The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries has developed a new scientific definition of Manuka Honey and proposed new General Requirements for Export (GREX) of New Zealand Manuka Honey.

This move, which has been some years in the making, has been motivated in part by concerns raised in the UK media about fake Manuka products or honey being sold as Manuka but with no scientific evidence of activity levels in the honey. We know that the volume of products labelled as New Zealand Manuka honey being sold in the international market exceeds the volume that New Zealand Manuka honey companies have produced so it was incumbent on the New Zealand industry to tackle the fraud issue.

The New Zealand Government will now require that New Zealand mono-floral Manuka honey for export is tested and meets all five of the attributes (four chemicals and a DNA marker) of the scientific definition:

Test 1: Chemical test
3-phenyllactic acid at a level greater than or equal to 400 mg/kg
2’-methoxyacetophenone at a level greater than or equal to 1 mg/kg
2-methoxybenzoic acid at a level greater than or equal to 1 mg/kg
4-hydroxyphenyllactic acid at a level greater than or equal to 1 mg/kg
Test 2: DNA test
DNA from mānuka pollen (DNA level required is less than Cq 36, which is approximately 3 fg/µL)

The New Zealand Government says only honey exported from New Zealand and meeting the new scientific definition will be certified by the Ministry of Primary Industries as Manuka honey and be eligible for export as such. The Ministry’s consultation process with the New Zealand industry will continue until 13 June. The new GREX are due to take effect from 31 July 2017 but Manuka honey already packed for retail sales will be exempt from meeting the new requirements for a further six months.

This initiative should raise the standards for the industry and reduce fraud, which is important for a sector which trades on its quality. But not everyone in the New Zealand industry is happy with the new rules. The difficulties that some companies have already experienced in testing their honey have already led the Ministry of Primary Industries to make some adjustments to their testing regime.

New Zealand producers are also worried about the impact of new regulations on the industry at a time when it is already suffering from low supply due to a couple of poor seasons. Leading Australian and New Zealand honey producers, Capilano and Comvita, entered into a joint venture in 2016 in order to secure more Australian Leptospermum (Manuka) honey to meet global demand. Comvita planned to sell Australian Manuka honey under its own brand, demonstrating that supply in New Zealand is insufficient to meet growing demand for Manuka honey.

It is also not clear whether the new scientific definition bears any indication of the potency of Manuka honey. Some New Zealand Manuka producers have argued that the new scientific definition appears to bear no relation to more familiar scientific markers associated with Manuka Honey such as DHA, NPA or UMF, and MGO. These are the markers that have traditionally been linked with the relative health benefits of Manuka honey.

To confuse matters further, scientists have developed two additional tests to prove the “genuineness” of New Zealand Manuka honey. This one was developed in the UK, in association with the UMF Honey Association of New Zealand and this one was developed by an Otago University geneticist. Like the Ministry of Primary Industries’ test, both appear to have been designed to exclude Australian active Leptospermum honeys (such as Gustare’s Manuka Jelly Bush Honey), which contain the same or more antibacterial properties as New Zealand honey but do not always show the non-active markers – pollen DNA or concentration of leptosperins.

The Ministry of Primary Industries admits that the Leptospermum scoparium bush from which Manuka honey derives is also native to Australia but insists that no Australian honey has met New Zealand’s new scientific definition. New Zealand’s new export requirements do not of course apply to Australian honey but they do have the potential to cause confusion in overseas markets.

Manuka honey can fetch NZ$148/kg for producers in New Zealand and the New Zealand Government is targeting an annual export value for the industry of NZ$1.2 billion by 2028. The application of the new scientific definition appears focused on proving that Manuka honey originates from New Zealand rather than proving its antibacterial properties and therefore deserving of its high price.

Australian scientists with the Oz Honey Project have been busy researching the medicinal benefits of Australian honey derived from a variety of Leptospermum species.  Their work has shown that some varieties of Australian Leptospermum (Manuka) honey have even stronger anti-bacterial properties than New Zealand Manuka honey. Perhaps most importantly, Australian scientists have proved that the Australian Leptospermum honey they have tested has the potential to contribute to addressing the global antibiotic resistance crisis in the future.

Consumers of Manuka honey are prepared to pay for it because of the health benefits that are associated with active honey, not because it originates from New Zealand. Consumers outside of New Zealand deserve to know whether the expensive Manuka honey – whether from New Zealand or Australia – they are buying has been tested for its antibacterial activity levels, what those levels are and consequently the associated health benefits of the honey.

Australian Manuka or other active Leptospermum honey deserves to be judged on its own merits and compete on a level playing field with New Zealand Manuka honey.

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