Somersby (Australia) (AFP)
New Zealand beekeepers are demanding the exclusive right to use the ‘manuka’ label for their honey, pitting them against rival Australian farmers for a premium product that can fetch hundreds of dollars per jar.
Manuka honey takes its name from the Maori term for Leptospermum scoparium, the flowering shrub whose nectar forms its essence, found in Australia and New Zealand.
But Australian production could take a hard hit soon, with a group of New Zealand growers filing proceedings in several countries to register the term ‘manuka’ and claim its exclusive use.
If they are successful, it would be devastating for Australian producers like Ana Martin and Sven Stephan.
Last year they bought land with a crop of Leptospermum scoparium growing in Somersby, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Sydney, setting up around 50 beehives on the side of a hill.
The couple own nearly 300 beehives in several locations along the NSW coast.
“Being a beekeeper is a job seven days a week,” Martin told AFP. “And the returns are limited. With manuka however, the margins are greater. “
They sell their honey directly in the markets, and more and more now, on the Internet.
At the end of the first season in Somersby, they collected 2.5 tons of manuka honey, Martin said.
Online, a 250-gram (8.8-ounce) jar sells for around $ 20 to $ 60, depending on its makeup – although some high-end brands can cost in the hundreds.
– ‘Deceiver’ –
But New Zealand growers behind the decision to register the term “manuka” are complaining that Australians are abusing the name.
“In the consumer’s mind, manuka is an original badge that comes from New Zealand,” John Rawcliffe, spokesperson for the Unique Manuka Factor Association, told AFP. “Manuka is a Maori word. “
He said Australian beekeepers use the name “manuka” for all varieties of Leptospermum scoparium, of which there are 80.
“This is misleading and distorts the product being sold. It’s like calling all citrus lemons to get a higher market price, ”he continued.
Protected status by geographical designation is common in Europe, where products such as champagne and Parma ham fall under the European Union’s protected food name system – which supporters say helps maintain high standards for them. consumers.
But Australian producers deny that there is any difference in the quality of their honey.
“Our honey has the same chemical makeup as New Zealand honey,” said Paul Callander, president of the Australian Manuka Honey Association.
He also rejected the heritage argument.
“There is evidence that Australia has been producing manuka honey since at least the 1840s,” he said, noting that “manuka” is the common name for Leptospermum scoparium in Tasmania and the state of Victoria.
– Huge export value –
Not all New Zealand producers initiated the name registration.
Comvita, the country’s largest honey producer, has been associated with Australian firm Capilano since 2016, producing and selling manuka honey in Australia.
But for those without a commercial interest across the Tasman Sea, the stakes are high.
An explosion in demand attributed to the pandemic pushed honey exports to a new high in 2019-2020, of which manuka honey accounted for 76%.
Gwyneth Paltrow and tennis star Novak Djokovic are among the celebrities touting the golden brown condiment for its supposed health benefits.
Despite volumes ten times lower than those exported by China, in 2020 New Zealand became the world’s largest exporter of honey by value, with cumulative sales estimated at over US $ 300 million.
The New Zealand government is financially supporting the producers’ legal proceedings, which have been launched in China, the United States and the European Union.
This is a source of concern for Australians, who have had to fund their own counter-appeals in New Zealand and the UK.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan recently proposed a trans-Tasman summit to his New Zealand counterpart, to try to lay the groundwork for the two countries to work together on the issue.
Rawcliffe of the Unique Manuka Factor Association is not against the reunion, but for him the question of the use of the term manuka is not negotiable.
On the other hand, Callander’s position is just as intractable.
“We will never stop using the term ‘manuka’. It would take years for consumers to familiarize themselves with a new term, and it would cost us millions of dollars, ”he said.
Beekeepers Martin and Stephan lamented the lack of cooperation.
“We could all make more money if we stick together and start a joint certification process. Currently, there is ten times more manuka honey sold in the world than it produces! The amount of counterfeit honey is huge, ”Stephan said.
“In addition, the Americans have recently started producing manuka. This is the real threat, ”he added.
© 2021 AFP