store in the winter comes from Mexico or Chile. When consumers purchase shoes or clothing, the labels state where the item was made. Why should imported honey get a free ride when it comes to truth in (easy-to-read) labeling?

When buying clothing, most consumers opt for the cheapest price if quality appears equal; country of origin is not a significant concern (partly because it is difficult to find clothing made in the U.S.). Buying food, is a different story – when something goes into your mouth, you’d like to know where that food product originated. Most consumers are willing to pay more for food produced in the U.S.; some will not purchase food produced outside the U.S. Is it unfair to deprive consumers of the information necessary to make an informed choice when buying food products? The U.S. bee industry should have a strong legal case that would require honey packers to place the country of origin on the label. (In standard-sized, easily read type.) [Currently, many packers label their honey with country of origin, but the type is small, presented in easily disguised colors, or not on the label at all.]

The general suspicion on the part of American consumers toward foreign food products has been reinforced with increased foreign travel by U.S. citizens. Should a U.S. citizen get sick while overseas, that citizen (and his circle of friends) is a strong candidate to buy only U.S. food products in the future.

Certainly some (maybe most) foreign honey is just as safe as U.S. honey; however, the perception of foreign food being unsafe presents a major marketing opportunity for U.S. beekeepers because perception is reality for most people. Why not exploit this weakness of foreign imports to the fullest?

The alternative to some type of plan to show differences between U.S. honey and imported honey is a continuation of the status quo – cheap imports and low prices for U.S. honey . . .

. . . From sea to shining sea.

Joe Traynor is an agricultural production specialist from California.

BEE CULTURE – September, 1998

My husband and I have been receiving Bee Culture for several years, and this is the first time I have read an article that so thoroughly disgusted me that I had to write. I was disappointed and appalled by the article “U.S. Honey” (Aug. 1998) by Joe Traynor. The suggestion that U.S. Honey producers lie to consumers about foreign honey strikes me as thoroughly unethical, immoral, and possibly un-American. I have always believed honey producers to be special, wonderful people – upstanding and strong. The very thought that anyone should suggest that honey producers lie is terribly disturbing.

All U.S. honey producers, from the small scale (like us) to the large-scale, should look for ethical ways to increase U.S. honey sales. Better education regarding how unprocessed honey is more healthy than processed is a good start; even running positive ad campaigns would be better than lying. It would truly be a shame to see such a noble profession as honey producing to be tainted by “exploit(ing) this weakness of foreign imports to the fullest.” Let the big corporations of the world deal with immoral and unethical acts – keep the honey producers out of it!

Cheryl & Chris Bernardini
Memphis, TN