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Overseas consumers duped by fake Manuka honey

Posted by Bill Gluyas from an article in Stuff NZ by Gerald Hutchings on

Overseas consumers are still being duped into buying adulterated mānuka honey, although the industry is starting to clean up its act.

Industry leaders are concerned about the reputational risk to New Zealand and its $329 million a year honey export trade, and say cowboy operators need to be reined in.

Some exporters are continuing to send mānuka honey overseas either in bulk or unlabelled jars, where it is then blended with an ordinary honey but passed off as mānuka.

The shady operators avoid having their honey tested to the new Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) standard which was introduced at the beginning of the year, because only honey that has been packed and labelled in New Zealand has to be tested.

The extent of the problem is uncertain but it has diminished since the MPI standard came in.

About 10 per cent of mānuka honey is exported in bulk or unlabelled jars.

For the year July 2017 to June 2018, 10.3 per cent of mānuka honey exported overseas was in bulk form, compared to 20.7 per cent in 2014.

In 2013 a United Kingdom report said 1700 tonnes of mānuka were produced a year, but as much as 10,000 tonnes were sold worldwide, suggesting widespread fraud.

Once the bulk or unlabelled honey reaches its destination, it is then tested according to the standard of that country, and labelled as mānuka.

Midlands Apiaries international brand manager Adam Boot said the overseas tests were not as strict as MPI's, which was based on identifying the honey by its DNA.

"The re-packer or retailer at the other end doesn't care if it doesn't meet the MPI standard, all they're interested in is, has it got a methylglyoxal (MGO) level in it that will justify their labelling within their country," Boot said.

Industry leaders would prefer that all mānuka honey is packaged and labelled in New Zealand. A 500 gram jar in a Chinese supermarket sells for $502.

Industry leaders would prefer that all mānuka honey is packaged and labelled in New Zealand. A 500 gram jar in a Chinese supermarket sells for $502.

MGO indicates the antimicrobial strength of the honey but is not considered the best proof the honey is genuine. While it does occur in honey, it can also be cooked up in a laboratory and added to honey to artificially strengthen MGO levels.

Producers base UMF grading on the levels of MGO, ranging from UMF5+ to UMF25+

Boot said if the retailer and packer overseas were not concerned about whether the honey met the MPI standard, some exporters could not be bothered to put themselves through the hassle of trying to meet it.

"You just ship it out, and when it gets overseas they pack it, put a mānuka label on and as far as the consumer are concerned, they've bought a product packed in New Zealand which it is not."

Producers in New Zealand now must have their honey tested to ensure it is the genuine article.

Producers now must have their honey tested to ensure it is the genuine article.

He believes more than 10 per cent of mānuka honey goes out as bulk product.

He knows of examples where exporters send honey to Australia where it is diluted with what he calls "faux" mānuka – inferior strength Australian honey which is "cheap as".

For Boot, one of the acid tests as to whether a product is real is the pricing.

"If you see cheap manuka you've got to question it."

Midlands Apiaries international brand manager Adam Boot says New Zealand's reputation is at risk from a minority of producers exporting unlabelled mānuka honey.

Comvita chief executive Scott Coulter agrees there is a problem but that there has been a big improvement following the arrival of the MPI standard.

"The issue we're concerned about is unlabelled jars being exported, and MPI should not approve bulk mānuka honey because it gives the opportunity to ship it off and blend it with something else."

"We've seen products with unusual labelling which don't meet the MPI requirements but say packed in New Zealand," Coulter said.

Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association chief executive John Rawcliffe said the key principle was protecting the industry and providing complete assurance to consumers.

"MPI has done the first step to protect what's labelled out of New Zealand, but doesn't do the rest of the journey. It's critical to get the research and respected. We cannot have conjecture and confusion, we need clarity."

Rawcliffe agreed with Boot that New Zealand – through MPI – should be more pro-active in promoting its standard.

"We are also proactively working with overseas testing and research authorities to increase understanding and ultimately adoption of mānuka honey definitions," Rawcliffe said.

Boot said there was global inconsistency over standards and MPI should promote its standards with overseas consumers.

"It should be that the only way you can guarantee you're buying the real deal, is if what you bought has been tested and labelled in New Zealand."

MPI's director of food regulation Paul Dansted said the science behind the MPI definition had been published in an international peer-reviewed journal, and the work had also been presented at several international conferences.

He said New Zealand could not control what happened to honey when it entered into other countries, but worked closely with other regulators to provide information about MPI's rules and processes.

The MPI science definition for mānuka honey is made up of a combination of four chemical markers from nectar and one DNA marker from mānuka pollen.

These markers at specified levels are used to identify honey as either monofloral or multifloral mānuka honey and separate mānuka honey from other types of honey.

Some producers ship their honey in bulk, and it is then packaged overseas as real mānuka after it has been blended with lesser quality honey. 

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