Fake manuka honey growers costing Kiwi manufacturers

Show me the honey: John Rawcliffe, manuka honey growers' association general manager.
Show me the honey: John Rawcliffe, manuka honey growers' association general manager.

Joining together to tackle a mutual threat to their industry is something that doesn't come easily to small business owners.

But a project paid for by a group of manuka honey producers may be as little as a year away from a foolproof chemical marker test that regulators around the world could adopt to prevent their consumers from being duped with counterfeit manuka honey.

No-one knows how much fake manuka honey is sold every year, but legitimate honey makers in New Zealand are concerned about the threat posed to their industry by the widespread faking, adulteration and passing off of non-active manuka honey as active.

Blossoming: Manuka flowers, the valuable side of the honey market.
Blossoming: Manuka flowers, the valuable side of the honey market.

That last is among the biggest bones of contention, because big health claims are made for what is termed active manuka honey, which is used in products like wound dressings, and is widely sold by healthfood shops around the world.

Many New Zealand manuka honey producers, whose exports are worth about $120 million a year, banded together about 10 years ago under the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) Honey Association to establish a trademarked consumer confidence badge they could use to reassure the public that their product was real, active manuka honey.

The next step for the association is to complete a cheap and easy test for the real deal. Regulators in New Zealand and overseas have so far shown little interest in policing manuka honey quality, so the association is trying to make it as easy as possible.

Earlier this month, scientists from Germany and Australia were in New Zealand to consult on the progress of the project, which is using a technology called high-resolution mass spectrometry to produce a chemical profile of manuka honey, against which all honeys being marketed as manuka can be compared.

Association general manager John Rawcliffe says the project offers the New Zealand industry the chance of lifting the value of exports to as much as half a billion dollars.

The theory is that not only would it enable more of the fake products to be removed from the shelves, but the uplift in quality would boost the shelf price.

Among the visitors was Dr Peter Brooks, of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, and Professor Karl Speer, of the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.

Both are among the international scientists reviewing the data to verify the test, and both claim a personal and national interest in honey-verification testing.

For Brooks, the national interest comes from Australia having its own nascent manuka honey industry, although it doesn't go by that name.

Australia has its own variety of manuka tree, known as the jellytree.

Hitching a ride on the global reputation of New Zealand manuka, the Australians are branding their jellytree as "Australia's manuka".

However, Brooks has concerns that not all jellytree honey is true to the label, threatening the development of the industry there.

Speer's interest stems from Germany's massive honey-consumption levels and the premium earned by German-produced honeys, which he believes provides an incentive for counterfeiting.

The testing is being done at the Analytica Laboratories in Hamilton and it will profile not only manuka, but also other New Zealand "monofloral" honeys - that is, honeys which are produced by bees primarily visiting one kind of flower, such as kanuka or rewarewa.

Rawcliffe says the ground-breaking testing technology, once reviewed, will be rolled out through the international network of laboratories the association has established as the UMF brand gains recognition in world markets.

"Critically, in the short term, it may enable the simple and economical testing of honey being sold in different markets to ensure that it is true to label when claiming to be manuka honey, rather than a blend containing cheaper, less-sought-after honey or substitutes," he said.

Consumers would have a new level of protection, not currently readily available to them, Rawcliffe said.

"In the medium term, this analytical chemistry will enable the New Zealand honey industry to progress further along the value chain, from being a food into untapped and lucrative niches in the nutraceutical and potentially pharmaceutical spaces," he said.

"Consumers are prepared to pay real premiums for the highly prized attributes and benefits of manuka honey, and especially so for trademarked New Zealand unique UMF manuka honey.

"It's not surprising, then, that our overseas markets are also increasingly demanding of the levels of assurance now enabled by this partnership between the [honey association] and Analytica."

Sunday Star Times