The mānuka honey industry has lost its government-backed bid to trademark the term “Mānuka Honey” in New Zealand.
The decision by the Intellectual Property Office of NZ (IPONZ) came after the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) , backed by the wider industry and government, filed an application in 2015 to protect the term so only honey from New Zealand could be called mānuka.
Essentially, it argued that “mānuka” was a Māori word and a product of NZ.
However, the application faced opposition from the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), which argued they, too, could produce the product across the Tasman.
MHAS has also applied for the trademark in other jurisdictions, such as Europe, the United Kingdom and China.
The assistant commissioner of trade marks at IPONZ, Natasha Alley, said she was conscious that misappropriation of Māori culture is “a very serious and valid concern”.
“MHAS does not appear to argue, however, that there has been any misappropriation of Māori culture by honey producers in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Rather, she said, it appeared the concerns surrounding appropriation of a te reo Māori taonga related to use in other countries, over which she has no jurisdiction.
The case represented a “trans-Tasman tussle of extraordinary” proportions and is one of the most complex and long-running proceedings to have come before IPONZ.
Alley said she has “considerable sympathy” for MHAS and its members.
“In large part, this is because of the cultural significance of mānuka honey, and because there does not appear to have been widespread use of the term “manuka honey” by Australian honey producers until the New Zealand trade in mānuka honey took off, and well after the discovery of the valuable antibacterial properties of that honey by New Zealand scientists in the 1980s.”
However, by the time MHAS applied for the certification mark in 2015, there was clear use of “manuka honey” in Australia to describe Leptospermum scoparium honey, she said.
Alley declined the application on several grounds, including that Mānuka Honey is descriptive of the goods of the application and is therefore not registerable under the Trade Marks Act 2002.
The Mānuka Charitable Trust said it is “disappointed but undeterred” by the decision.
Chair Pita Tipene said the finding reflects the technicalities and limitations of conventional intellectual property law to protect indigenous rights.
“It is disappointing in so many ways, but our role as kaitiaki (guardians) to protect the mana, mauri, and value of our taonga species, including Mānuka on behalf of all New Zealanders is not contestable.”
“We remain resolute in protecting our reo Māori and the precious taonga and today’s ruling in no way deters us. If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity.”
The trust will be taking some time to absorb the details of the ruling and consider its next steps, Tipene said.
According to the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Situation and Outlook Report from December last year, export revenue from honey of all types was $455 million in the year to June 30, 2022.