Multi-million dollar Mānuka honey industry faces mandatory testing

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Primary industries

Trademark Commissioner deciding on new certification requirements administered by the New Zealand Honey Producers Association and iwi.

Dr. Megan Grainger of the University of Waikato keeps a beehive in her Hamilton backyard. Bees keep things real, alongside their groundbreaking lab work to demonstrate New Zealand honey’s distinct elemental imprint.

It’s a trio of tests like these that will be required of exporters of manuka honey, according to a proposed new regulation being reviewed by the Intellectual Property Office this week. After three days of hearings this month, the Deputy Trademark Commissioner must decide whether a consortium of iwi and New Zealand companies can own and certify the rights to mānuka honey.

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

Managing Director David Banfield told shareholders the company saw a strong profit increase to $ 25.5 million, driven by double-digit growth in target growth markets of China and North America , double-digit growth in manuka honey sales and double-digit growth in online sales. “UMF Mānuka’s share of honey has increased from 61% to 66% of our total business, with Mānuka’s revenue up 10% and, equally important, our plus premium 10+ Mānuka has improved by 14%. % year over year. “

Comvita is part of the New Zealand association which seeks to market manuka honey. The demand is strongly opposed by Australian honey producers, and some in New Zealand, who say it would be an overwhelming precedent to grant such trade rights to a naturally occurring primary product.

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

Trying to make it into a brand is a tricky challenge. This comes at the same time that the Fonterra dairy cooperative is accused of “treating Maori for profit”, as it applies to the brand certain Maori words for its line of Kāpiti cheeses, after being.

This is why the group of producers that filed the first trademark application, the Manuka Honey Appellation Society, promises to cede control to a new Māori Charitable Trust. This trust would then contract with the UMF Honey Association (a company related to the original claimant) to perform its proprietary testing to certify New Zealand honey.

To be certified as manuka honey, exporters would also have to submit their product to separate laboratory tests to prove that it meets the export standards of the Ministry of Primary Industries.

And ultimately, they’ll likely have to pass a country of origin test (currently conducted by testing company Oritain) in order to sell in markets like China. This is important for companies like Comvita: Greater China accounts for almost 50% of the company’s total sales.

On the mainland, beekeepers use helicopters and Utes to travel to their most remote mānuka plantations. But on Great Barrier Island, Nikki Watts uses a canoe. Photo: Supplied

But even the smallest businesses will be subjected to these tests. On the Great Barrier Island, Nikki and Kim Watts are small producers and exporters of mānuka honey. In a slow year, they could produce 1 1/2 tons of honey; in a good year up to 4 1/2 tons. They sell most of this to packaging companies for export to China and the rapidly growing North American market – their honey is in demand because the island’s isolation offers greater assurance than honey is monofloral.

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

(In contrast, a 230g jar of fine MGO New Zealand 1900+ mānuka honey will sell for £ 2,595 (NZ $ 5,000) at Harrods of London this week).

Nikki Watts is the head beekeeper for the family business – the couple have four daughters and a son with their own teen-sized bee costumes, who help out. She says manuka honey already has to pass rigorous testing and doubts it will need more.

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

Great Barrier Active Honey was, indirectly, part of the trademark application due to their company’s membership in Beekeeping NZ, but like other small honey producers, Watts was unaware.

She has already traveled to Tasmania where she met their beekeepers; she wondered whether it was necessary to register the name of manuka honey for the exclusive use of New Zealand producers.

She would be happy if the two countries’ products could compete in the international market as “New Zealand manuka honey” and “Australian manuka honey,” she said.

Either way, she appreciates the value of the mānuka honey brand in the international market, and tests like those devised by Megan Grainger will help.

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

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

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

“We are analyzing the data to see if honey from New Zealand has a distinct elemental footprint that differs from honey from other countries,” she says. “If successful, this could be used as a tool to help confirm New Zealand origin.”


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