Buzz over manuka honey trademark

Manuka honey products in a supermarket in Beijing, China.
Manuka honey products in a supermarket in Beijing, China.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG•There is a fight Down Under over manuka honey, the so-called superfood famed for its anti-bacterial qualities.

On one side, New Zealand beehive owners say they should have exclusive rights to the manuka name. On the other, Australian producers say the manuka tree that gives the sticky stuff its name is an Aussie native and their honey is just as super as its Kiwi cousin.

Manuka honey is a favourite of celebrities such as Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and American reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian.

More importantly for the honey industry, the product is in high demand in China, where middle- class shoppers suspicious of locally made food are willing to pay a lot for honey from clean countries.

New Zealand-based Comvita, one of the world's top producers of manuka honey, this week reported a 15-month profit of NZ$18.5 million (S$18.3 million) on sales of NZ$231 million, about half of which went to Chinese consumers.

As a result, there is a lot of money at stake over the manuka name. The honey is made by bees that pollinate the Leptospermum scoparium, a shrub-like tree that goes by many names, including Tea Tree, Red Damask and Manuka.

Leptospermum scoparium grows in New Zealand and Australia. While the Kiwi variety gets most of the attention, Australian beekeepers say their honey is legitimate manuka too.

The dominant Australian brand, Capilano Honey, boasts on its website that it sells three types of manuka - low, medium and high strength - all made from 100 per cent Australian manuka honey sourced from Leptospermum.

Such claims rile Mr John Rawcliffe, spokesman for New Zealand trade group the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association. Only honey produced by Kiwi bees deserves the manuka moniker, he said.

His group of beekeepers, producers and exporters accounts for about 80 per cent of New Zealand's manuka honey sales. He said: "The consumer expects that if it's manuka honey, then it comes from New Zealand. Manuka is a Maori word. We are aiming to protect it."

The association last year submitted an application with the government to trademark the name, saying the move was "fundamental to protecting an internationally recognised premium product that is unique to New Zealand".

Mr Trevor Weatherhead, executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, however, said New Zealand does not have a monopoly on manuka. "We have exactly the same plant that they have," he said.

As for claims that the manuka name comes from New Zealand's Maori language, he said the word has an Australian heritage too. "We have evidence of the name manuka being used in Tasmania for years," he said.

The Kiwis do have one big advantage. The manuka plant is not as common in Australia as it is in New Zealand, Mr Weatherhead said, limiting the ability of the industry to produce the high-end honey. "They have large areas of manuka," he said. "Here, it's selective where we can get it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'Buzz over manuka honey trademark'. Print Edition | Subscribe