The Manuka Honey Fight Is One We Have To Have

The Manuka Honey Fight Is One We Have To Have

The current row about the certification of Manuka honey, and whether it is a distinctly New Zealand product, is just the latest dispute involving Geographical Indications (GIs). These are markers that products have special qualities due to their origins in a specific region, like Champagne.

There is a debate as to whether a registered GI system for food should be adopted in Australia. It might be good for our farmers – to more effectively protect King Island Beef, Bangalow pork or Tasmanian lobster against low quality imitations. But would it be in the best interest of Australian producers and consumers to simply capitulate to demands about New Zealand Manuka, or about GIs in general?

Why GIs?

Registering a GI can stop imitators riding on the coattails of local producers who have worked hard to build the reputation of their typical local product, be it cheese, processed meat or quality fruit.

To date, Australia has not copied the European GI system, other than for wine. In Europe, “Roquefort”, “Kalamata” and “Feta” and many other terms can never be used for products from other regions, or that do not follow detailed specifications.

Australia has no laws, for instance, that specify Mareeba Mangoes must come from a region identified by regulation as “Mareeba”, that Tasmanian whisky must be distilled from Tasmanian ingredients, or that Batlow apples are a particular variety, picked at certain times, and from a place whose borders have been clearly delineated by law as being “Batlow”.

The lack of these prescriptive laws also means producers are free to use certain terms protected as GIs overseas, arguing that they are considered generic here. Australian cheese makers, for instance, are free to use the word “Feta”. In Europe, it can only be used by producers from a particular region in Greece, for cheese made in a prescribed manner.

But geographic indicators can also be valuable for consumers.

Where a GI is declared then strict product specifications, about milk quality and processing methods for a cheese GI for instance, also ensure consumers get what they bargain for and are protected. Pro-GI lobbyists argue that because of its simple regulatory model, the GI system is an effective way to protect consumers against deceptive origin branding practices.

Wine is protected

Australia has adopted GIs for wine. The most well-known foreign example is Champagne – a region in France that produces the famous sparkling wine. Because the term is officially registered as a GI, nobody is allowed to use the name Champagne unless the wine is produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region and it is made according to a prescribed production method.

We introduced a system to register wine GIs in the 1990s after entering into a treaty, recently renewed, which gave us better access to European wine markets.

Prior to this we were free to use terms like Champagne in a purely descriptive sense: signifying sparkling wines generally (including Australian ones) rather than one actually originating in France. Now, both European and Australian wine regional names are registered and reserved for producers from the region itself – e.g. Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, and Barossa, Hunter Valley and Koonawarra.

A debate we have to have

GIs have been a source of tension between Europe and Australia for some time, and will likely come up again in the current free trade negotiations.

The Europeans would like to recover a monopoly over geographical terms, even where they have become purely descriptive in some other countries. Among other things, this would mean no more Australian-made feta, parmesan and gorgonzola cheeses, or local Valencia oranges – the style or variety can be copied, but not the name.

This is something Europeans partially achieved in their recently concluded free trade agreement with Canada.

Which takes us back to Manuka honey – New Zealand is arguing that the name has become so closely associated with NZ origins, that any other country should call their honey something else, even if it is an identical product.

Admittedly the reputation that Manuka honey has built up among consumers results from the promotional efforts of NZ producers and associations. But here’s the rub: Manuka honey is named for a certain tree or bush. One which is prevalent in Australia as well, but called a tea tree.

So if a producer in Australia makes honey from bees that have foraged on local tea trees, then why should it not be called “Manuka Honey”? After all, it originates from exactly the same tree and has identical characteristics to Manuka honey from NZ. Might the Australian honey not actually be better than NZ honey, with more health benefits? And if not Manuka Honey, what should the Australian equivalent be called?

A GI registration system is one way of preventing these types of difficult issues arising – who gets to use a geographical term and on what basis can be sorted out beforehand. Given Australia’s reputation for clean and green food, the system could potentially work well for us. We could send clear signals to consumers around the world and so tell the “back story” of our regional foods.

GI registration won’t work for all farming communities or products. It could also cause a lot of upheaval for those currently producing local versions of foreign specialities, or where ordinary trade marks already occupy the space. But for some farmers it could trigger effective collaboration to secure the future value of a champion local food.

The Conversation

William van Caenegem, Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • well i for one, am FOR and AGAINST it!
    i love the idea of knowing exactly where my food and drink is coming from, but how confused are we going to get over what to call the items we once knew.
    i mean even to the point where i though kalamata was just the type of olive, not due to its original destination of origin. maybe they could roll out it slowly and get some help from the industry professionals to start introducing new names along side they types of products. make it part of a long term strategy rather then bowing down to the europeans and just having a cut off date.

    interesting indeed

    • My naive proposal is to use words such as “like” or “imitation” when the item does not come from the region whose product it imitates. Some examples
      – Champagne-like
      – Imitation Manuka Honey

      • i like that as it would making choosing products easier, but then some people might be turned off by words like imitation, thinking it inferior or not of quality even though its the same as what they used to buy. i dont think marketing departments would like it too much.

    • I’m AGAINST and FOR it myself. I hate the idea of having eleventy three different versions of the same cheese, but like you, I like the idea of knowing where somethings from. But I do respect the effort put in to have a distinctive style or region take on its own identity.

      For me, its something thats tricky to police. If the key ingredient behind the product is native, let them share, but when its introduced, let the originator protect its efforts.

      But there shouldnt be a massive list of these GI’s, only where there are significant cultural reasons behind protecting it. But for European items, thats going to mean a hell of a lot of products, from champagne to black pudding.

      Regional discrimination of product types was how they were able to be distinct from each other over the centuries. We dont have the luxury of centuries, which would mean anything we make even loosely based on a European classic product would need to be renamed as they’d automatically get priority to the name.

      It was only a little annoying needing to rebadge all our champagnes to sparkling white, but imagine needing to do it with a hundred different cheese types as well? That’d be the part I wouldnt like so much.

  • Couldn’t we swing the other way buy using a “certified”, “official” or “genuine” tag similar to car parts? That way the you can still sell the premium protected product with a similar name to the alternative?

    Also there are often regional dialects where we use specific product names to describe a product family (but not market them). I got very confused looks the first time I asked for a Texta in NZ, I finally tried black marker and got what I needed.

  • The Manuka Honey Fight Is One We Have To HaveManuka is the tree that the Bee’s use for their Honey, it’s also supposed to be superior to normal honey for medical use. I really don’t see what the connection is with Geography because we have Manuka trees here too?

  • A former work colleague told me of how an uncle from Genoa insisted that pesto was only pesto if it was made from the pine nuts of specific pine trees in the city.

  • The Australian honey makers only want to use the term Manuka because it has monetary value. Just like Coca Cola gets pissey with people trying to ride on their name, the NZ honey association gets annoyed with the thought of other people using theirs. They spent years of research and marketing to build the name to it’s current value. If the Australian honey makers want to add value to their honey they should start marketing the benefits of “tea tree honey”. Anyway Manuka is a maori name, I know a lot of maoris live in Oz now but it still doesn’t make it right to be making Manuka honey in Australia. The Manuka honey value is almost close to collapsing anyway. Currently five times as much “Manuka honey” is sold in the world that is produced. My rant from NZ.

  • i like the idea of making it belong to the region, it promotes small business and when it’s inevitably fucked up by big business they still have to provide a lot of local jobs to get the currently trending name, it’s almost like a patent except so far it doesn’t really suck.

    if someone wants to rip them off and provide a cheaper alternative they have to come up with some creative marketing like “sparkling wine” or whatever and they should have to go that extra mile to muscle out the original creators

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