The Great Manuka War
Australia vs. New Zealand

Celebrated for its unique properties and mythical health benefits, Manuka honey has become the epicentre of a trans-Tasman dispute between Australia and New Zealand, with both countries fighting over how the designation of 'Manuka' should be used.

The word 'Manuka' is of Maori origin, meaning 'tea-tree', and is given to the Leptospermum scoparium scrub bush. It is from this bush that Manuka honey gets its distinct characteristics. Here the complexity of the issue becomes clearer, as cultural, geographic, and biological factors come to the fore.

New Zealand, where the Leptospermum scoparium plant is native, asserts that the honey's special qualities are intricately linked to the unique flora and environmental conditions of its shores. Furthermore, there is a clear cultural attachment to the honey and prestigious naming convention. The word Manuka is Maori after all. Since 2015, the New Zealand Manuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) has actively pursued certification marks for Manuka honey by applying for registration with the Intellectual property office of New Zealand (IPONZ). Similar to 'Champaigne' or 'Parmigiano-Reggiano', this designation would recognize the honey as originating from a specific geographical area and meeting strict criteria associated with production in that region.

But there is an issue. The Leptospermum scoparium bush, which gives Manuka honey its name, is also native to Australia. On the other side of the Tasman Sea, Australian producers, through the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), are claiming their right to label their honey as 'Manuka'. They argue that 'Manuka' is a 'descriptive mark', not a distinctive mark, and as Australia is home to Leptospermum plants, the distinct honey is of the exact same composition. To assure quality, Australian honey producers have established their own set of standards for Manuka honey, asserting that their product is on par with that produced in New Zealand.

In May 2023, IPONZ came to a decision. In what has been called "one of the most complex and long running proceedings to have come before the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand", IPONZ determined that the term 'Manuka honey' is not eligible for registration as a certification mark within New Zealand. The ruling stated that the MHAS (Manuka Honey Appellation Society) failed to sufficiently demonstrate the required distinctiveness, both inherent and acquired, necessary for trademarking the term 'Manuka'.

This case brings to the forefront broader questions about geographical indications, national identity, and the economic interests tied to a unique product. The stakes are high, with both countries eyeing the lucrative global market for Manuka honey. While Australia has won this battle, given the strong likelihood of the MHAS intention to appeal the decision to the High Court, it appears that the war is far from over.

The Great Manuka War
Vatorex AG, Pascal Brunner 31 March, 2024
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