North Carolina is the latest state to create a standard that defines "pure honey" in a bid to curb the sale of products that have that label but are mostly corn syrup or other additives. Officials hope to enforce that standard with help from the 12,000 or so Tar Heel beekeepers.
"The beekeepers tend to watch what's being sold, they watch the roadside stands and the farmer's markets," said John Ambrose, an entomologist and bee expert at North Carolina State University who sits on the newly created Honey Standards Board.
Florida was the first state to adopt such standards in 2009. It's since been followed by California, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Similar efforts have been proposed in at least 12 other states, including North and South Dakota, the nation's largest producers of honey, together accounting for roughly one-third of U.S. output.
Beekeepers and honey packers around the country are fuming about products masquerading as real honey, and they hope the state-by-state strategy will secure their ultimate goal: a national rule banning the sale of any product as pure honey if it contains additives.
Americans consume about 350 million pounds of honey per year, but just 150 million pounds are made domestically, creating a booming market for importers and ample temptation to cut pure honey with additives such as corn syrup that are far less expensive to produce.
This month, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago announced the indictments of 11 German and Chinese executives and six companies on charges that they avoided nearly $80 million in honey tariffs and sold honey tainted with banned antibiotics.
The scale of the problem nationwide is hard to gauge. It's largely a concern for the big producers who make most of America's honey, said Bob Bauer, vice president of the National Honey Packers and Dealers Association.
"The honey industry is looking to be proactive and take whatever steps are necessary not only to keep it from becoming a widespread problem, but to get rid of it entirely," he said.
The most passionate supporters of the laws tend to be beekeepers and other small producers outraged at what they see as the corruption of their craft.
"They're trading on the good name of honey to sell their product," Kenosha, Wis., beekeeper Tim Fulton said of phony honey peddlers.
Ambrose said the North Carolina board — formed by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the state Beekeepers Association — won't be a "honey patrol."
The board will instead respond to complaints about improperly marketed honey, which under state law is now defined as what honeybees produce: no more, no less. Once a complaint has been received, a state-approved lab will test the product. If it's not pure honey, the state can order it to be removed from sale and impose fines for subsequent violations.
"You can go to roadside stands throughout the western part of the state and they'll try to sell you Karo syrup and swear it's sourwood honey," said Charles Heatherly, a North Carolina beekeeper.
Sourwood — Heatherly calls it "the Cadillac of North Carolina honey" — is mostly found in the state's mountainous west. It can cost up to $10 a pound, making it an attractive target for adulteration.
It was a similar impersonation of local honey that provoked Nancy Gentry, a beekeeper who owns Cross Creek Honey in Interlachen, Fla., to launch a bid to get a honey standard not just in her home state, but around the country.
"People were taking raw honey, adding high fructose corn syrup and marketing it as grade A USDA No. 1 honey, but there is no such thing," said Dick Gentry, Nancy's husband and a retired trial lawyer who helped steer the campaign in Florida.
But the real sting in the Florida provision, and in standards adopted in California, Wisconsin and North Carolina, is that it makes it easier to file lawsuits against purveyors of bogus honey.
Agencies have been reluctant to create standards for honey ever since a Michigan jury in 1995 found in favor of a honey processing firm that had been accused of cutting the product with an additive. The jurors said there weren't enough regulations governing honey to make the charge stick and that the government failed to identify the additive.
Under the new laws, it isn't necessary to know out what's being added to honey. Any additive, from cane sugar to corn syrup, deprives it of the label "pure honey."
That could prompt retailers or beekeepers to file more lawsuits.
"For us, it is through the civil courts, then, that we take back the product," Nancy Gentry told an industry group in Fresno, Calif., according to a transcript of her speech. "We crush unscrupulous packers and throw out honey pretenders."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has worked to block the sale of honey contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals, and it's reviewing a petition seeking a national honey standard, spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said.
In the meantime, North Carolina beekeepers promise to keep on the lookout to ensure every jar of honey holds what the label says.
"Some of the people who think they've been buying sourwood all these years have actually been buying corn syrup, and they have no idea what they're missing," Ambrose said.