Debating the meaning of “pure”

If you picked up a bottle of honey and saw “pure” on the label, would you assume that word means the honey is free of even trace levels of pesticide? This question is being asked in a class-action lawsuit under NY’s consumer protection laws, claiming that trace levels of glyphosate in Sioux Honey Association Cooperative’s honey product render their label’s claim of “pure honey” deceptive. This isn’t the first time the company has had to fend off such a lawsuit. At least two others have brought similar cases against the honey giant, one case in California and another in Washington, D.C.

This group of cases rests on the assumption that the average consumer would rely on the descriptor “pure honey” as assurance that the honey was free of even trace levels of pesticides. Of course, these trace amounts were present due to bees doing their job—foraging from various plants within a range of their beehives. The beekeepers had little control over where bees collected pollen and did not cause chemical contamination during the processing and bottling stage.

The NY case is only at the pre-trial stage, and the previous two similar cases never made it to trial. In the California case, the court determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence demonstrating that people would interpret “pure” to mean an absolute absence of trace levels of glyphosate, so the lawsuit couldn’t go forward. Tran v. Sioux Honey, 471 F.Supp.3d 1019 US District Court, California (2020). The District of Columbia case settled out of court after the plaintiff appealed a motion to dismiss in 2017.

The big-picture issue here is determining who bears the responsibility for alerting consumers to pesticide contamination in our food supply. Do we want agricultural producers to be responsible for testing their products, notifying their customers, and labeling their products accordingly? Or should the producer’s responsibility end where their control over the product ends? Are the chemical companies responsible (they have also shouldered lawsuits on this exact issue), or does the government need to provide a regulatory solution?

This is the quagmire that our legal system intends to sort out—but that sorting is a long, slow process. In the meantime, what do producers do?

The risk reduction approach is to approach labeling products very carefully. Some courts have found that the term “natural” does not imply an absolute absence of trace pesticides, despite the current debate in the courts around the sanctity of the word “pure.” The FDA hasn’t issued any formal guidance on the term “natural,” but does provide a basic definition here. Will these cases lead to a determination that “pure” implies more than the term “natural”? Some honey companies have voluntarily started testing their products for trace pesticides to head off this debate.

We will keep our eye on this case as it progresses through the court system.

Sources and Further Reading

You can read the January 13, 2022 Order in the New York case here.

Honey isn’t the only agricultural commodity that deals with accidental pesticide contamination.  If you are concerned about chemical contamination of crops, check out Farm Commons’ resource on chemical drift here.