Bitter row over rights to manuka honey

Aussie beekeepers dispute NZ move to trademark name of honey variety

SYDNEY • Manuka honey's much-hyped healing properties have proved a money-spinner for beekeepers in Australia and New Zealand, but a push to trademark its name has sparked a bitter row between the two countries.

The fracas erupted when a New Zealand association applied for exclusive rights to market manuka honey in five countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia and China, incensing Australian beekeepers, who have dismissed the Kiwi claims as "ridiculous".

Nicknamed "liquid gold", manuka honey is produced by bees foraging on the flowers of the tea tree shrub, which grows wild in both countries. Devotees hail it as a wonder food with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that can cure skin conditions, heal sore throats, boost immunity and aid digestion.

The honey's star ingredient is methylglyoxal (MGO), an antimicrobial molecule which is found in higher concentrations in manuka than other honey varieties.

While scientists strongly dispute some of the health claims made on its behalf, manuka is now a staple in high-end supermarkets around the world and appears in expensive products ranging from face cream to shampoos and lip balm.

Prices soar in line with the proportion of MGO, reaching up to €300 (S$480) for a 1kg jar containing 700mg of the antiseptic ingredient. It has helped the value of New Zealand's honey exports triple in the five years to 2016 on soaring demand, particularly from China.

Small wonder then that New Zealand's honey producers are fiercely protective of their manuka brand and bristle at what they see as Australian attempts to piggyback off its success.

The Australians are equally adamant that their honey should be called manuka because it comes from the same plant as the Kiwi product and has similar MGO levels. The New Zealanders want to secure protected status for honey labelled manuka, meaning only their products can carry the name.

France did it with Champagne, Portugal with Porto wine, and Italy with Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) cheese, all to lucrative effect.

"Our initiative is not an anti-Australian thing," said Mr John Rawcliffe, spokesman for the New Zealand association Unique Manuka Factor, whose application for the trademark sparked the dispute.

"The most important thing is to protect the customers. Manuka is a Maori word and it's crucial that manuka honey can be authenticated and related to a terroir, a climate, exactly like... Champagne."

But Australian producers say New Zealand has no right to claim a monopoly on manuka honey.

Australian Honey Bee Industry Council spokesman Lindsay Bourke described the trademark bid as "ridiculous and unfair".

Mr Paul Callender of the Australian Manuka Honey Association said Australia was home to 80 varieties of manuka honey, including one native to Tasmania but claimed by New Zealand.

He pointed out that the manuka market is expected to continue to grow and make further inroads into "medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetics and nutritional sectors". "We have cheaper price acquisition and operating costs than the Kiwis. But they are very good in marketing. So why not become partners instead of fighting?"

New Zealand producers launched their bid for protected status in 2015, applying to the authorities in their five largest markets.

It is expected to be a long process, with their Australian rivals lodging objections every step of the way and warning that a result in the Kiwis' favour would have dire implications for honey lovers.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2017, with the headline 'Bitter row over rights to manuka honey'. Print Edition | Subscribe