The discovery that Serbia, Spain and the UK are producing their own ‘mānuka honey’ has highlighted the significance of a looming New Zealand legal decision on trademarking the brand. Jonathan Milne investigates.
New Zealand honey producers are to release test results this week, showing 40 products branded as “manuka honey” in key overseas markets are not, in fact, made from Leptospermum scoparium – the Latin name for New Zealand mānuka.
It’s part of a last-ditch government-backed bid to protect the brand for use by New Zealand producers, coinciding with filing new trademark applications in Europe and the UK.
The Labour-led Government granted producers $4 million for scientific testing and development, and lent them another $1.7m to legally protect the brand in overseas markets. It was persuaded, in part, by sighting worrying correspondence from Italian, Spanish and Serbian honey producers.
The Serbs said they had grown 2000 mānuka seedlings, and were seeking investment to expand production. They believed they could produce 300kg of honey per hectare, and sell it for 100 euros per kilo. An online directory now lists 53 self-proclaimed mānuka honey producers in Serbia.
Thus far, the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society and its successor, the Mānuka Charitable Trust, have failed repeatedly to get other jurisdictions to recognise their ownership of a mānuka honey brand – meaning the taxpayer is unlikely to see its $1.7m loan repaid.
But the most crucial ruling is yet to come. That is expected from New Zealand’s Intellectual Property Office in the coming month. Other regulators, like the USA, are waiting on that decision before making their own.
John Rawcliffe, who has led the battle to protect the brand for the past 20 years, says a great deal hangs on the New Zealand ruling – if New Zealand honey producers can’t win in their own jurisdiction, he says, there’s little hope of winning anywhere else.
“New Zealand’s mānuka honey sector is important, both in terms of the sector’s potential to contribute to the growth of high value exports, and in recognising the cultural significance of mānuka for Māori.”
– Damien O’Connor, trade minister
And there’s a lot at stake. New Zealand produced 22,000 tonnes of honey last year, half of which was exported. That earned the country $455m.
Mānuka honey is a class apart though; it accounted for 76 percent of export volume to 40 markets, but a massive 88 percent of honey export revenue. That’s because, according to the Ministry of Primary Industries, it sold for up to $160/kg in bulk.
By highlighting so-called mānuka honey from Europe, the New Zealand industry is trying to avoid a jingoistic trans-Tasman battle, but it’s already too late for that. Mānuka has become the new pavlova, the new Crowded House … New Zealand and Australia argue over who grew the trees first, and how long they’ve used the name mānuka.
British and Australian honey companies say that if New Zealand producers were to succeed in trademarking mānuka honey, it would set a controversial international precedent.
It is common for countries to obtain legal protection for terroir – regions that produce distinctive products like France’s Champagne or Italy’s Parmigiano. But there’s not thought to be any previous instance, under world intellectual property rules, of trademarking a species like mānuka.
“Many of the Australian species are more active and more medicinal than that found in New Zealand products. That is the reality.”
– Ben McKee, Hive and Wellness Australia
Damien O’Connor, the Minister of Agriculture and Trade, has taken steps to recognise its importance including a definition in the Government’s free trade agreement with the European Union, that recognises ‘mānuka’ as a Māori word.
It also recognises the tree itself and the products that derive from the tree, as grown in New Zealand, including honey and oil, as a tāonga or valuable possession to Māori, and traditional medicine.
“New Zealand’s mānuka honey sector is important, both in terms of the sector’s potential to contribute to the growth of high value exports, and in recognising the cultural significance of mānuka for Māori,” he tells Newsroom.
O’Connor refused to comment on the prospect of the Government getting its $1.7m back, or whether it would contribute more to the steep uphill legal challenge. “As this is a private legal matter, it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment on the certification trademark applications themselves.”
The Australian Manuka Honey Association, which is fighting the New Zealand trademarking applications, claims Rawcliffe’s entities have run out of money. Their UK lawyers submitted arguments to that effect, in demanding that the New Zealanders put up a bond before lodging another expensive appeal.
But Rawcliffe says his organisations and the Mānuka Charitable Trust have a funding commitment from New Zealand producers: $650,000 a year, for five years. And they may also seek more funding from the Government.
“The trademarking has been about protecting the honey producers. But this research tells us that it’s equally as important in protecting the consumer. It raises serious concerns about what has been sold around the world.”
– John Rawcliffe, Mānuka Honey Society
He wrote last month to licence holders in the Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association, another organisation he set up that certifies New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium honey. He confirmed the Manuka Honey Appellation Society (a sister organisation) had withdrawn from the UK and EU certification trademark appeals, on the legal advice of King’s Counsel in the UK.
“Along with the cultural importance of this matter, we are also fighting for consumer protection,” he told them. “It is important to maintain a position of clarity for the consumer of what they are buying; not by including another 86 species under a single name.”
This week they will release research demonstrating the significant differences between New Zealand mānuka honey and other products sold around the world that are labelled as mānuka honey, he revealed.
“We should remind ourselves that we are not attacking any other country or body producing their own unique and valuable honey based on their own story; we are only fighting for the recognition of ours.
“For the international honey industry to advance away from a base commodity position this is very important. Our goal here is for the New Zealand beekeeper to be able to clearly tell their story with their own unique honeys in an international market without confusion.”
“We know our international customers, who have chosen to buy mānuka honey over the last 20 years, do so because they know that mānuka is a Māori word originating from Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s authentic and high quality and that’s what makes it so special and in demand.”
– Pita Tipene, Mānuka Charitable Trust
That research is to be released to overseas customers. Forty samples of so-called ‘mānuka honey’ retailed in New Zealand’s six biggest overseas markets – the USA, EU, UK, China, Japan and Singapore – were tested by Analytica, an independent laboratory in Hamilton. The tests showed they were not Leptospermum scoparium.
“They are fundamentally different from what the research is based on, and from what the consumers expect,” Rawcliffe told Newsroom.
“We’ve looked at all the major territories around the world, at what has been sold as mānuka honey. The results are very concerning. It doesn’t meet the New Zealand regulatory definition of mānuka honey, unless it comes from New Zealand.”
Analytica conducted the mānuka 3-in-1 test measuring concentrations of DHA (dihydroxyacetone), MG/MGO (methylglyoxal), and HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural) in honey samples, and calculated NPA (non-peroxide activity) from the result.
“The trademarking has been about protecting the honey producers,” Rawcliffe said. “But this research tells us that it’s equally as important in protecting the consumer. It raises serious concerns about what has been sold around the world.”
It wasn’t clear where those 40 honeys had been produced. “I’ve got no guarantee where exactly it’s come from – it could have come from another country buying bulk and relabelling it, it could have come in another way,” he said. “Where we do have confidence is that the New Zealand export regulations and the UMF quality mark provide a level of guarantee to an overseas consumer.”
The Mānuka Charitable Trust, established in 2020 to represent Māori interests in mānuka, has filed replacement applications to pick up where the previous applicant society left off its trademark appeals. The trust will argue that these are new actions, bringing an end to any obligations around the $1.7m loan.
Trust chair Pita Tipene said: “We know our international customers, who have chosen to buy mānuka honey over the last 20 years, do so because they know that mānuka is a Māori word originating from Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s authentic and high quality and that’s what makes it so special and in demand.”
Australian beekeepers and honey producers, with the backing of a UK retail chain, have been leading the opposition to trademarking mānuka honey. They acknowledge ‘mānuka’ is a Māori word, but says the word ‘manuka’ (without a macron) has been used in Tasmania for the past century, and that Leptospermum scoparium were growing there before they established a foothold in New Zealand.
Hive and Wellness Australia chief operating officer Ben McKee says: “The reality is that Australia is the home of manuka or the Leptospermum plant species – we have some 83 species. Science has well and truly confirmed that the existence of L. scoparium in New Zealand actually originated from Australia. Yet we are the enemy? Why?”
He argues there would be no New Zealand industry without Australia, and its Leptospermum. “If Rawcliffe wants to go and test honey from around the world designated as singularly L. scoparium honey, then he will find numerous Australian active honey species that are not scoparium – no surprise.
“Many of the Australian species are more active and more medicinal than that found in New Zealand products. That is the reality. Will he disclose the MGO [medical grade] level, the antimicrobial agent in the Australian honey? I am sure it will be impressive and conforming to label designations.”