30 Jan 2018

Beekeepers welcome MPI U-turn on Manuka honey

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 30 January 2018

Beekeepers have welcomed a last-minute backdown by the Ministry of Primary Industries over the definition of mānuka honey. 

A native New Zealand bee (probably Leioproctus sp.) visits a manuka flower (Leptospermum scoparium). Photo taken on Tiritiri Matangi Island.

A native New Zealand bee visits a mānuka flower on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Photo: Avenue, Wikimedia Commons

NZ Beekeeping was set to take the ministry to the High Court today, over its proposed export standard on the premium honey.

It would have required that a kilogram of monofloral or multifloral honey contain at least five micrograms of a key chemical marker known as 2 MAP.

The industry group claimed the new standard would have slashed more than $100 million a year in export products that could no longer be called mānuka honey.

Yesterday, the ministry agreed not to change the definition and NZ Beekeeping withdrew the legal action. 

MPI 'did not consult' on mānuka definition - NZ Beekeeping president

NZ Beekeeping president Russell Berry told Nine to Noon mānuka was the highest-value honey New Zealand exported, making up about 80 percent of the profits brought in. 

The new definition would have made a huge difference to producers. 

"[Beekeepers] objected to the fact that a lot of good mānuka honey was not going to be eligible to be called mānuka honey anymore, and we were going to be lowering our exports of mānuka honey by about 50 percent." 

He said he had no idea what MPI had been trying to do. 

"Because it made no sense at all ... we took this case to protect our members which are very much family businesses and they were going to be in very serious financial problems because all the stock they hold [would have] all of a sudden lost a lot of its value.

Beehives in Waikato

Photo: Supplied / Kate Newton

He said MPI had not consulted with the beekeeping industry at all over the definition of mānuka honey. 

"They made a mistake, so they changed the mistake when they realised that if they would have went to court they would have looked absolute fools." 

He said they were pleased with the outcome.

"It's the end of our concerns on this particular issue, but our concern is that MPI actually listen to the beekeeping industry - not only listen but consider what we're saying carefully. 

"We are all in favour of a robust definition, we absolutely support that, we need it and it needs to be constantly upgraded - so, science never stands still. 

"So we need a definition that is acceptable to us in New Zealand but is good to the rest of the world too. It's no good us coming up with a definition and it not being acceptable to China, for example, or Europe.

"We're a little bit concerned that MPI are not looking at the consumers' perspective, they're really just looking at what suits them." 

In a statement received after Nine to Noon's interview, an MPI spokesperson said it had developed the definition for manuka honey based on sound scientific information and had carried out extensive consultation with industry and the public.
"Over the past 12 months in particular, MPI has been in extensive discussions with industry around the details of the definition and provided substantial opportunity for industry input.
Last week, industry provided MPI with a set of new information showing that the definition for identifying multifloral mānuka honey was initially set too conservatively and would exclude legitimate multifloral honey.

"While we were considering this information NZ Beekeeping instituted its legal action.

"MPI subsequently made a change to the definition."
The statement said any definition would rule out out some honey previously claimed as mānuka. "However, in the final analysis, MPI must act independently in the best interests of consumers."

Battle with Australian producers continues

Australian honey producers have also been trying to use the term 'mānuka' to describe their own honey, with Tasmanian producers claiming to have documented evidence back to 1884 of mānuka honey production on the island.

A billboard at Melbourne Airport celebrating mānuka honey as Australian-made.

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

However, New Zealand producers went to the United Kingdom's trademark registry, which accepted the term 'mānuka honey' as a trademark. 

UMF Honey Association spokesperson John Rawcliffe said the move seemed promising.

"If we bastardise terms, we lose the ability to identify, protect and differentiate for the consumer, and this is the key to adding value to primary products.

The challenge now was to protect the reo Māori term 'mānuka' as a term used for this honey. 

"We have lodged, they will challenge. We have a very strong case, the ruling was very strong from us and we will just go from territory to territory doing what we've done for the next few years to get this term protected to make sure the industry can advance from that position.

"Champagne went through the same story, we're doing exactly the same journey." 

The target is to make the mānuka honey industry a $1 billion industry by 2030.

He said it was time the industry and government moved forward on definitions together.

"The industry's definition is similar to the Ministry of Primary Industries, it has selective markers that are unique, abundant and are clearly representative of what is mānuka. 

"The ministry has said they need to go their own journey because it's a regulatory context, we respect that. They've put a stick in the sand, now it's matter of just trying to refine those two positions."

"Make the testing more cost effective and make it more relevant to the consumers' needs. 

Industry 'confident' of managing myrtle rust

Mr Rawcliffe said myrtle rust was another threat to the industry, but it seemed like it could be managed.

Myrtle rust can threaten plants including pohutukawa, manuka and feijoa trees.

Myrtle rust is a disease which affects a whole family of trees, and can be deadly to some varieties. Photo: Supplied

"To the best of our knowledge for mānuka, based on what has happened with leptospermums in general, it has not been significantly impacted. 

"Based on that and a bit of research that has been done by individuals we are confident we will be able to manage this one through. 

He said some companies had researchers looking at breeding mānuka that was even more resistant to the disease if it did turn out to be heavily affected.