Trans-Tasman war of words over ’mānuka’ honey gets stickier

A billboard at Melbourne Airport celebrating mānuka honey as Australian-made. - Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Australia's honey industry is calling for an armistice in the ongoing battle over use of the term "mānuka honey", after Tasmanian producers claimed they produced it first.

The Australian Mānuka Honey Association says New Zealand apiarists should join forces with their Ocker cousins to peacefully assert Antipodean dominance over the global market.

Mānuka honey is produced by European bees feasting on the pollen of the plant Leptospermum scoparium - known here by its Māori name, mānuka.

That species grows both in New Zealand and in southern and western parts of Australia, where it's known as "tea tree".

Local honey producers are trying to gain certification rights in markets including the United Kingdom, China and the United States that would prevent honey that is not produced in New Zealand from being labelled as 'mānuka'.

They argue the word 'mānuka' comes from the Māori language and international customers expect mānuka honey to have been produced and processed in New Zealand.

But Australian apiarists also want to be able to use the term "mānuka" as it has become a global brand.

Tasmania's honey producers believe they have a right to market mānuka honey because European honey bees were introduced to Tasmania and Australia eight years before New Zealand.

They argued this gave them a moral right to call their product mānuka honey, allowing them to slip into the lucrative global market.

New Zealand's mānuka honey trade is now estimated to be worth about $180 million.

Australian Mānuka Honey Association head Paul Callander said it was time to call for a ceasefire and suggested sharing the moniker could have long-term benefits for New Zealand businesses.

He said New Zealand beekeepers could not possibly keep up with global demand by itself and in the end the industry might find itself needing to expand.

"We've got a large amount of flat land with extremely good bee colonies. Perhaps it would be better to partner with New Zealand companies rather than fight about it.

"If you stop us using the word 'mānuka' and end up over here wanting to plant mānuka, it's a bit self-defeating in some ways."

But New Zealand Mānuka Honey Appellation Society spokesperson John Rawcliffe said overseas buyers expected mānuka honey to be manufactured and exported from New Zealand.

He said allowing others to use the term would be misleading to many around the globe.

"The consumer demands that it is mānuka honey from New Zealand. That proposition needs to be protected. So yes, there are other countries which can plant Leptospermum scoparium and call it mānuka, but I can't plant a vine from Australia and call it something from Barossa Valley."

New Zealand producers filed for certification rights in December, leaving Australian suppliers three months to appeal.

Australia's Mānuka Honey Association has applied for funding from the Australian Department of Agriculture to carry out the appeal.

- additional reporting ABC


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