bee and honey

Mānuka is the Māori name for the Leptospermum scoparium, a species of flowering plant in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae. Mānuka nectar is renowned for producing ‘liquid gold’, a pure honey possessing unique medicinal and antibacterial qualities.

Companies looking to capitalise on Mānuka honey’s hefty price tag have used numerous celebrity endorsements to elevate the product worldwide. But while there are many ‘Mānuka’ honey products on the market in Australia (produced in Australia, New Zealand and overseas), the New Zealand market for Mānuka honey is vastly different.

The New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries prohibits the importation of any honey product, including Mānuka, into New Zealand, excluding a select few Pacific Island nations[1] (where the Leptospermum scoparium is classified as a high risk weed[2]). Consequently, the only Mānuka honey available for sale in New Zealand is of New Zealand origin.

Sweet success 

Given the increasing popularity, demand and associated price tag of Mānuka honey, it is unsurprising that New Zealand’s Mānuka honey industry is fiercely protective of the commodity and wants to maintain control over the term ‘Mānuka’. The Mānuka Honey Appellation Society Incorporated (MHAS), a New Zealand society dedicated to securing ownership of the ‘Mānuka’ trade mark in New Zealand and overseas for New Zealand honey producers, filed New Zealand Trade Mark Application No. 1025914 MANUKA HONEY on 18 August 2015 (MHAS’s Application). The application is for a certification mark.

Section 5(1) of the New Zealand Trade Marks Act 2002 defines a certification trade mark as a sign capable of distinguishing, in the course of trade, goods and/or services which are certified as having some special characteristic. In the case of goods, this might include for example, a certification that the goods

  • stem from a specific geographical location (such as New Zealand)
  • are produced by a particular method or 
  • are in accordance with certain quality standards.

Provisions like these exist in the Australian trade mark legislation also.

On 3 April 2018, IPONZ accepted MHAS’s Application. Since then it has been (and remains), the subject of a lengthy opposition by the Australian Manuka Honey Association Ltd. A decision is still pending.

Sticky business

The move by MHAS to obtain a registered certification mark for MANUKA HONEY in New Zealand (and around the world) has angered many Australian honey producers. These producers also make honey derived from the Leptospermum scoparium plant and wish to market and sell their own products as ‘Mānuka’ honey (both in New Zealand and elsewhere). The battle over ‘Mānuka’ is a good case study highlighting the protection that certification marks can provide product owners.

On the one hand, it is in the public interest that consumers can reliably purchase recognised and reputable products with assurance that they are authentic and, in the case of Mānuka honey as claimed by MHAS, true to the geographical environment in which they are produced. This is particularly important given many goods associated with certified brands are often retailed at higher price points than ‘ordinary goods’ in the same class; Australian ‘Mānuka honey’, as New Zealanders would argue – or worse still, ‘watered’ down versions of the product.

Producers of goods protected by registered certification trade mark also argue that they seek to preserve their industry and the traditional production methods and/or geographical origins associated with the product. MHAS argued in separate proceedings before IPONZ relating to the distinctiveness of MANUKA HONEY that the honey was first sold in New Zealand over a century ago[3] with the Leptospermum scoparium plantthought to have migrated from New Zealand to Australia by wind.

Sticking point

Aside from the benefits of securing a certification mark, similar honeys produced outside of New Zealand have no affiliation to Māori or the traditional healing methods used by Māori with various parts of the Leptospermum scoparium plant[4], thereby raising serious concerns about the cultural appropriateness of using ‘Mānuka’ in reference to these products.

Whilst honey produced from the Leptospermum scoparium plant growing in Australia may have with similar properties to Mānuka honey, because it has no affiliation with Māori culture, it is argued that ‘Mānuka’ is not an appropriate classification.

The Assistant Commissioner in this decision stated, “…the fact that honey is labelled as honey from the nectar of a well-known native tree, which is identified by a Māori name, is capable of indicating that the honey has a particular geographical origin (New Zealand)…”[5]. She went on to say that the need for existing and future traders to use the mark “…can be accommodated with a certification mark – in effect, existing and future traders transfer the mark to a collective body to manage. The purpose of doing this is usually to prevent the use of the mark by traders outside of the region[6]”. 

The buzz continues 
The importance of certification marks and the benefits that flow from them has been brought to centre stage, while the battle over the bees continues between New Zealand and Australian honey producers. We could ‘wax lyrical’ about the far-reaching implications of MHAS securing protection of ‘Mānuka’ as a certification mark, but whatever the outcome, it will certainly sting the honey industry one way or another.

This article first appeared in Managing Intellectual Property 


[4] Ibid, 30-32
[5]Ibid, 63
[6] Ibid, 68

Our Experts Project Team

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