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FDA honey guidance: a response to labeling litigation?

By Maggie Hennessy , 14-Apr-2014
Last updated on 14-Apr-2014 at 15:07 GMT

Food attorney: The honey guidance could suggest the FDA is responding to pressure created by food labeling litigation, as in the case of reopening the comment period on the draft evaporated cane juice guidance.
Food attorney: The honey guidance could suggest the FDA is responding to pressure created by food labeling litigation, as in the case of reopening the comment period on the draft evaporated cane juice guidance.

Honey mixed with other sweeteners must be labeled as a blend, rather than just “honey”, according to a draft guidance issued by the US Food and Drug Administration last week. So what’s the most interesting part about the guidance? 

“That there’s not much new in it,” said Eric Wenger, chairman of third party certifier True Source Honey and chief operations officer of Barkman Honey. “In almost all the points it’s essentially referring back to the CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] or the FD&C [Food Drug & Cosmetic Act]. Any attention to honey and to proper labeling of honey is good, but anybody who looked at the CFR would’ve arrived at the same conclusions of guidance. Still, it makes it easier for new entrants to the market to understand how to label honey properly.”

The FDA's issuance of the guidance follows calls from True Source Honey, the American Beekeeping Federation and other related agencies seeking a standard US definition for the natural sweetener to promote fair trade. While the agency rejected their request, it said it was willing to examine the labeling. The guidance does not address whether honey that has been subjected to ultrafiltration or pollen removal qualifies as honey. Rather it focuses on labeling honey with added sweeteners and other substances, and on the possible contamination with illegal pesticides. 

Over half (251 mn pounds) of the 400 mn pounds of honey Americans consume each year is imported, and often not pure honey—mixed with corn, cane and other sugars.  

Bowing to food labeling litigation pressure?

Arnold Friede, senior food and drug law counsel, Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, told us that while honey labeling isn’t one of the most pressing issues of the day, the move does offer some evidence that FDA is responding to pressure created by food labeling litigation, as, e.g., in the case of reopening the comment period on the draft [evaporated cane juice] guidance,” Friede said. “There have been a couple of recent cases that challenge a company’s use of the term ‘honey’ as not being an accurate ‘statement of identity’,” he added.   

Wenger added that the guidance doesn’t confer what’s right for any one person. “You may find the guidance helpful, but your obligation is to the statute and regulations. If you have another way that works, do it,” he said. “They caveated the thing right into the ground almost from the beginning.”

Manufacturers have 60 days to comment on the proposal (see full text here ), before final guidelines are issued.

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