Trademarks commissioner deciding on new certification requirements administered by grouping of New Zealand honey producers and iwi.

Waikato University’s Dr Megan Grainger keeps a beehive in her Hamilton backyard. The bees keep things real, alongside her groundbreaking lab work to demonstrate the distinct elemental fingerprint of NZ honey.

It is a trifecta of tests like these that will be required of mānuka honey exporters, according to a proposed new regulation being considered by the Intellectual Property Office this week. After three days of hearings this month, the assistant trademarks commissioner is to decide whether a grouping of NZ iwi and corporates can own and certify the rights to mānuka honey.

New Zealand exported 8,762 tonnes of monofloral and multifloral mānuka honey last year, valued at $398 million. The honey's value was illustrated this week at the AGM of Comvita, the country's biggest mānuka exporter.

Chief executive David Banfield told shareholders the company had delivered a big increase in earnings to $25.5 million, driven by double-digit growth in the focus growth markets of China and North America, double-digit growth in mānuka honey sales, and double-digit growth in online sales. "UMF Mānuka honey share increased from 61 to 66 percent of our total business, with Mānuka revenue up 10 percent and as importantly, our more premium 10+ Mānuka improved by 14 percent year on year."

Comvita is part of the NZ association seeking to trademark mānuka honey. The application is strongly opposed by Australian honey producers, and some from NZ, who say it would be a sweeping precedent to grant such commercial rights over a naturally-occurring primary product. 

The six-year trademark case has been cast as a trans-Tasman battle: New Zealand protecting a valuable natural product derived from the country's unique mānuka flower. But it's far more nuanced than that. The plant we call mānuka grows in both countries. It has the Latin name Leptospermum scoparium, and in parts of Australia like Tasmania has also become widely known as manuka.

Attempting to trademark it is a sensitive challenge. It comes at the same time that dairy co-op Fonterra is being accused of "milking Māori for profit", as it applies to trademark certain Māori words for its Kāpiti cheese range, after being.

That's why the producer group that first lodged trademark application, the Manuka Honey Appellation Society, is promising to hand over control to a new Māori Charitable Trust. That trust would then contract the UMF Honey Association (a company connected to the original applicant) to conduct its proprietary tests to certify the NZ honey.

To be certified as mānuka honey, exporters would also need to submit their product for separate laboratory testing to  prove it meets Ministry for Primary Industries export standards. 

And ultimately, they will likely to be required to pass a country of origin test (presently conducted by testing company Oritain) in order to sell into markets like China. That's important for businesses like Comvita: greater China represents nearly 50 percent of the company's total sales.

On the mainland, beekeepers use helicopters and utes to get to their more remote mānuka plantations. But on Great Barrier Island, Nikki Watts uses a dinghy. Photo: Supplied

But even the smaller businesses will be subject to these tests. On Great Barrier Island, Nikki and Kim Watts are small-scale mānuka honey producers and exporters. In a slow year they might produce 1 1/2 tonnes of honey; in a good year as much as 4 1/2 tonnes. They sell most of that to packaging companies for export to China and the fast-growing North American market – their honey is in demand because the island's isolation provides greater assurance that the honey is monofloral.

A little of the honey, they hold back and sell to locals for $30 for a big 450g jar. Islanders can call ahead and Nikki or Kim will come down and open their little store, a 3x3m shed that doubles as the world's smallest furniture showroom. 

(By contrast, a 230g jar of good 1900+ MGO New Zealand mānuka honey will sell for £2595 (NZ$5000) at Harrods of London, this week).

Nikki Watts is the head beekeeper in the family business – the couple have four daughters a son with their own teen-sized bee suits, who help out. She says mānuka honey already has to pass stringent tests, and is dubious about whether it needs any more. 

Nikki and Kim Watts' five children, aged from 14 to 20, help our with the family beekeeping business on Great Barrier Island. Photo: Supplied

Great Barrier Active Honey is, indirectly, party to the trademark application through their company's membership of Apiculture NZ, but like other small honey producers, Watts was unaware of that.

She has travelled previously to Tasmania where she met their beekeepers; she questions whether there is the need to trademark the name mānuka honey for the exclusive use of New Zealand producers.

She would be happy for the two countries' products to compete on the international market as "New Zealand mānuka honey", and "Australian manuka honey", she says.

Either way, she appreciates the value of the mānuka honey brand on the international market, and tests like those being designed by Megan Grainger will help with that.

Grainger is a finalist in the Kudos Science Awards, for her work. Earlier this year she published a paper detailing the elemental fingerprint of honey from the North Island. She and her colleagues found that elements associated with soil (calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and manganese) were able to show 75.2 percent of the variation between the the regions of Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Coromandel, King Country, Taupo and Waikato.

And this summer, she hopes to publish a new paper comparing New Zealand honeys with some from overseas, including Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy and critically, five Australian honeys. 

She has measured the elemental concentrations, and aims to publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal over summer.

"We are analysing the data to see if New Zealand honey has a distinct elemental fingerprint that differs from honey originating from other countries," she says. "If successful, this could be used as one tool to help confirm New Zealand origin."

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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