22 May 2023

New Zealand mānuka honey producers lose trademark bid

11:56 am on 22 May 2023
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File photo. Photo: 123rf

The mānuka honey industry has been dealt another blow - it has lost its bid to trademark the term 'Manuka Honey' in New Zealand.

Backed by the wider honey industry and government, The Mānuka Honey Appellation Society has been working to protect the term so that only honey from New Zealand can be called mānuka since 2015.

It argues mānuka is a Māori word and a distinctive product of New Zealand.

But the Australian Manuka Honey Association has been appealing the effort in multiple markets - saying honey produced there can also be called mānuka.

In a just released decision, the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand found the society's certification mark bid did not meet necessary requirements.

"This case represents a trans-Tasman tussle of extraordinary proportions over trade mark rights for mānuka honey. It is one of the most complex and long running proceedings to have come before the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand," the ruling said.

It ordered the society to pay the Australian Manuka Honey Association costs of $6430.

In 2021 the UK rejected a bid by the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society to trademark the term 'manuka honey' in the UK.

But the society vowed to continue its fight and earlier this year refiled court proceedings in the UK and EU.

The Australian Manuka Association welcomed the New Zealand trademark win saying it was the sensible decision which paved the way to accelerate global sales.

It was a "common sense outcome", the association said in a statement.

Australian Manuka Honey Association chairman Ben McKee said the group was delighted with the judgement.

"It confirms what we have been saying since New Zealand producers began this legal process nearly 8 years ago - our product has a long history of being recognised as Manuka honey, it is produced like the New Zealand product is, and it also offers the sought-after antimicrobial properties that consumers around the world value so highly," he said.

McKee said the decision ensures Australian beekeepers can fairly market their produce, and the term Manuka honey was a descriptive term.

"The fact that even authorities in New Zealand cannot find a way to support the trademark claims of

New Zealand producers should, we hope, bring this legal dispute to an end once and for all," he said.

McKee said it was only a particular group of New Zealand producers, under the umbrella of the Manuka

Honey Appellation Society (MHAS), who had spearheaded the trademark campaign, and that there were other New Zealand beekeepers and industry members who were prepared to work more collaboratively with the Australian industry.

The New Zealand based Mānuka Charitable Trust said it was disappointed but undeterred by Intellectual Property Office ruling on mānuka honey.

"Today's finding reflects the technicalities and limitations of conventional IP law to protect indigenous rights. It is disappointing in so many ways, but our role as kaitiaki (guardians) to protect the mana, mauri, and value of our taonga species, including Mānuka on behalf of all New Zealanders is not contestable," Manuka Charitable Trust chair Pita Tipene said.

"We remain resolute in protecting our reo Māori (language) and the precious taonga (treasure) and today's ruling in no way deters us. If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity. We will take some time to absorb the details of the ruling and consider our next steps," Tipene said.

Industry partners also remain steadfast in their resolve the Mānuka Honey name belongs and should refer only to products produced in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The lack of recognition of indigenous rights in the intellectual property regime is well established both in New Zealand and overseas, Tipene said.

"It is time the New Zealand government took urgent action and committed sufficient funding to address these issues as raised in the Wai 262 claim and recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," he said.

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