Stinging claims on healing honey

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Last updated 05:00 01/12/2013

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The $120 million manuka honey industry is bracing for a critical BBC expose of "counterfeit" products, which some producers fear could cause irreparable damage to their reputation.

The BBC was in New Zealand last week interviewing for its documentary, expected to claim some Kiwi manuka honey being sold to British consumers is little different from ordinary, and far cheaper, British table honey.

Manuka honey is a signature export, prized for its healing qualities - consumers are willing to pay a lot of money for it, up to £49.99 (NZ$100) for a 500g jar. But the BBC, which has tested it in England, will claim that some manuka honeymarketed in the UK as "active" is no more "active" than clover honey.

Honey's active rating, known as its UMF quality rating, is a measure of its stable, non-peroxide anti-bacterial properties, which makes it highly sought-after for dressing wounds and as a health food.

But not all manuka honey has that non-peroxide activity, and the BBC will claim some of it is being sold with "active" manuka honey labels reading "Active 10" or "Active 12" which look so similar to the UMF labels that consumers are unable to distinguish between the two. That, the BBC will claim, is misleading British consumers.

Some big manuka honey producers, including Comvita, Manuka Health, and the UMF Honey Association, say the BBC is right and the same is happening here, with consumers paying over the odds for mislabelled honey.

Comvita chief executive Brett Hewlett said the labels were "misleading" consumers and Kerry Paul, chief executive of Manuka Health, agreed: "The consumer can't tell the difference."

But Honey NZ says the "total activity test" is internationally accepted, and the numbers on jars refer to the results of those tests. It rejects the claims that "active" labels confuse consumers, saying they explain clearly what the activity scores mean.

"There is no mislabelling," Honey NZ's legal counsel Marcus Rudd told Sunday Star-Times. "We say what the test is, and what that test demonstrates."

Ministry for Primary Industries deputy director-general, resource management and programmes, Scott Gallacher said the ministry was considering guidelines for labelling manuka honey.

New Zealand took the credibility of its products very seriously and consumers had a right to expect products to be accurately labelled, he said. "MPI is aware that there is some confusion about the definition of manuka honey and what are appropriate label claims."

Once the guidelines are in place, MPI will assess whether regulation is needed, and what form it might take. Some in the industry say export licences could be denied to those who break the rules.

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There was a risk that if NZ did not regulate, overseas regulators would impose standards, NZ Trade and Enterprise papers released to Star-Times say. "Many manuka honey products in the market are counterfeits. The impact of this counterfeiting may go beyond honey products to affect the brand New Zealand more generally."

The reputation of the manuka industry has had a battering recently. In August the UK Food & Safety Authority issued a warning about the authenticity of much manuka honey sold in the UK, in part because it appeared more was being sold there than was produced in NZ each year.

"It makes us look stupid," Hewlett said. "I think [the Government] is starting to realise it, but they are reluctant to take the next step. Food security is a big issue globally. Consumers are increasingly concerned with food safety . . . and there is risk they feel they are being ripped off.

"There's a real need for the Government to get off the fence in order to protect the reputation of NZ as a trade partner. The manuka industry has shown it is incapable of policing itself."

- Sunday Star Times

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