New Zealand mānuka honey producers lose battle to trademark product7 Jun 2023
New Zealand’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has ruled that mānuka honey cannot be trademarked, which means that neighbouring Australian producers can use the valuable name.
The decision, published last month, ruled that the application to trademark the product did not meet certain requirements and that the term mānuka was descriptive.
Mānuka honey is the monofloral honey produced from the nectar of the mānuka tree, Leptospermum scoparium. While mānuka is the Māori name of the tree, the unaccented spelling manuka remains relatively common in the English language.
The antimicrobial benefits of the honey, coupled with the strength of the mānuka name has ensured a strong demand for the honey from countries around the world including the US, Japan, China and Germany.
Commenting on the latest decision by New Zealand’s IPO, Pita Tipene, the chair of New Zealand’s Mānuka Charitable Trust, said the ruling was “disappointing in so many ways.”
“If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity. We will take some time to absorb the details of the ruling and consider our next steps,” he added.
However, the decision was welcomed by the Australian sector.
“We are delighted with the judgment handed down by the IPO,” said Ben McKee, chairman of the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA). It has argued in the past that ‘manuka’ is a generic term.
“This is positive news not just for Australian manuka producers, but also the broader industry – the thousands of people involved in producing, transporting and selling manuka honey as a consumable and as an ingredient in an expanding range of pharmaceutical, health and beauty products.”
Broader implications for the global food industry
The AMHA added that the decision paved the way to accelerate global sales in an international mānuka honey market, where these products can sell for between €185-308 (A$300-500) per kilo, adding to an industry worth around €781m ($1.27bn) in annual trade by 2027.
The ruling could well have broader implications for the global food industry, particularly the business-to-business (B2B) sector, where the case emphasises the complexities of trademarking food products.
Pictured: Mānuka honey | © AdobeStock/Thache
Of equal importance is the impact of cultural heritage and the growing demand for authenticity, which in recent years has become an issue of contention for products with a geographical indication such as Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Champagne.
UK and Europe ruling over the mānuka honey name
The ruling echoes a decision made by the UK High Court at the start of this year, in which New Zealand’s Manuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) discontinued its appeal over a decision to reject a trademark claim of the words ‘mānuka honey.’
Weeks earlier, the New Zealand producers also withdrew their application for the ‘mānuka honey’ certification mark in the European Union.
Free Trade Agreement recognises mānuka meaning
Tipene also pointed out that the ruling was out of step with the recent New Zealand and European Union (EU) Free Trade Agreement which includes the recognition of mānuka as a Māori word.
The agreement also recognises mānuka honey as a separate tariff line that recognises the inherent distinctiveness of mānuka as a taonga species exclusively from New Zealand, known as Aotearoa in the Māori language.
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