Time is running out for Aussie manuka

15th April 2021 | Alison Turner

Australia’s manuka honey industry says it has been all but abandoned by the Australian government as it fights for survival, risking a $1.2 billion market and thousands of jobs.

Several years ago, New Zealand manuka honey producers launched a landmark court case to trademark the name “manuka”. This led to the formation of Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), and a court battle that continues to drag on. While the New Zealand government has taken the unprecedented step of funding the case (currently in excess of NZ$1.4m), the Australian manuka industry is yet to receive any tangible support from our government, despite recent political commitments to invest in Australian manufacturing.

Manuka honey’s unique health benefits are recognised internationally.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan recently made a statement to the ABC that Australian and New Zealand governments and beekeepers should hold a “workshop” to end the long-running dispute, which AMHA Chairman Paul Callander says is “a waste of time”.

“We’ve been fighting this battle for three years now,” Callander tells Eativity. “While I think collaboration is a good long-term goal, when you’ve got the New Zealand government funding and facilitating a trademark issue, why on earth would they collaborate?

“New Zealand exports a lot of honey to Australia, and we can’t export any to New Zealand. And now they’re trying to put us out of an industry that we’ve got every right to be involved in. Manuka was first identified as a plant in Australia in 1840, and manuka is a term that was used first in Tasmania, for a product derived from a Tasmanian native plant.”

There are more than 80 leptospermum varietals in Australia; New Zealand has only one.

There is currently a 5000-page evidence statement with the intellectual property offices in the United Kingdom and New Zealand which shows the history, geography and science of Australian manuka honey, offering proof that Australia has native leptospermum varietals – the plant which manuka honey comes from – and that it has been here for centuries.

New Zealand producers have sought certification trademarks in the United Kingdom, United States, Europe, New Zealand and China. A court hearing was set for today and tomorrow in New Zealand, but will now be held within the next quarter.

“We don’t know why, but they cancelled it,” Callander says. “We got a call last Friday.”

“We need our government to stand up, get involved, negotiate and shut this down. Because this is setting a precedent in the hijacking of what is a descriptive term. You’ve got a government facilitating a trademark, and no one’s done that before. The New Zealand government certainly hasn’t done that before.”

Manuka honey is big business, and the product only comes from Australian and Kiwi native plants.

Callander asserts that the warring industries should aim for “collaboration, not confrontation”, and that time would be better spent promoting both Australian and New Zealand manuka to global markets, forecast to be worth $1.27 billion annually by 2027.

“[If New Zealand wins] it’s going have an immediate impact,” Callander warns. “The very essence of our industry is under threat. If they were to win a case, it would have a significant impact on the whole industry, which is thousands of jobs.”

Jobs in the Australian manuka industry extend far beyond the bees and beekeepers. There are also thousands of Australians engaged in the industry through science, pharmaceutical, research, logistics, marketing, manufacturing and sales channels.

“We are urgently calling on our Australian government to leverage all their relationships in New Zealand,” Callander says. “To negotiate an outcome that is in the best interests of both Australian and New Zealand producers and that avoids these costly legal disputes.”

You can support the Australian manuka honey industry by only buying Australian manuka honey. Look for the AMHA’s Mark of Authenticity on the label, which guarantees that the honey is pure, entirely produced in Australia and has been tested by an independent, approved laboratory to ensure it meets minimum standards of naturally occurring antibacterial components methylglyoxal (MGO) and dihydroxyacetone (DHA).