Getting Honey Safely and Legally from Hive to the Ultimate Consumer
Stage 1. Getting it legally and safely into your honey jar/container. Please consider and familiarise yourself with the following points before you start processing your honey!
Background: The underlying current law is a mixture of English Common Law, English Statute Law, European Union Directives and English Regulations, and is subject to frequent review and change. The good news is that you only need to know the law to the extent it is relevant, for the time being, to your own beekeeping/honey processing operations. However, as producers and processors of honey, there are certain rules or laws which apply to all operations.
1) Position under English Common Law
Virtually since time immemorial, anyone who sells food by implication warrants that it is good for its purpose in the absence of a specific exclusion, e.g. if you bought a sack of potatoes unseen, you would expect the potatoes to be of , at least, sound quality and fit for consumption. And it is now established law if you were not the buyer but were, say, offered cooked potatoes when you were invited to dinner by a friend, you would similarly expect the potatoes to be good and safe for you to eat, and potentially you have a right to sue for any loss or injury if they are not. These general rules apply as much to honey as anything else for human consumption.
2) UK Government and EU Intervention as to quality
As the years have gone by, the State (and the EU in particular) has taken increasing interest in food quality, laying down standards to be met by various industries and for us beekeepers. The specific statutory requirements are, as far as quality is concerned, chiefly to be found in the Food Safety Act 1990 (as now amended) and the Honey (England) Regulations 2015 (replacing Honey (England) Regulations 2003 and 2005) which came into force on 24th June 2015. The important point to emphasise is that any breach of these statutory provisions, in addition to any civil action referred to above, may result in the wrongdoer being prosecuted, and if the prosecution succeeds, lead to a penal sentence and/or fines. It is fortunate, perhaps, that the authorities regard bees/beekeepers and their hive products as low risks compared with other industries, but that is not an excuse for being complacent!
3) Getting your honey safe and legal
So how can we ensure that honey is safe and legal for human consumption, and is not in the words of Food Safety Act "injurious to health"? Perhaps even more important in the rare cases where honey sold by a beekeeper is injurious, how can a beekeeper nevertheless safely and cheaply avoid being successfully prosecuted? The answer: Comply with the following and you should keep out of trouble!
- Best Hygiene and Safety Practices
Adopt the best hygiene and husbandry and safe practices for the time being. These are not set 'in stone', nor prescribed by law and, to an extent, are largely common sense. But do familiarise yourself with the various manuals etc. on best practices - what you should be doing may not be obvious - well certainly to me! In particular, do read Andy Pedley's excellent series of articles in Beecraft 2009.However do note that these articles were written before the latest food legislation; but the basic principles mentioned in Andy's articles remain unchanged.
- Go on a Food Hygiene Course
These courses are tremendously informative, and as part of the package you do an exam and are awarded a certificate if you pass. Should a claim be made against you, the fact that you can show you followed meticulously a recommended action by the course may be a sufficient defence.
- Food Safety Act 1990
Under Food Safety Act 1990, food e.g. honey for sale will not comply with food safety requirements if it has been rendered unfit for human consumption during any part of its process, is unfit for human consumption or it is so contaminated that it would not be reasonable to expect it to be used for human consumption. A beekeeper who, say, used an uncleaned extractor or honey jar has only himself to blame if his or her honey becomes contaminated.
- Adopt and operate a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan (HACCP Plan)
(Meaning a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.)
This is a definition provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This principle is well-known and widely practised in the UK food industry, and clearly its full application will be beyond the resources of even the larger beekeeping enterprises. However, I suggest all beekeepers should adopt their own 'mini-plans'. Start with the bees themselves, consider the frames in the hive, how you are going to get the frames back home for extraction. I won't go on - you'll get the 'drift' and I suggest you practise it!
- Have a professional analysis done if you have any doubts about the quality of your hive products.
The trouble is that however careful you are it is perfectly possible because of the location of the bees, (bees in New York took a liking to anti-freeze and returned to their hives with green honey!) or presence of particular plants (like ragwort or rhododendron), or as a result of the weather or some other reason, your honey may not satisfy the requirements laid down in Honey (England) Regulations 2015 or other legislation or otherwise be injurious. This is a practice widely pursued by importers of food in situations when the country of origin may well have different food standards or the honey contains unacceptable substances for the purpose of English law.
- Re-used Glass Jars
About two years ago there was a hiatus because it was realised that EU had issued a directive to the effect that save in situations where the authorities could determine that proper cleaning and sterilisation regimes were being practised (e.g. in the milk industry), used jars were not to be reused. The current attitude of the authorities in the UK appears to be this; The Food Standards Agency considers the Directive only applies to corporate businesses, not individuals and that any enforcement is for local authorities to consider and it is unlikely that they will prosecute individuals. It is right to point out however that authorities like Food Standards Agency have no legal power to state the law, so however relaxed these authorities are about the issue, it could re-open. The choice is yours. Personally, I happily re-use clean, sterilised and sound (i.e. no chips etc.) jars again. New lids, however, are always used. Clearly, items like cut-comb should be placed in suitable containers.
- Registration of Premises where food (hive products) is processed: Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations 2014.
The basic rule is that a beekeeper processing food (e.g. honey) is in the food business, and therefore needs to register his premises with the local environment office. There is a limited exemption for any beekeeper processing small amounts of honey from their own bees. 'Small amounts' is not defined in the relevant legislation, but sticking my neck out, I would suggest in the case of honey and other hive products, a beekeeper who is running an apiary to produce honey and other hive products for family, friends and occasional sales at charity events and the like, has no need to register. I stress the point is unclear, and will remain so until determined by the courts.
My firm view is that if there is any doubt then register!
Please particularly note:
- If the beekeeper sends, say, his honey to a third party for processing, then the beekeeper has no need to register but the processor does.
- If honey is sold other than to:
o the ultimate consumer 'at a farm gate sale' (meaning at the beekeeper's own premises) or
o a retailer whose premises are registered with Environmental Health and the purpose of that sale is to enable the product to be sold to the ultimate consumer
then in either case the beekeeper processing the product must register his or her premises regardless of quantity. It follows that if the beekeeper/processor sells honey direct to say a honey distributor, he must register regardless of quantity.
Registration is simple and costs nothing. Processing of honey and other hive products may commence 28 days following receipt by the Local Environment Office of the application for registration.