There's a fight Down Under over manuka honey, the so-called superfood famed for its antibacterial qualities. On one side, New Zealand beehive owners say they should have exclusive rights to the manuka name. On the other, Australian producers say the manuka tree that gives the sticky stuff its name is an Aussie native and their honey is just as super as its Kiwi cousin.
Manuka honey is a favorite of celebrities like Novak Djokovic and Kourtney Kardashian. More importantly for the honey industry, the product is in high demand in China, where middle-class shoppers suspicious of locally-made food are willing to pay a lot for honey from clean countries. New Zealand-based Comvita, one of the world's top producers of manuka honey, this week reported 15-month profit of NZ$18.5 million ($13.5 million) on sales of NZ$231 million, about half of which went to Chinese consumers.
As a result, there's a lot of money at stake over the manuka name. The honey is made by bees that pollenate the Leptospermum scoparium, a shrub-like tree that goes by many names, including Tea Tree, Red Damask and Manuka.
Leptospermum scoparium grows in both New Zealand and Australia. While the Kiwi variety gets most of the attention, Aussie beekeepers say their honey is legitimate manuka, too. The dominant Australian brand, Capilano Honey, boasts on its website that it sells three types of manuka—low, medium and high strength—all made from 100 percent pure Australian manuka honey sourced from Leptospermum.
Such claims rile John Rawcliffe, spokesman for New Zealand trade group the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) Honey Association. Only honey produced by Kiwi bees deserves the manuka moniker, he said. Rawcliffe's group of beekeepers, producers and exporters accounts for about 80 percent of New Zealand's manuka honey sales. “The consumer expects that if it's manuka honey, then it comes from New Zealand,” he said. “Manuka is a Maori word. We are aiming to protect it.”
Manuka deserves the same kind of protection as Champagne or other prestige products associated with a particular region or country, Rawcliffe said. “I could take some corn and make some whiskey but I can't call it Scottish whisky,” he said.
The UMF Honey Association last year submitted an application with the government to trademark the name, saying the move was “fundamental to protecting an internationally recognised premium product that is unique to New Zealand.” On Aug. 9, the association sponsored a symposium, called This is Manuka, that featured scientists from New Zealand, Australia, Japan and China discussing the chemical identity of true manuka honey.
New Zealand doesn't have a monopoly on manuka, said Trevor Weatherhead, executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. “We have exactly the same plant that they have,” he said, adding that made-in-Australia manuka is similar in quality to New Zealand manuka. As for claims that the manuka name comes from New Zealand's Maori language, Weatherhead says the word has an Australian heritage, too. “We have evidence of the name manuka being used in Tasmania for years,” he said. The New Zealanders “are just looking for a marketing edge.”
The Kiwis do have one big advantage. The manuka plant is not as common in Australia as it is in New Zealand, Weatherhead said, limiting the ability of the industry to produce the high-end honey. “They have large areas of [manuka],” he said. “Here, it's selective where we can get it.”