A series of class action lawsuits has been filed in Florida against major food retailers who allegedly sell honey that may not be “honey” because it does not contain pollen.

Five Florida residents are bringing suits against four different grocery chains – Publix Super Markets, Inc., Target Corporation, Walgreen Co. and Aldi, Inc. – that all reportedly carry ultra-filtered honey under their own house brands. 

Ultra-filtration is a special process by which honey is heated and then forced through tiny filters that don’t let pollen through. This process is different from traditional honey filtration, which uses bigger filters and is designed only to weed out visible contaminants such as bee parts, wax and debris. 

In removing the pollen from honey, ultra-filtration essentially removes its footprint. The resulting product cannot be traced back to its source to determine whether it came from a legitimate supplier or one with a reputation for adulterated products. 

honey-comb-406.jpgWhen Food Safety News investigated ultra-filtration last year, it found that over 3/4 of honey sold in U.S. grocery stores lacks pollen. 

Florida is one of a handful of states that has set a honey standard dictating what qualities a product needs in order to be called honey. Anything labeled as “honey” must contain pollen, says the standard. This rule gives legal clout to those who want to see pollen-free honey labeled as something other than honey. 

The same clout does not exist at the federal level, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue a set of standards for honey, despite demands from both industry and Congress that it do so. 

“Honey that has pollen should be called ‘honey,’ and honey that’s been filtered so that all the pollen has been removed should be called something else,” says attorney J. Andrew Meyer of Morgan & Morgan, who along with Jason Kellogg of Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman filed the class action suits. 

Initial tests commissioned by the firm have shown that the honey brands involved in the suit do not contain pollen, he told Food Safety News.

Meyer says pollen-less honey should be treated like any other fake food in that it can’t be called the real deal. 

“When you see fake cheese slices at the store, they’re called ‘cheese food,’ ” he explains. “Some people don’t mind that. It’s less expensive. But it differentiates itself from cheese, which we know is made with milk.” 

In the same way, he says, truly “raw” or “natural” honey should be differentiated from ultra-filtered honey through labeling. 

In Florida, the law gives the state authority to see that labels on the container accurately reflect what’s inside. 

Honey producers have argued that ultra-filtration is necessary in order to give honey the clear look consumers like and prevent it from crystallizing. 

But Meyer says this justification is not recognized in the state’s honey standard and will likely not hold up in court. 

Meyer hopes the cases brought in Florida will spark similar litigation in states that have honey standards, and legislation regarding honey in those that don’t. 

“What needs to happen is consumer education,” he says. “That’s really the thrust of our lawsuit – that there be truth in labeling and consumers understand what they’re buying.”

Brands in question include Publix’s private labels “Orange Blossom Honey” and “Pure Clover Honey,” Target’s “Market Pantry” and “Archer Farms” brands, Walgreen’s brand honey and its “Nice” honey, and Aldi’s “Berryhill Clover Honey.” 

Meyer and Kellogg estimate that there may be thousands to tens of thousands of consumers who purchased pollen-free honey sold under any of the brand names in question over the past four years.