Honey producers in Tasmania and other Australian states continue to legally defend their rights to sell and market their profitable and internationally sought manuka honey in the UK and China.
Evidence continues to be collected about the origin of the word”manuka”, with dispute centred around which country has the stronger historical, geographical and scientific claim to it.
The legal stoush began when the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) claimed that manuka is a maori word used to define the tea-tree species Leptospermum scoparium from which the honey is made.
The NZAS applied for intellectual property rights over the word in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and China, and in 2019 the New Zealand government gave $5.7 million to help secure those rights in China.
The Tasmanian fishing industry used to use manuka to make the early cray pots, we found a lot of early references of manuka in the mining industry on the West Coast, and we have a lot of place or street names, such as the Manuka Aboriginal Station.
Manuka producer Nicola Charles
Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA) Paul Callander said the Australian government has yet to offer similar support, giving rise to a fear that Australian producers are in danger of losing the battle, and their million dollar industry.
The US and European Union rejected New Zealand’s application, but the UK accepted and now the AMHA is working to appeal.
Blue Hills Honey owner Nicola Charles said historical evidence was being compiled to prove that manuka had long-been used in the Australian-Tasmanian vernacular.
“We are trying to prove that it is a common descriptive word that is used here, and you should not be able to trademark such a word,” she said.
“There are a lot of ways that this Polynesian word has come into the vernacular in Tasmania…a lot of history has been uncovered, of the early maori coming across for the sealing and whaling trade.
“We have done a lot of research on the word manuka, and it is not just the honey industry that has used it. The fishing industry used to use manuka to make the early cray pots, we found a lot of early references of manuka in the mining industry on the West Coast, and we have a lot of place or street names, such as the Manuka Aboriginal Station, or Manuka Drive.
“There was a horse called Manuka the Magnificant, in 1869 it got injured in the Melbourne Cup. It was sent to Tasmania and died in 1891 … there are a whole heap of references.”
Mr Callender said they had spent hundreds of dollars on legal counsel in England, which was very expensive.
“We are fighting the UK intellectual property office and the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand, defending our rights to sell our product under the name manuka in those markets,” he said.
“We are a little, private association fighting a government funded intellectual battle, and it is not a level playing field…our government doesn’t seem to be interested in supporting us, they are certainly not stepping forward to assist our industry at the moment.”
Mr Calender added that it was not just about the export losses of honey related to honey in a jar, but the opportunities that existed for manuka in the medical, nutraceutical and cosmetic industries.
“We are actively continuing to engage with the government to get them to take a higher line. If this doesn’t go the right way then they have to defend the loss of an Australian industry that employs thousands.”