Raw deal? Judge quotes Winnie-the-Pooh in UK honey-labelling ruling | Food & drink industry

Raw deal? Judge quotes Winnie-the-Pooh in UK honey-labelling ruling | Food & drink industry

It is not every day that a judge quotes Winnie-the-Pooh. But this week, one made the return to the Hundred Acre Wood when delivering an extraordinary judgment over what constitutes “raw honey”.

Judge Neville was asked to settle a row between a high-end Greek food firm and a London council over whether the company could call their product “raw” or “artisan”.

The dispute, between Waltham Forest trading standards and the firm Odysea, brought out the storyteller in Neville, who began by reciting the author AA Milne in his written decision.

It read: “‘The things that make me different are the things that make me me’, said Piglet, who must have seen quite a bit of honey eaten over the years. If he treated Pooh to some ‘raw honey’, what would be different about it?”

It’s not the first time that legal proceedings have made calls on the definitions of food although it is usually around matters of tax.

Earlier this year, Walkers was ruled to have to pay VAT on its Mini Poppadoms because they are really more like crisps. Previous VAT debates have involved McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes, which tax authorities in the 1990s unsuccessfully argued were biscuits.

Odysea, which has sold thousands of jars of honey proudly labelled as “raw”, argued that their honey was not heated above its natural temperature and underwent far less processing.

However, Waltham Forest trading standards argued that all honey was raw because it has not been cooked, claiming the wording misled consumers by suggesting Odysea’s product was somehow different.

The company had to reprint its labels to say “artisan honey” instead but in an appeal, the tribunal was called to adjudicate on that decision.

In the end, the judge decided not to conclude over what defines the term itself, refusing to agree with the council that by calling the product “raw” it suggested special characteristics. He ruled in favour of Odysea on appeal.

The judge concluded that the difficulty arose with the two parties asking the tribunal to rule between two different definitions of raw.

He said: “The definition put forward by Waltham Forest, being ‘uncooked’, can be rejected. The average consumer would struggle to explain what ‘cooked honey’ might even look like.”

But, he added, that rejection did not mean he was accepting Odysea’s definition. “The evidence shows that consumer perception is aligned with common sense: raw in this context takes the everyday meaning of ‘unwrought’, ‘unprocessed’, ‘in its natural state’.

“But a precise definition that sorts honey into ‘raw’ and ‘not raw’ is less obvious … To avoid continuing to labour the point, I look at Odysea’s own honey. Its ‘limited run, single source’ honey described at paragraph 20 above would satisfy just about everyone as being raw honey, although even then the odd person might take exception to the centrifuge and the pump.”

The judge concluded: “Ultimately, however, the tribunal’s task is not to be drawn into legislating a precise definition of ‘raw’, as both parties were apt to invite it to do, but to decide if this honey breaches the law in the way stated.”

He rejected the idea that Odysea’s use of the word raw suggested special characteristics “that in fact all similar foods possess”, or was in any other way misleading.

He added: “Doing the best I can, the word accurately conveys the lack of processing, including but not limited to heating, undergone by Odysea’s honey when compared with many others. I decline to reach any conclusion on where the lower limit of processing lies before honey may no longer be described as raw, and it may be that clearer guidance or regulation would assist consumers and producers.”

Describing one of Odysea’s raw honey products, the panel at the Great Taste awards complimented the “subtle pine and fir flavours, the perfect level of sweetness, the hint of saltiness, the sheer sexiness of this honey”.

The managing director of Odysea, Panos Manuelides, responding to the verdict, said: “We are delighted by the tribunal decision. Honey is not a very big business for us financially, our main business is olive oil and olives.

“But it is an important part of our business and a fantastic
product, produced in a village devastated by floods this year. It is a
fantastic decision for them, and we have sold this honey for a long
time and produced it with minimal processing … so we are delighted to be able to continue to sell it as it is, which is raw.”

Waltham Forest council has been approached for comment.

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