Slide Ridge has been one of Utah's local food heroes, a genuine mountain honey literally unique to Northern Utah.
Honey's flavor, body and aroma, like wine and cheese, is directly related to terroir–the land it comes from. Honey aficionados prize particular honeys, like New Zealand anuka, Tuscan chestnut, Hawaiian white and Ghanaian honey, because they can only come from one place.
Slide Ridge has been touted as Utah's elite honey–made by local beekeepers in our high arid mountains.
It says so on their website:
“At Slide Ridge, we start with pure, unfiltered raw wildflower honey, produced in our own sustainably managed beehives. Gathered from wildflowers in the pristine, high mountain valleys of Northern Utah, our bees produce a delicately flavored, elite-quality raw honey. From this honey, we produce a rare Honey Wine Vinegar that is a treat to the palette [sic] and the body. Try them both today and you will never settle for second best again.”
But what if it's not?
But recently, questions have been raised about Slide Ridge.
Matt Caputo was one of the earliest local champions of the honey, the wine and the wine vinegar. I remember going into the downtown store one day and running into Matt. He had that fanatical fire in the eye he gets when he's excited about a new food, and I had to stop and taste everything. But this week, Caputo's sister distributing company A Priori sent out a letter to its customers:
At A Priori, we distinguish our product mix by selling the best of the best. Our "Local Gold Standard" collection, of which Slide Ridge was a part, is based on foods that are not only local, but world class. Our focus is on products which are not merely manufactured here, but have ingredients with intrinsic roots to Utah.
From the time we started working with them, Slide Ridge helped us to build a narrative of their product based on their families' own beehives in Mendon, Utah, and Martin James' outlier ability to produce one of the highest quality honeys in the world. We developed a story of how their products beautifully conveyed the terroir of Utah's Cache Valley, etc., etc.”
“Unfortunately, in mid-March, it came to our attention that Slide Ridge has been sourcing Canadian honey to produce at least its Honey Wine Vinegar. While they have tried to put a positive spin on it for us, we have concluded that we cannot do the same. We cannot stand by and knowingly continue to distribute an adulterated product. Once we found out, and after some soul-searching, we determined that it is in the customer's best interest to know and that it was A Priori's ethical obligation to keep you informed of such changes, when they occur. “
I called Slide Ridge to hear their side of this story and spoke to business owner Elmer James. He said, yes; Slide Ridge has been buying Canadian honey. “The drought had a tremendous effect on our bees and we've had tremendous bee losses. We've been buying from other Utah producers and bought all that up; otherwise we would have had to limit production. There's no way we could produce enough product anyway, we're in a desert. You got one arm tied behind your back.”
Sounds reasonable. (And sad, if you're worried about the declining bee population.) But the narrative about the sustainably raised high mountain honey on Slide Ridge's packaging and website doesn't say anything about Canadian honey. Or even other Utah honey.
Elmer clarified. “We've only used the Canadian honey in the wine vinegar and the Cacysir <honey wine>.”
A few hours later he called back to further clarify, “We've never used any of the Canadian honey in our products.”
Caputo's and Slide Ridge are in a contract dispute concerning distribution. They have bones to pick with each other.
But I'm interested in a question that has larger ramifications—for foodies, for health nuts, for environmentalists trying to reduce their carbon footprint, for anyone who finds Slide Ridge's Utah story compelling enough to pay $50 for a bottle of honey wine vinegar. As all of us become more concerned about where our food comes from and how it was raised and not just how much it costs, we become more susceptible to being duped. Is a product real or fake? Organic or not? I think most of us believe we can safely trust the word of local producers. Our neighbors. So when the question becomes, is it local or not, it gets a little more personal.
This is not a new problem. The French have been accused of substituting Algerian wine for their own. We all know about Ikea's meatball recall. Kim Angelli, who runs Salt Lake City's Downtown Farmers Market, has to check up on participating farmers to be sure they're selling their home-grown produce and not something trucked in from California.
When it comes to honey, there are certain healthful properties attributed to honey that comes from the area you live in. Utahns don't need to be acclimatized to pollen from Ghana. Or Canada. If you're trying to be truly conscientious about buying locally for the sake of the environment, it matters whether product is trucked in from another country or harvested up the road.
But it becomes a bigger problem as we place more value on the source of our food. The more we understand about the food we eat, the more complex the ethical questions surrounding it.
When you start out selling a highly specialized and rare artisanal product, you have automatically restricted your business' growth in advance. Scarcity equals value, just like quality is supposed to. There's not going to be an ever-expanding supply of high desert Rocky Mountain honey because only so many wildflowers flourish in those growing conditions and that short season. You have no guarantee, or even likelihood, of expanding your product to fill the demand you create.
This is part of what "sustainable" means.