Guide to Buying Honey on eBay

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Avoiding scams and unsafe products

This is a brief guide to safely buying Honey on eBay. Having seen very dodgy selling practices, illegally labelled products, misleading and fraudulent claims made by many Honey sellers on eBay and found Trading Standards unwilling to intervene such a guide needed writing. Full disclosure: I'm a Beekeeper, I sell Honey, I occasionally sell Honey on eBay. For further reading and evidence see the references at the end of the guide.
 
The health benefits of Honey are lauded and it's a hugely popular food and health product but Honey is unfortunately also one of the most frequently abused and adulterated products you'll find on the supermarket shelf. Supermarket shelf? Yes indeed. In December 2015 The European Commission published preliminary results of a study into Honey fraud in 30 countries including the UK (JRC-IRRM, 2015). Of the 2237 samples tested 19% were either from the wrong plant, wrong part of the world or were adulterated with sugar, and a further 13% were suspected of sugar adulteration or of different geographical origin to that claimed. What does this mean? It means Honey fraud is so prevalent even big business is being caught out, but that doesn't mean you have to be.
 
The situation online: A number of small scale Beekeepers and Honey sellers in the UK and abroad use eBay to reach customers, myself included. It's a great way to do it. It lets you reach a large customer base and allows customers to access more choice than the supermarket channels allow. You want Honey from your own city or home county? Try eBay. You want Honey from Yemen? Try eBay for that too! The choice is there and so are the customers. Everyone's a winner.
 
Adultery?
Unfortunately not everyone is a winner. As mentioned above Honey is not always what the label claims. Adulteration with cheap syrups (corn syrup, rice syrup, etc) is unfortunately nothing new and was touched upon in the 2007 documentary film The Vanishing of the Bees (Langworthy et al, 2011) and is still a reality as the European Commission study has shown (JRC-IRRM, 2015). Whilst commercial supply chains are working to avoid this it still happens to them and when you're buying direct over the internet from anonymous sources there are even less safeguards in place.
 
Location, location, location?
As mentioned earlier the European Commission found a lot of Honey on shelves isn't from the geographical region given on the label. Initially this might not seem relevant to you however due to different Beekeeping practices around the globe Honey from some countries can contain substances you probably don't want to eat -such as high level of antibiotics (Al-waili et al, 2012). In the UK Beekeepers don't have access to unprescribed antibiotics, but elsewhere in the world its a very different story and there's even been a ban on Honey from specific countries being imported to the European Union due to the high levels of antibiotics in their final product. Despite that it still slips into commercial channels occasionally having been transshipped. Buying direct from a seller who imports or buys honey from unknown sources with no accountability and no audit trails increases your chance of buying Honey that couldn't be sold in a supermarket. Unless you want particularly want tetracycline, oxytetracycline, doxycycline, chlortetracycline or chloramphenicol on your toast or in your tea you need to know where your honey is coming from.
 
 Is it really Organic?
As well as Honey being adulterated or mislabelled regarding content and origin another fraudulent claim often made by sellers is that their Honey is Organic.
 
For a product to be sold as Organic in the UK, whether produced locally or imported, it needs to be tested and certified as Organic by one of the UK's 9 organic control bodies (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2016). It is completely illegal to claim your product is Organic without this certification. Certified Organic products then bear a logo on the label to show it is Certified Organic as who it was certified by, looking on eBay at so called Organic Honey check for a Certified Organic logo. You won't find it for two reasons.

The first being bees are unlikely to forage exclusively on organically reared plants. Foraging bees free range over an area of about 28 square miles around the hive and the bee keeper has no control over what food sources they use in that area. In such a large area it is very unlikely that all the plants the bees access are being grown organically, so to produce Organic Honey one needs huge swathes of land which a small operation is unlikely to have access to.   It's not impossible for example hives may in a large unmanaged woodland but it's unlikely.
 
The second reason is that getting Organic Certification for your product whether it's Honey, wine, potatoes or whatever is a very expensive process and needs repeating every year. The cost of Organic Certification places it well beyond the financial reach of the small scale beekeeper as well as all but the biggest commercial Bee Farmers. If a beekeeper or Honey seller is using eBay as their distribution channel they won't be selling a Certified Organic product, if they claim to be then they're either misrepresenting their product intentionally or do not understand Honey or the relevant food legislation all of which ought to be a red light for potential buyers.
 
What about Manuka Honey?
Ignoring the arguments abut the pros and cons of Manuka honey, the fact is people want to buy Manuka Honey and Manuka Honey is expensive as so little is currently made per season. This has led to a huge industry in fake Manuka Honey. New Zealand produces about 1,700 tons of Manuka Honey in a season but 10,000 tons are sold annually (Creasey, 2014). This means 4 out of 5 jars don't really contain Manuka and that's before factoring the large percentage of Manuka bought up by the pharmaceutical industry before it even reaches the jar. To protect their product New Zealand formed the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA). There's over 70  suppliers  registered with UMFHA (UMFHA, 2016) so if you are buying Manuka Honey online check the UMFHA website to ensure it's coming from a licensed source.

So what can you do?
So how do you avoid buying fake, dodgy or adulterated Honey? It's not easy but here are a few things to look at  when buying online to help you buy safe, high quality honey.

The Seller: Try and make sure you buy direct from the Beekeeper selling their own honey rather than some guy moving a few buckets of Honey of unknown provenance they picked up at an auction or imported from who knows where and labelled as whatever they like. It's actually not that difficult to tell who is a beekeeper and who's not: look at their other items. Bees don't only make Honey so chances are a Beekeeper on eBay will be advertising other items made from the produce of their hives such as Beeswax Polish, Lip Balm, Wax, Propolis possibly even Bees and beekeeping equipment. Other clues may be in their About Me page if they have one. What does it tell you? Do they have a website, blog, Instagram or Facebook page for their small scale beekeeping operation? You could even just ask them -beekeepers tend to very happily talk about their bees and beekeeping practice.

The Honey: How much honey are they actually selling? There's at least one seller on eBay claiming to be a beekeeper who appears to have sold about 80 tonnes of honey using a number of different adverts. Selling that quantity of honey it would make more sense to do so through commercial channels rather than deal with the financial overheads of eBay fees, Paypal fees and postage as well as the considerable cost in time and effort to pack and process that many single jar sales. The fact they're selling such quantities in this way should ring a few alarm bells for the potential buyer.

The Label:  There are strict laws about food labelling (The Honey (England) Regulations, 2015). A jar of honey must be labelled with the word Honey, a metric measure of weight, the country of origin, a name and address for the supplier and a best before date. If the Honey is being sold through a third party it must also have a batch number.

If you’re seeing jar advertised on eBay with a label that doesn't meet these criteria then the seller isn’t following legislation set by the Food Standards Agency to protect the public. If a seller is ignoring or unaware of this they really should be avoided. If you see a seller claiming their honey is organic but doesn't have any Organic Certification they're fraudulently misrepresenting their product and should also be avoided.

  The Cost: Producing Honey takes work and an investment in both time and money. If you’re seeing Honey being sold for roughly the same price as a tin of Golden Syrup with free postage thrown in chances are you’re not getting what you think.
 
There are no guarantees but these are just a few ways to reduce your chances of being ripped off or buying something unsafe.

References
Al-waili N,Salom K, Al-Ghamdi A. & Ansari MJ (2012) Antibiotic, pesticide, and microbial   contaminants   of honey:  human  health hazards. The.  Scien.  World.  J.; doi: 10.1100/2012/930849.

Creasey S. (2014) Special investigation manuka honey. The Grocer 28/06/2014 p41-45.

Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2016) Organic farming: how to get certification and apply for funding.

JRC-IRRM  (2015)  Coordinated  control  plan  to establish  the  prevalence  of  fraudulent  practices in  the  marketing  of  honey.  Preliminary results. December 2015.

The Honey (England) Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/1348)

Langworthy G., Henein M., Erskine J., Gazecki W. & Page, E. (2011). Vanishing of the bees. Hive Mentality Films & Hipfuel Films.

UMFHA (2016) UMFHA Members . Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association website.

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