New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries has released manuka honey labelling interim guidelines to clarify what claims can be made and what constitutes the widely counterfeited and vaguely regulated variety of honey.
“There are a number of companies producing manuka honey with different statements and claims. MPI is acting to ensure that manuka honey products are true to label and not misleading for consumers,” said Scott Gallacher, the ministry’s deputy director for regulation and assurance.
The native New Zealand honey came to prominence in the late 'Eighties, when researchers demonstrated its powerful antibacterial effect. Demand for manuka has grown over the following decades to vastly outstrip supply of the 1,700 tonnes produced each year to the point that 10,000 tonnes of so-called manuka is sold around the world per annum.
But beyond fake jars, another common issue concerns the mislabelling of manuka, such as inflated claims.
Questions over the authenticity of some New Zealand manuka honey have been putting the integrity of the country's export reputation at risk, said food safety minister Nikki Kaye. "It is important that New Zealand takes this step to protect our brand and the integrity of our labeling systems," she said.
Last year, New Zealand's honey exports were valued at about NZ$120m (US$102m)
Gallacher said it was important consumers know that what they are buying and paying a premium for is actually manuka honey.
“To produce the guide we have worked closely with industry and analysed the data honey businesses have provided. We have commissioned research and used additional national and international research, and based the guide on this information.”
The guide clarifies what is expected on honey labels and in advertising, including clarifying issues around therapeutic and health claims. The guide also takes the first steps towards defining the characteristics of manuka honeys, said Gallacher.
“Now we have clarified for businesses what is required, we expect products to be labelled correctly and that any therapeutic and health claims are removed from honey that is consumed.
“We are working with industry to ensure they understand the guidance we are providing today and are brought into line with our expectations. Ultimately though, if businesses do not comply we will consider enforcement action.”
However, MPI has faced a challenge in compiling the guide due to a lack of good, robust and validated scientific data to characterise monofloral manuka honey, which is honey gathered predominately from the nectar of manuka flowers.
“To establish this, MPI is funding further research, with the initial results looking promising. In addition, we are also considering working with industry on joint research initiatives. When this research is validated it will be incorporated into a revised guide, which we aim to consider in late July 2015.”
Current testing does not allow for the differentiation of manuka from kanuka properties in honey. However, part of MPI’s research is looking into new and emerging technologies that can detect the difference. Some of these methods are pollen identification, DNA profiling and chemical fingerprinting.