Kiwis fight German threats to manuka honey industry

Last updated 05:00 11/11/2012

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Manuka honey producers are waging war on two fronts against Germans challenging their industry.

The UMF Honey Association has engaged law firm Buddle Finlay to fight one German who has registered the word "Manuka" as a trademark covering all of Europe.

At the same time, the association is battling another German seeking to patent a bee food which its inventor says will give the honey produced by the bees the exact chemical profile of manuka honey.

John Rawcliffe, general manager of the association, said both developments posed a threat to the manuka honey industry.

Manuka honey is extremely valuable and the industry could be worth $1 billion a year if it is able to maintain its credibility. Rawcliffe says the high value of manuka honey makes it a target internationally.

Already there is international counterfeiting, while locally a bitter fight has been waged over manuka honey labelling and standards.

The Commerce Commission has been gathering evidence on the designation systems to see whether any are misleading consumers. Retailers in Auckland were put on notice by the association last week that they can't simply rely on producers' labels as a defence against actions under the Fair Trading Act should the manuka honey they are selling not turn out to be the real deal.

The European trademark was being contested on the grounds that manuka is a generic, descriptive term, said Buddle Findlay lawyer John Glengarry, and he had high confidence of victory for the association.

Glengarry said if the trademark was allowed, the person who registered it "would have as a starting point the right to prevent others from using the word manuka as a trademark for honey".

This would include products to which manuka honey is added.

The Deutsches Patent und Markenamt database lists the "proprietor" as Mirko Zill. Rawcliffe said he could not be allowed to own a trademark to make money out of manuka honey producers of New Zealand.

The patent for the bee food, which has been submitted to the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office, was being opposed on the grounds that it was not inventive, said Glengarry.

Rawcliffe admitted that although he did not believe the technology was being used to fake manuka honey yet, or boost "inactive" manuka honey, its existence meant the threat would forever be there.

As well as the legal fees to fight the patent registration, which is in the name of German Daria Heuer, Rawcliffe said the association had spent around a quarter of a million dollars on having lab tests devised that could distinguish real manuka honey from honey produced using the bee feed.

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They looked likely to be ready in two months' time, he said.

All up, the legal bill for the association would come to over half a million dollars.

Rawcliffe warned that honey was a food produced by bees using nectar from flowers, and that anyone caught selling honey that was made with additives without disclosing it would be breaking the law.

He said the association had turned down an offer to purchase the technology.

That the association was fighting its legal battles alone, with no help from the Government or from a number of manuka honey producers, was disappointing, Rawcliffe said, but "manuka is worth huge money".

- Sunday Star Times

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