Down Under Honey owner Jason Prior says he has had customers come to him, seeking out NZ mānuka on grounds it tastes better than the Australian equivalent.
The mānuka honey sector has responded with shock and dismay at a ruling by the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office, which rejected New Zealand’s exclusive trademark claim to the words “mānuka honey”.
After lodging an application to the office over a year ago, the sector faced a challenge from the Australian Mānuka Honey Association, whose members claimed they also had rights to use the term mānuka.
In the lengthy 40-page ruling the adjudicators determined there was a lack of definition around what constituted mānuka honey and little consumer understanding of what the health benefits of the product were.
This is despite the Government here establishing honey standards for export as the only country in the world with a formal scientific definition for mānuka derived honey overseen by MPI.
The ruling also referred to “honey fraud”, where more mānuka volume exported from NZ was reported to be more than was being produced.
Despite NZ producers wanting to head this off by having a certified accreditation, the adjudicators ruled it was “putting the cart before the horse”, and that such fraud would affect consumer perception of what mānuka honey actually was.
The ruling leaned heavily upon a UK food standards report completed in 2016 that maintained there was a lack of consumer awareness that mānuka honey was exclusively a NZ product.
But NZ officials and honey producers are shocked by the ruling.
Apiculture NZ chief executive Karin Kos says the outcome was extremely disappointing, particularly given the positive prospects the United Kingdom market was providing for mānuka honey producers.
The mānuka honey export industry has been growing at a rapid rate, with export sales in 2020 totalling $440 million, with the UK and China the top two markets accounting for 40% of total sale volume.
Mānuka Charitable Trust chair Pita Tipene says the trust was considering its options on a decision that was out of step with existing indigenous IP frameworks.
“This ruling ignores the role of iwi as kaitiaki (guardians) and is insulting to Māori and our culture,” Tipene said.
He says it would be misleading to consumers for honey producers outside of NZ to claim the name mānuka honey when the plant the nectar came from did not grow in Aotearoa NZ.
NZ’s efforts to protect and trademark the mānuka honey type were given a boost in September 2019 when the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society was granted $5.7 million through the Provincial Growth Fund, including a $1.7m loan to help in its bid to secure international trademark rights.
At the time, then regional economic development minister Shane Jones accused Australian honey producers of attempting to steal what was indigenous to NZ.
The efforts to have the mānuka trademark protected in the UK were going to be extended to other trade partners, including the United States and China.
John Rawcliffe, spokesperson for the appellation society, says UK consumers had a very clear impression of what constituted NZ mānuka honey, based on flavour, smell and appearance.
“The term will now be transferred to other species from other countries leading to misunderstanding and confusion,” Rawcliffe said.
Jason Prior, owner of Down Under Honey in Manawatū, agreed.
He says the decision sets a precedent that will mean other countries, including Chile, Australia and Brazil, will start to market their product as mānuka honey, leveraging off the quality of the NZ mānuka type.
“And we have been picking up quite a bit of business from people who prefer NZ mānuka honey to Australian. We have had five to six customers come to us in the past six months wanting to buy NZ mānuka and swap out Australian,” Prior said.
“There is an awareness there that our quality is better, and taste is preferable. Maybe we are going to have to push the NZ angle with mānuka more.”
Prior says the decision ran in the face of other provenance-type foods, such as champagne and Parma ham, that have enjoyed robust protection.
“To say that just because other producers have used the description who are not from the region or country for some time is a defence for them to keep using it is hardly a reason,” he said.
“The use of the term champagne in regions other than Champagne was successfully banned, well after other countries had adopted it.”
Australian Mānuka Honey Association chair Paul Callander hailed the ruling as “right and fair”.
“The Australian industry has fought hard to protect its rightful interests in this growing market and will continue to do so. This decision is an important one that we hope will be followed by other jurisdictions where trademark certification has been sought,” Callander said.
The NZ mānuka industry will have the opportunity to appeal the decision in the new year.