Manuka honey trademark dispute escalates into sticky situation

Many food and drink producers take pride in the local heritage of their products. Whether it’s red wine produced in the Chianti region of Italy or single malt whisky produced in Islay, Scotland, the cultural identity of such products forms a large part of their overall appeal.

One such item with distinctly antipodean roots is manuka honey. Produced by bees that feed on the pollen of the Leptospermum scoparium plant, manuka honey was a relatively unknown product until a few years ago, when it was championed for its antibacterial properties. Since then manuka honey has formed part of multiple health and beauty regimens, and has become a much sought-after ingredient.

But as the popularity of manuka honey has soared, so too has the debate between New Zealand and Australia about its true origins.

The problem lies in the fact that both countries are home to the Leptospermum scoparium plant, and so both are feasibly able to produce manuka honey, but they have different names for the plant itself: New Zealand calls it ‘manuka’, while Australia calls it ‘tea tree’. This has naturally given New Zealand the upper hand, and in December 2017 the UK trademark registry granted a certification mark to the New Zealand Manuka Honey Appellation Society. As reported in The Guardian: “The certification means buyers in the UK will be guaranteed that manuka from New Zealand contains certain properties, while manuka honey produced in Australia will not carry this guarantee.”

Unsurprisingly, this absence of a certification mark for manuka honey made in Australia has not gone down well. However, for the Australian Manuka Honey Association it is more than just a matter of pride: they believe the honey actually originated in their country, and not in New Zealand.

In an article for ABC, Nicola Charles, co-owner of the Tasmanian-based Blue Hills Honey, claimed she had evidence to support this claim. “Leptospermum scoparium originated in Tasmania and dispersed to New Zealand and lower Victoria,” she said, “so we feel we have a moral case to still call it manuka, and not be cut out from a global market that’s got potential to be a high revenue for Australia.”

This is why the Australian Manuka Honey Association has decided to formally counter the UK certification mark in a bid to deny New Zealand usage rights, and to ultimately claim the manuka honey name for good. According to the Association, they will do this by producing records from the 1800s that serve as evidence of the honey’s Australian heritage.

The ownership of what might initially appear to be a fairly simple food item has evolved into something far stickier than most people could have foreseen. While it might seem that New Zealand currently holds the advantage when it comes to claiming true ownership, the tables could be quickly turned if Australia is indeed able to offer the historical evidence it claims to have.