The intent of this post is to assist people who may be looking to buy honey. What we’ll cover here are a few key things to look for so that you, the honey purchaser, can get exactly what you’re after – great quality honey for a fair price!
The Honey Seller
Firstly, we’ll look at the seller. Are you buying from a licenced and approved seller or someone that just has a hive in their backyard?
We’re not here to beat up on people that sell honey from their backyard. We think it’s great that people have a hive or two in their backyards and that they are producing their own honey. Some of our suburban honey is as good as it gets!
When we first started out as beekeepers, we took a lot of pride in giving away our honey to family and friends. We were never short of a gift for any occasion!
We can totally understand how backyard beekeepers enjoy sharing their product, and how they may feel the transition from gifting honey to selling it is no great leap.
When we looked to take our production further than just a hive or two and actually start selling our honey, there were a number of things we had to look at. So that you as the consumer can get a better understanding of these, we’ll touch on some of them now.
Safe food handling and approvals to sell honey
Once a beekeeper decides to transition from just giving away their honey to friends and decides that they would like to sell honey to the public, they must become registered as a food business.
This process may vary based on region, but it will typically involve applying to their local council/shire and seeking a licence to sell food. From there the council will advise the potential seller of everything they have to do in order to ensure food safety compliance.
A member of the council qualified to do so will come out and inspect the producer’s facilities. The inspector will look at and certify the producers extracting and honey bottling setup, assessing the sanitisation process and food safe compliancy of the whole process and all equipment used.
Labelling requirements to sell honey
The seller will also be required to comply with the labelling requirements set out by the government. This is where we can give you probably our easiest and most straightforward tip when it comes to assessing honey sellers.
Simply look at the labelling!
Don’t just look for cute pictures of bees, or fancy writing and nice colours. In order to assess whether a seller is legitimate or not, there are a few key pieces of information that need to be included on their label.
Honey labelling requirements:
- Nutritional information – This will be the best guess and won’t vary a great deal, however, it is required to be on the label.
- Ingredients – Of course, you’ll want to be seeing 100% honey!
- Packed by – Who the honey was packaged by including where it was packaged.
- Country of origin information – You’ll want to be sure that it is made in Australia from 100% Australian ingredients.
- Batch ID – Some kind of numbering or identifying code system that allows the seller to track their different batches of honey.
- Health warnings – A requirement on all honey sold in Australia is to warn of the health risk to infants under 12 months old.
If the honey you are looking to purchase does not have all of the above, as a minimum, then it is not being sold in compliance with food safety legislation. Buy it at your own risk.
So we say ‘buy at your own risk’, but what do we actually mean by that?
Well, what we mean is that by choosing to buy from someone who is not selling food in compliance with government regulations, you are exposing yourself to an enhanced risk of buying a dangerous food item.
All doom and gloom? Well, honey is actually very stable and a relatively safe food.
It will literally keep for decades when processed and packaged properly, and there is very little that can go wrong with it. Honey can essentially self sanitise and protect itself from the bacteria and nasty things that would otherwise make food go ‘off’.
That said though, if honey is not extracted properly it will not last long at all. When a beekeeper harvests honey it is crucial that they only extract honey that is ripe. By ripe we mean that the honey is almost entirely ‘capped off’.
At this stage, the honey has been dehydrated by the bees to a point where it will store for a long time. If a beekeeper were to extract honey that wasn’t yet ripe, then this results in the honey being bottled up with a moisture content that is too high.
This can lead to circumstances where wild yeast in the honey can thrive and go on to ferment the honey. Great if you want to make mead. Not so great if you would like to eat your honey.
How might this happen? How might honey be extracted before it is ready? Well, some beekeepers may lack the knowledge of when to harvest their honey, or just get impatient at times and extract honey that is not yet ripened.
Furthermore, due to the influx of Flow Hives and their ease of extraction, and their ‘just turn a key and get honey’ type of system, at times this will result in honey being extracted without the actual honeycomb frames having been inspected.
We are not saying Flow Hives are bad. The flow-crew, defending their financial investments, remind us not to do that all the time, however, the extraction system does tend to evoke a certain complacent mindset toward beekeeping which we feel may result in less than ideal products for customers.
As honey purchasers (and flow-crew take notes), you will be delighted to know there is something else beekeepers can do to ensure that the honey they are selling is going to be shelf-stable.
A simple device called a honey refractometer can tell the user what moisture content honey is at. The desirable moisture content will vary for certain types of honey, however, anywhere below 18% moisture content is fine.
All good honey sellers will take note of what moisture content their honey is. If a seller can’t advise you of this, then be wary, you’d hate to buy some honey only to turn your pantry into a micro-brewery (unintentionally anyway).
So what quality of honey are you as the customer actually chasing? We’re by no means experts and won’t pretend to be. However, we feel that our following summation of what to look for when buying honey should set you in the right direction.
What to look for when buying honey:
Is it in new or used containers? Are the containers just random shapes and sizes, or are they purpose-designed for honey? We support recycling jars and the like for other purposes around the house, however, we believe that uniformity and the use of new packaging aids in two things.
First, it allows the honey packer to measure the actual weight of honey going into the container with a degree of consistency. When using variable size and weight containers, the packer has to weigh (or reset digital scales to zero) the jars each time before pouring in order to know the nett weight of honey in each container. A time-wasting process that when neglected, may result in the customer ending up with an uncertain amount of honey in the container.
The second point we’ll make on this is to do with hygiene. Honey should only ever be bottled in sanitised packaging. This requires considerably more time and effort for the seller if using previously used containers. Again, just another step that may get overlooked and result in a sub-optimal product for the customer.
As we’ve covered above, there is quite a lot that needs to be on labels.
Genuine sellers will invest the time and resources into ensuring their labelling is both legally compliant, as well as appealing to customers. Professionally produced labels are not cheap.
They cost a fair amount to have made up (especially for small batches) and the time and effort involved in labelling is just an additional expense for the beekeeper. While we’re not suggesting you just buy the honey with the flashiest label, the quality and content of labelling can show a fair amount about the professionalism of the seller and in turn the quality of the honey you are buying.
Selling by weight or volume
Too often we see people get confused between weight and volume of honey. Honey does not weigh the same as water for the same given volume. Honey is denser and weighs between 1.37 and 1.45 times that of the equivalent volume of water.
Therefore, if you see a seller selling 700ml of honey, it makes us wonder why they didn’t just label it as 1 kilogram. Perhaps they have some method in their madness, we don’t know.
However, when you see someone selling 1 kilogram of honey in a 1 litre container, it should make you stop and wonder, “what else don’t they know about processing honey?”
At the end of the day you may just say they are only ripping themselves off by selling 1.4 kilograms for the price of 1 kilogram, so who cares?
In response, we’ll just leave you with the suggestion to be wary of those who don’t understand the basic fundamentals of honey packaging, as there are probably many other things that they aren’t doing properly either.
Raw or processed
If you want great honey, you have to buy it raw.
There really isn’t any other way around this. Honey is at its best when it is in the hive, and anything we humans do to it after that generally only erodes the quality.
Therefore, if you want the best honey you have to buy it from those that process it raw. If you want to learn more about raw honey you can read our raw honey checklist.
Organic or not
Is the product advertised as organic? Is it actually organic?
For the most part, we find that the organic label is thrown around too liberally and is just plain wrong most of the time. Certified organic honey or not, if you are concerned about chemicals in your honey you should enquire with your beekeeper as to their beekeeping practices.
Find out what they paint their hives with, whether they paint the insides of their hives, or what they dip their hives in to preserve them.
In Australia, we are lucky enough to be able to manage bees without the need for chemicals as we do not have the pests that most of the rest of the world has, so our honey should be relatively chemical-free as it is.
The main thing we would like to point out on this topic is that many people use the term organic and market their honey as organic when it simply isn’t.
The requirements for organic certification are covered in our article ‘Is organic honey actually organic?‘
Feel free to quiz your ‘organic’ honey supplier as to how exactly they guarantee that their honey is organic, and how they go about maintaining the required exclusion zone of 5km in each direction around the hive (no mean feat).
Remember this; unless you live in the middle of absolutely nowhere, you cannot have ‘local organic honey’. You can have either ‘organic honey’, or you can have ‘local honey’. Very few people can actually have both.
Essentially, if a seller is misapplying the term ‘organic’, you have to question what else are they misleading you with, either intentionally or through complacency.
How much should you be paying for honey?
From what we have covered so far, it should be clear that those who sell honey have quite a few obligations that need to be met in order to sell their honey.
While we’re not writing this to seek pity or to oblige customers into paying excessive amounts for honey, we’re hoping to just get across the idea that more goes into putting a jar of honey up for sale than just turning a tap and pouring the honey into a spare jar a beekeeper had laying around.
What should you expect to pay then? This is kind of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question.
At the end of the day, be it those on a small scale selling honey as a bit of sideline income, or those in it fulltime to keep food on their tables, every seller will have their own overheads and price structure and name their price accordingly.
As honey sellers, of course, we do take a keen interest in this aspect of the honey trade, but to say we totally understand how others manage their pricing would be a lie.
What we see is that prices vary a lot for what is ‘seemingly’ the same product. We’ve been asked, “how come you can buy jarrah honey for $10 per kilogram from some sellers, but then others are selling it for more than $50 per kilogram?”
What we say to that is it’s like comparing apples with oranges.
Does the person selling ‘jarrah honey’ for $10 per kilogram actually know that it is ‘jarrah honey’? Have they paid the several hundred dollars it costs for their honey to be tested and certified as jarrah honey?
Don’t get us wrong, there are some decent beekeepers out there who have a fairly good idea of what they are doing and they sell good honey very cheaply. However, it does baffle us that these people choose to sell their honey for less than what you can buy the not so good stuff from the supermarket for.
Kind of makes you wonder about what you’re actually getting right?
Are we suggesting that the honey isn’t as good as the seller says it is? No, not really. It just baffles us to why someone would go to the trouble of producing top-notch honey only to sell it for a fraction of the price that other sellers do.
From what we’ve observed, the sellers who sell their honey ridiculously cheap are not approved to do so.
A cost-saving is sent the customer’s way, but quite a risk is bestowed upon the seller.
Considering they are effectively giving their honey away, yet taking all the liability of selling food, I just hope they have factored in some insurance. If someone gets sick from their honey, then that’s on them.
Why these sellers choose to take on this risk without seeking due payment seems odd to us.
At the end of the day, so long as they fly under the council’s radar, no one can really stop beekeepers selling honey for whatever price they want.
As consumers, we too like to save a buck or three when we can. One thing we have learnt over the years though is to never skimp out on food or electronics. Buy once, cry once.
So how can you really know what honey you are getting?
Find a beekeeper and get to know them.
Have them earn your trust.
Learn about their beekeeping practices and how they produce their honey. Learn about where their honey comes from.
If they source honey from other beekeepers as well, that’s generally okay, just ask them about what checks and balances they have in place to ensure that all the honey they sell is of the origin and quality that they are marketing it to be.
If you’re not interested in any of the above and just want to buy whatever fits your budget, then that’s fine too, just know that you get what pay for.
What we’ve covered above are some of the things you should look for when buying honey.
By ensuring that you look for sellers who adhere to packaging and labelling laws, you can generally be sure that you’re buying a quality product from a beekeeper that knows what they are doing.
Furthermore, you should take away an understanding that in order to produce great quality honey, package it up properly, and gain approval to do so all costs significant money for the beekeeper.
By buying from genuine sellers not only are you choosing to support beekeepers that do the right thing by the industry, but you can also be assured that you are getting a safe product that you can enjoy for a long time to come.
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