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Manuka counterfeit labeling, brand hijacking and bee health

MANUKA  AND MORE: From a medical grade product to a tasty spread, some see manuka honey as liquid gold, but the industry is fraught with concerns such as counterfeits, brand hijacking and bee health. These are some of the issues that will be addressed next week at the Manuka and More conference.

IT USED to be scrub, and it still makes top-notch firewood, but manuka has such a golden future, scientists and bee experts from around the country are about to visit Ruatoria and Te Araroa for a Manuka and More conference next week.

The two-day event is designed to share the latest research on manuka and kanuka, and to identify new research projects of interest to East Coast communities.

Representatives from Massey, Otago and Waikato universities, Plant and Food Research, and Landcare Research, will present papers on topics such as science challenges for the industry; opportunities for landowners; manuka molecules and manuka genome research; manuka and kanuka genetic diversity; high performance manuka plantations; crop management; and determinants of nectar yield and quality in manuka.

On day two, organisations such as Ngati Porou Miere, Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals and Ngati Beez will make presentations on recent development and research.

“I can’t think of a time we would have had so much expertise, both local and national, in one room at the same time,” says conference spokesman Manu Caddie.

He hopes landowners and people associated with the sector will come away from the conference armed with enough information to drive the economic benefits that can be derived from the manuka and kanuka industries.

At the heart of manuka products such as honey, oil, antiseptic and cosmetic lotions is UMF, Unique Manuka Factor, a quantifiable, signature compound and key feature of the plant’s properties.

Burgeoning industry on the Coast

A burgeoning East Coast industry has built around manuka honey and related products, but “is plantation manuka a gold rush or for real?” is a question Professor Richard Archer of Massey University will address at the conference. Massey University has studied plantation manuka for the past five years.

“It is still early days but the concept of high-performance manuka plantations looks promising,” writes Professor Archer and senior lecturer in agronomy, Dr James Millner in NZ Farmer.

But since the level of interest in plantations has an element of a gold-rush about it, the duo advise caution.

“There seem to be chequebooks out despite lack of knowledge about key factors.”

Many factors need to be right for a productive plantation and some of these will be addressed at the conference.

Gisborne presenters include Apiculture NZ research committee chairman Barry Foster. In his talk about challenges the manuka honey industry faces, Mr Foster plans to cover four broad areas. These are biosecurity, bee health, market access and funding for all of the above.

“The industry needs to start dialogue around obtaining a mandate to put a commodity levy in place to fund research and industry-good activities similar to other agricultural industries,” he says.

Funding is vital to enable eradication of the giant willow aphid which feeds on sap from the young stems and branches of its host trees. Although the aphid’s sole host is willow, the tree’s health is linked to manuka honey production.

“If you don’t have a strong hive you won’t have a manuka honey crop,” says Mr Foster.

“Willow provides a vital source of nectar, protein and pollen for bees during the spring build-up out of winter.”

The East Coast is particularly susceptible to erosion. Willows planted on hillsides hold the slopes together.

“If those willows die because of aphid predation, manuka honey production will suffer as a consequence.”


Authenticity is another issue that affects New Zealand’s manuka honey industry in a big way, says Mr Foster.

Misleading rating scales and marketing strategies that try to pass off inferior product in New Zealand’s export markets harm the New Zealand manuka brand. New Zealand scientist Terry Braggins and Australian scientist Dr Peter Brooks were commissioned by New Zealand’s UMF Honey Association to develop a “chemical fingerprint” for manuka honey.

The research involved a search for unique compounds in the honey that come out of the nectar so they could trace it back to the floral source. The aim was to develop a simple test so importers and sellers could determine if the honey was true to label.

Manuka honey is made up of a multitude of components which means specific markers are recognisable, plentiful, stable, and not easily able to be synthesised or potentially adulterated.

The Manuka ID project focused on four chemical markers to produce a science-based classification criteria for genuine manuka honey. One of those markers is leptosperin which has a unique presence in manuka flower nectar. Leptosperin has not been found in nectar of any New Zealand flower type other than manuka. The study was the first to assert this component and its value for identification of manuka honey.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is working to back authenticity for New Zealand manuka honey and will regulate on a standard for manuka honey by the end of this year.

After a surge in fakes that are not made from the nectar of Leptospermum Scoparium, the native manuka bush, New Zealand manuka honey producers are seeking the same trademark protection accorded to French champagne and Scottish whisky.

Unique to New Zealand

Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Inc said by virtue of the name “manuka”, the product was branded as unique to New Zealand.

“This is a unique competitive advantage that is in the interests of landowners, producers, exporters and all New Zealanders to protect.”

But executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council Trevor Weatherhead claims the name manuka was aboriginal.

“We have evidence of the name manuka being used in Tasmania for years,” he said. New Zealanders “are just looking for a marketing edge”.

The gold rush is on.

  • Both days of the Manuka and More conference are free of charge, but organisers ask people to register at
  • “We are particularly keen to involve local land owners, students, beekeepers and plant growers in discussions with the visiting scientists,” says Mr Caddie.

    “We hope the discussions can identify research projects that will be of benefit to local communities and help restore the indigenous biodiversity of the East Coast.”

  • The conference is run in partnership with Massey University, Activate Tairawhiti, Hikurangi Enterprises and Ngati Porou Miere, with support from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.
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