The New Zealand honey industry led by the Manuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) has been trying to register trademarks for ‘manuka honey’ in multiple major manuka-importing countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, NZ and China.
Any success in these attempts would result in Australian manuka producers being unable to use the term ‘manuka’ to describe their honey, and would be a critical blow for the industry, which is led by the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), which has been attempting to interest New Zealand in a more peaceful solution to no avail.
“The AMHA has tried to engage the MHAS to work together collaboratively in the promotion and marketing of Manuka honey, rather than fight over a name. This has not been fruitful, and we have had little to no engagement from the MHAS, despite our requests - they have little interest in working together,” AMHA founding Board Member Ben McKee told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“[We] believe they are motivated by commercial reasons in the pursuit of a trademark that will exclude Australian beekeepers and bioactive Australian Manuka products from using the [and] are trying unreasonably to monopolise a purely descriptive term for commercial gain.
“The term ‘manuka honey’ is no more than the name of a product and the plant source that it comes from and is not suitable for trademarking.”
Although so far no country has registered the trademark due to the many questions surrounding the legitimacy of what has been deemed a ‘descriptive term’, the trademark registration process has progressed to the hearings stage in New Zealand and the UK, and AMHA has taken to the courts to present evidence to fight back against this.
“Unfortunately this fight is set to be resolved in a courtroom - It is disappointing that the legal action has continued to this point [but] Australian producers have no choice but to vigorously defend the trademark action, despite the significant cost of doing so,” said McKee.
“AMHA has had to present a legal argument, and our evidence is some 5,000 pages of information - The term ‘Manuka honey’ has been used in Australia since the 1800’s, and we believe Australia has a compelling case to defend our right of use.”
What’s in a name
New Zealand’s arguments mainly surround claims that manuka is a Maori term, so has its roots in New Zealand and has drawn correlations with how champagne is native to France and protected as such.
Manuka honey is made when bees forage the Leptospermum tea tree plant, which is Mānuka in Maori. That said, Leptospermum plants are native to both Australia and New Zealand.
“Australia is home to 85 of the 87 known Leptospermum species worldwide, including the Leptospermum Scoparium species as the only species found in NZ, which scientists believe originated from Australia and was dispersed to NZ. Quite ironic really,” said McKee.
“As for the origin of the name, this is of some debate and whilst we do acknowledge Maori use, the name Manuka has been used to describe the tree in Tasmania, Australia, since the 1880’s too.”
McKee added that the impacts if this battle is lost would be ‘devastating’ for the industry, which is pushing the legal fights to continue despite the high costs.
“The challenge for us is the continuing and costly legal battles that are occurring in NZ and the UK, [but] our industry is very small and the loss of the name Manuka would have a devastating economic impact,” he said.
“The total brand share for the Australian grocery and pharmacy health & wellness segment is over A$50m (US$37.1mn) and lot of Australia’s honey exports are also Manuka. The international Manuka honey market is targeted to be worth around A$1.27bn (US$943.7mn) in annual trade by 2027, with Australia having the potential to supply around one third of this”
How long can this go on
But it is not only Australia which is feeling the sting of legal costs – according to a spokesman from the Manuka Charitable Trust in New Zealand, which handles New Zealand’s legal affairs in the fight, money is also needed on their end.
"Going forward the way we fund legal proceedings is the challenge but with the industry, iwi and the government we are working through our funding constraints," Trust spokesman Victor Goldsmith said on Radio New Zealand.
"It's great that iwi, the industry and the government want to come to the party to support this but we need a more sustainable model because the fight and litigation to protect the term manuka will take some time.
"We asked Minister for Economic and Regional Development Stuart Nash if the government is considering allocating more money to the cause [but] did not get a response."
The Trust obtained a NZ$1.7mn (US$1.19mn) grant from the government’s Provincial Growth Fund for the legal proceedings previously, but Goldsmith did not disclose how much of this was left.
McKee added that the Australian government has been ‘very supportive’ of the manuka industry, though he did not divulge any financial details.