'The Great Manuka Honey Swindle' under the spotlight again in the UK

Manuka honey has been touted for its healing properties by stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Novak Djokovic.
Chris Skelton, Fairfax Media

Manuka honey has been touted for its healing properties by stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Novak Djokovic.

Consumers are being misled over New Zealand-made manuka honey, and purchasing it at vastly inflated prices, according to the latest swipe from the British media.

Reports from the United Kingdom claim that New Zealand honey growers are still committing "The Great Manuka Honey Swindle", potentially damaging one of the industry's most lucrative export markets.

Influential trade magazine The Grocer magazine has published a story titled 'Manuka Honey, Why Haven't New Zealand's Guidelines Worked?', which claims 2014 guidelines introduced by the Ministry for Primary Industries have achieved nothing. 

Peter Bray, managing director of Airborne Honey says Kiwi consumers are paying three times more than they should be.

Peter Bray, managing director of Airborne Honey says Kiwi consumers are paying three times more than they should be.

Consumers were continuing to pay "way over the odds for honey that in many instances is no better for consumers (health-wise) than bog-standard bush honey", it said.

The Grocer was following up on an article it published two years ago headlined "The Great Manuka Honey Swindle" in which it said people were paying hundreds of dollars a jar for the "liquid gold".

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Unscrupulous operators were making millions from the sale of jars of fake manuka honey, the magazine said.

For an industry that currently earns $242 million in exports a year - of which manuka makes up about 80 per cent - its reputation is at stake. An ambitious target has been set of $1.2 billion for manuka honey alone by 2028.

In 2014 the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) introduced interim labelling guidelines to offer consumers a better guarantee they were buying the genuine article.

A Parliamentary press secretary mistakenly sent a Fairfax journalist questions  from the UK trade magazine.

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MPI refused to answer follow-up questions, saying it would release the information on its website.

The negative publicity comes at a time when the New Zealand manuka honey industry is seeking to develop a scientific test for manuka honey, but getting the key players to agree is proving impossible.

New Zealand honey manufacturers are split into two camps. On the one side is the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) which claims to represent about 75 per cent of the industry, and includes heavyweights like Comvita in its ranks.

On the other is Canterbury-based Airborne Honey, which is a family business that has been manufacturing honey for more than 100 years. Peter Bray, grandson of founder William Bray, is the present managing director.

Trying to steer a middle path between the two parties is MPI, which has been charged with developing a definitive test, and is leaning towards DNA pollen sampling.

The problem is each of the industry groups has developed its own test. UMFHA told a Parliamentary select committee two weeks ago that it was in the process of patenting its method before overseas organisations tried to do the same.

If the latter happened, New Zealand companies would be hostage to a standard set elsewhere, and would have to pay for the privilege of having it tested.

The UMFHA test is based on nectar analysis, and the organisation is about to start rolling out the testing technology, both portable and for laboratories. A test would cost about $75, the select committee was told.

Using a portable spectrometer, beekeepers will be able to go onto a site, scan hives and it will tell them whether bees are working the manuka and what quality it is.

At the same time UMFHA has filed an application to trademark the term New Zealand manuka honey. It would take 6 to 18 months for the application process.

Labour's Primary Industries spokesman Damien O'Connor said "one of New Zealand's star industries" was at risk because of the wrangling.

"I believe the minister has to facilitate a roundtable discussion to identify and resolve the issues that they can't agree on and as quickly as possible to offer our international customers absolute certainty over the integrity of manuka honey," O'Connor said.

Peter Bray said Airborne had developed its own test based on pollen analysis, using samples that go back 30 years.

"It's an irresolvable problem. I've been trying to bring in a standard for manuka since the late 80s-early 90s," Bray said.

He said three years ago there had been a chance to develop a standard that met the internationally recognised Codex Alimentarius, but MPI had gone "weak at the knees" because a honey company said it would destroy 50 per cent of their business.

Asked if he had faith in the UMFHA science, O'Connor said "it appeared to be some of the best we have". He has not seen what MPI has to offer.

Bray is sceptical about testing for manuka using DNA samples. He said German researchers were world leading, with millions at their disposal to spend on equipment, but they had not yet been able to develop a DNA test.

New Zealand authorities have their work cut out for them trying to ensure New Zealand companies comply with labelling rules, but exporters are known to get around the guidelines by  shipping barrels which are then jarred and labelled in the UK or Europe.

The Grocer has asked MPI if, when barrels of honey are exported from New Zealand, exporters have to specify what type of honey it is.

Bray said his concern was not just with New Zealand's reputation, but also the local consumer. The numbers did not add up, he said. The annual manuka honey crop was 3000 tonnes, while the total production of all honey was 15,000 tonnes. New Zealand exported 9000 tonnes a year, virtually all of it manuka.

"If you can blend your honey so that you've got only 5 per cent manuka in it, you can blend that 3000 tonnes into the whole 15,000 tonne crop.

"The local consumer is paying about three times the price for honey that they would normally pay if this rort wasn't going through," Bray said.

Airborne was powerless to change the situation by charging lower prices because they would lose their suppliers, he said. 

 - Sunday Star Times


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