The Manuka Plant
Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is a flowering scrub-type plant, native to Australia and New Zealand. Mānuka is a Māori word and the plant has also been known as Tea Tree, Broom Tea Tree and Red Damask.
The Manuka plant has numerous applications. Its wood is used to produce goods and serious foodies use its wood chips to smoke meats and fish for artisanal focussed consumers. The leaves are distilled into an essential oil, with properties including as an anti-dandruff, antidote, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-histaminic, anti-allergenic cicatrisant, cytophylactic, deodorant, and relaxant substance.
However, Manuka has truly become a buzzword in relation to its honey.
Honey can have antibiotic and antibacterial qualities. Manuka honey is regarded as particularly potent and because of its perceived heightened medicinal qualities, it has become big business with a global surge in demand.
The New Zealand Manuka honey industry has been estimated at $275 million, with potential to reach more than $1 billion. The Australian Manuka honey industry has been estimated at around $20 million, with enormous growth potential.
The price of Manuka honey has soared with New Zealand prices tripling since 2012. The value is evidenced by the theft of hives in New Zealand (Hive Heists ) and UK supermarkets stocking jars of the honey in tagged security cassettes to prevent shoplifting ( Security Tags )
Now that Manuka Honey has become the powerful brand of a new super food, New Zealand producers have sought to protect their market share. This has led to tensions between New Zealand and Australian producers as to who is entitled to use the MANUKA moniker.
Wine and food producers have long sought to protect names as an association with a particular region.
An appellation of origin is a legally defined and protected geographical indication (GI) generally consisting of a geographical name or a traditional designation used on products which have a specific quality or characteristics that are essentially due to the geographical environment in which they are produced. Examples include:
Champagne (sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France).
Prosciutto di Parma or Parma ham (ham produced in the Italian province of Parma).
Tequila (alcoholic beverage from Mexico)
Many countries afford protection to geographical indications via certification marks. GI law restricts the use of the GIs for the purpose of identifying a particular type of product, unless the product and/or its constituent materials and/or its fabrication method originate from a particular area and/or meet certain standards. Often these laws also stipulate that the product must meet certain quality tests that are administered by an association that owns the exclusive right to licence or allow the use of the indication.
Therefore, a name which is the subject of a certification mark is highly controlled.
New Zealand v Australia
The industry body for the New Zealand Manuka Honey industry is UMF Honey Association (UMFHA). The Manuka Honey Appellation Society Incorporated (MHAS) of New Zealand was established with the sole purpose of ensuring ownership of the name MANUKA HONEY is secured for New Zealand honey producers and the wider industry as a whole.
MHAS has filed for certification trade marks in various international markets and this has generated significant media coverage in Australia, given tensions from existing Australian producers of Manuka Honey products.
The Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA) was initiated in Melbourne in September 2017 by an Australian group of producers and processors to fight the New Zealand industry’s trade mark attempts.
As a Māori word, MANUKA has obvious links to New Zealand. However, Australian producers claim that the position is not as straightforward as the New Zealanders present.
Australians claim that the Manuka tree originated in Australia — its seeds dispersed from Tasmania to New Zealand. Further, Australia is home to over 80 species of Leptospermum to New Zealand’s one, including a species with higher anti-bacterial methylglyoxal than the single New Zealand species.
Manuka honey is produced by introduced European honey bees. Australians also claim that Australians had been producing honey from it for longer than the New Zealanders given that bees were producing Manuka honey in 1831, eight years before European honey bees, were introduced to New Zealand. The Australian newspaper has also reported that newspaper records also show the term MANUKA was already in use in Australia in the 1880s.
UMFHA recently promoted MHAS’ success in the UK in the form of a decision in December 2017 by the UK Trade Mark Registry to accept the term MANUKA HONEY as a certification mark.
Hearing Officer Carol Bennett, of the UK Trade Mark Registry, is quoted as stating in her decision, “I have concluded that the term ‘Manuka’ is a Maori word that is used to refer to the plant know by the botanical term Leptospermum scoparium. The plant is grown in New Zealand and has been known by the common name ‘Manuka’ for some time. Although the plant Leptospermum scoparium is grown in areas outside of New Zealand, it is known by different ‘common’ names in those territories. Therefore, it is accepted that the term ‘Manuka’ would be seen as designating a specific plant variety grown in New Zealand.”
Although this decision is promoted by UMFHA as a victory, the battle is only beginning. In particular, a trade mark application can only be opposed by a third party once an application is formally accepted for registration. AMHA has indicated that it will formally oppose this application.
MHAS has not yet secured acceptance of a certification mark for MANUKA HONEY in New Zealand or Australia.
Given the commercial value of this new superfood, a lot is at stake and we can expect a hive of activity.