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Thursday, March 4, 2010 09:27 am

A sticky situation

Bill would stop regulation of hobbyist honey producers

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PHOTO BY PAUL KITIGAKI/MCT

The state’s beekeepers are buzzing to gain some independence.

A new bill would ensure that small honey producers are able to sell their products at farmers markets, fairs or roadside stands without government regulation. The measure, supporters say, would allow beekeepers to build local networks with consumers, and help grow and maintain the state’s honeybee population.

SB 2959, sponsored by Sen. David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville), recognizes raw, unadulterated honey as an agricultural commodity, thus exempting it from the rules and regulations for processed food defined by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Currently, honey that is removed from the comb is considered a “processed” food, and all such foods must be processed within a facility that was built and is maintained in accordance with State of Illinois rules and regulations.

Honey that is sold straight from the comb, or removed from the comb but unchanged in any other way, should be seen as a farm-fresh product, not a processed food, Luechtefeld says. Hobbyist beekeepers, those who package or sell less than 500 gallons of honey per year, should not be subjected to the department’s regulation or inspections, he says.

“If there are too many regulations, it puts beekeepers out of business,” Luechtefeld says. “A lot of country markets depend on this.”

However, representatives from the Illinois Department of Public Health are challenging the bill, contending that unregulated honey is a health risk. Conny Moody, of the department’s health protection office, says she’s concerned about cleanliness and sanitation, even for small hobbyist facilities.

Her department considers honey a processed food, she says, especially if machinery is used when removing the sticky substance from the comb. Some producers also combine honey from more than one comb, and that increases the potential for contamination.

“When you’re talking about 500 gallons of honey, that’s 4,000 of those eight-ounce honey bears,” Moody says. “With those numbers, that type of producer is a food processor.”

Mike Sabo of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association says the bill is meant to separate small producers from large commercial hives. Most of the state’s beekeepers are small outfits, he says, and the regulatory practices are hindering their ability to produce and sell honey. Sabo cited Dadant and Sons, Inc., a beekeeping supplier with a branch in Hamilton, Ill., who says 95 percent of their clients have 25 or fewer beehives.

Elizabeth Watkins, Public Health’s food processing program coordinator, says while she can’t recall any recent reports of honey-related illnesses with hobbyist producers, anyone who makes hundreds of gallons of honey is susceptible because they must store the excess product. If it gets too hot or cold, the honey can change consistency, which puts it at greater risk for disease.

“Tainted honey can contain pathogens or chemicals,” Watkins says. “It’s not often the case with hobby beekeepers, but the issue is, a lot of food is changing. Peanut butter is growing bacteria now. The possibility is there.”

No other food is allowed manufacturing without health department inspection, Watkins says, and the bill would create a dangerous precedent.

“It opens the door for any food product to ask for exemption,” Watkins says.

Ray Chapman of Bunker Hill is the southern regional director of the Beekeepers Association. Chapman produces comb honey, populating between 25-50 hives each year.

Chapman said his honey-extracting process isn’t as involved as a large producer’s, and thus shouldn’t be under the same scrutiny.

The bill is currently in the Senate’s Agriculture and Conservation Committee, where beekeepers and health department officials presented testimony last week.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com

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