New Zealand honey producers have lost their latest battle to trademark mānuka honey, the latest blow in a years-long fight to stop Australian beekeepers using the lucrative name.
The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand ruled on Monday that New Zealand mānuka beekeepers’ attempt for a trademark did not meet necessary requirements, and the term mānuka was descriptive.
Mānuka refers to a white flowered tree that grows in both New Zealand and Australia – although it is more widely known as “tea tree” in Australia. The bees that browse its tiny pale blooms produce a kind of honey known for antibacterial and supposed health properties – and which fetches a significant price markup on the international market as a result.
At the highest concentrations, some New Zealand batches have fetched up to NZ$2,000 to $5,000 for a 250g jar at luxury stores overseas. The lucrative nature of the product has been responsible for outbreaks of crime in New Zealand, with fierce competition over access to mānuka forests spurring mass poisonings of bees, thefts, vandalism and beatings.
For more than a decade, however, the two countries have been at loggerheads over the use of the mānuka name – a Māori word, which New Zealand argues is an indigenous treasure, uniquely associated with its own honey production. Pita Tipene, Chair of the Manuka Charitable Trust, said the decision was “disappointing in so many ways”. He said the trust would pause to regroup, before continuing its battle.
“If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity,” he said.
“Our role as kaitiaki [guardians] to protect the mana [dignity] and value of our taonga [treasured] species, including mānuka on behalf of all New Zealanders is not contestable.”
Australian industry players welcomed the decision as a “commonsense outcome” and issued a press release saying they had plans to grow international sales in response to rising demand.
Australian Manuka Honey Association chairman Ben McKee said he was “delighted” by the ruling.
“Our product has a long history of being recognised as manuka honey, it is produced like the NZ product is, and it also offers the sought-after antimicrobial properties that consumers around the world value so highly,” he said.
New Zealand producers first tried to trademark the term in 2015.
The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand called the fight “a trans-Tasman tussle of extraordinary proportions” and said in its ruling that it was “one of the most complex and long-running proceedings to have come before the Intellectual Property Office”. The latest decision follows a similar 2021 ruling from the UK to not grant trademark status.