Honey bees gathering pollen from a white manuka flower
Honey bees gathering pollen from a white manuka flower © Dreamstime

A surge in demand for manuka honey, the sticky substance prized for its antibacterial properties, has generated a multimillion-dollar export boom for New Zealand. But success has come with a sting in the tail, with fraudsters mislabelling regular honey to pass it off as manuka overseas, and a rash of hive heists at home. 

This week the local industry began a fightback with the release of the first government-backed scientific test to authenticate manuka honey — a move it hopes will rebuild consumer trust and enable New Zealand producers to trademark the word “manuka” in key markets including the UK, the US, Australia and China.

“We need to be able to prove that the honey is really manuka from New Zealand,” says Jason Prior, founder of DownUnder Honey, an apiary two hours north of Wellington. “Once this testing regime has been rolled out there will be a move to lock down country of origin and the use of the manuka name.”

However, Australian beekeepers, who claim to produce similar honey that is as potent as that of their New Zealand rivals, oppose the New Zealand plan.

Manuka honey has become known as “liquid gold” in New Zealand, with exports tripling to NZ$315m (US$218m) since 2011 thanks to a boom in demand from health-conscious consumers and endorsements from celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian. It is made by bees foraging on the white flowers of the manuka plant, which is native to New Zealand and parts of Australia.

A kilogramme of the thick, gel-like honey, which can be eaten or used in bandages, dressings and skincare products, can sell for as much as US$100 depending on the concentration of active ingredients, including methylglyoxal, which has anti-bacterial properties. Until now there has been no accurate scientific test to authenticate manuka honey, leaving the industry exposed to abuse.

There have been 564 reports of stolen bee hives — which can be worth up to US$1,000 apiece — in New Zealand over the past 10 months. But the greatest threat to the industry is posed by fraudsters mislabelling product as manuka, which can be 15 times more valuable than regular honey.

In February Queen Elizabeth’s grocer, Fortnum & Mason, removed some manuka honey from its shelves after tests found low levels of active ingredients in some products. This followed an investigation by Grocer magazine in 2015, which claimed more honey labelled manuka was being sold in the UK than was actually produced in New Zealand.

“Overseas regulators and consumers have expressed a desire for an independent government-backed definition to safeguard the authenticity of manuka honey products,” said David Bennett, New Zealand’s minister for food safety.

Last month the government released a standard definition of manuka that identifies five key attributes — four chemicals and a single DNA marker from manuka pollen — that separate Manuka from other honeys. Hills Laboratories distributed the first test kits to the industry this week as part of a consultation process. It is expected all manuka honey destined for export markets will have to undergo the testing regime.

“We support the government test, which will have a great deal of credibility,” says John Rawcliffe, head of the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association in New Zealand.

The association believes the new standard definition and tests should help it win trademark protection for the name manuka in key overseas markets. Such a move would prevent honey producers from other countries, including Australia, using the manuka name in their branding.

A DownUnder Honey worker examines plates of honeycomb © Edith Amituanai

“Manuka is a Maori word. It is every bit as unique to New Zealand as the All Blacks,” says Mr Rawcliffe.

However, the move by New Zealand producers has provoked outrage among honey producers in parts of Australia, where manuka plants are native — although they are typically called jelly bush or tea trees.

“We will be objecting to their certification plan,” said Trevor Weatherhead, director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. “Manuka grows here and there is some evidence to suggest it is an aboriginal word. I think this trademark move by New Zealand is a bit like their sports rivalry with us — they will cheer for anyone who is opposing Australia.”

Get alerts on Food Safety when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article