Mānuka honey has long been one of New Zealand’s signature exports, with around 8,000 tonnes of honey being exported each year and a recent surge in demand from Asian markets.

However, global concerns around food security issues and counterfeiting allegations have fuelled a crackdown on the labelling of New Zealand mānuka honey products.

The confusion around the definition of what constitutes New Zealand mānuka honey and what are appropriate label claims led the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to introduce interim labelling guidelines for mānuka honey in July 2014 based on the requirements under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. This was implemented alongside several research programmes helping to develop methods for scientifically identifying New Zealand mānuka honey.

This comes as no surprise at a time when the health food market is booming – and mānuka honey marketed as a food is no exception. According to MPI’s guidelines, no therapeutic claims or misleading statements can be made on honey food products, and health claims can only be made if they are substantiated. However, if the product is in fact marketed as a therapeutic product, then it can’t be sold as a food. For example, mānuka honey dressing for wounds would be considered a medical device and fall under the Medicines Act 1981.

There has already been one casualty in MPI’s crackdown.  Honey New Zealand (International) Ltd sells mānuka honey products under the MANUKA DOCTOR and MANUKA PHARM brands. MPI had warned Honey NZ that these two brand names constituted health claims and breached food labelling standards in October last year, and after no action was taken, MPI made a call to cancel all exports of the products which ceased from May this year.

MPI’s argument is that the consumer “take out” from a brand name like MANUKA DOCTOR or MANUKA PHARM is that the brand name implies the products have some sort of medicinal or healing powers. This is hard to reconcile with traditional marketing puffery.  A more lenient view would perhaps be taken in regards to other health claim restrictions such as that under the Advertising Standards Codes relating to Food or Therapeutic Products.

One of the aims of Food Standards Australia New Zealand is to enable consumers to make informed choices about food by providing them with sufficient information and preventing them from being misled. In pursuing these aims the overriding priority will always be protecting public health and safety. Although the Foods Standards Codes don’t allow much leeway for puffery, it seems stretched to say that public health and safety is going to be jeopardised by such trade marks as MANUKA PHARM and MANUKA DOCTOR. On the other hand, taking into account potential consumers who have English as their second language and would not be so inclined to pick up on the nuances of puffery – it could be a justified concern. MPI appears to be sending a clear message to the industry by setting a bar that honey makers will realise they all have to clear. 

The debate has been taken to judicial hearing in the High Court where Honey NZ has argued that the marks don’t make scientific or identifiable claims and are primarily intended to identify the source of the product rather than speak to their health benefits.  We will await the outcome of the Courts decision with interest, although I suspect it has had the intended affect of making the industry take notice, irrespective of the outcome.