Those trying to define what makes NZ's manuka honey special struggle to agree
Comvita has proposed its own definition of what constitutes manuka honey, as the bee industry tries to develop a standard to ensure the sought after product is not fraudulent.
Researchers working for the health products company have identified the compound leptosperin which is abundant and stable in manuka honey, as the "best compound upon which to base a definition".
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is developing the definition amid competing claims within the industry over which method is the best at determining "real" from "fake" honey. It follows damaging claims that consumers are being misled over what they are buying and at vastly inflated prices.
UK trade magazine The Grocer recently said unscrupulous operators were making millions from the sale of jars of fake manuka honey.
The honey industry currently earns $242 million in exports a year, of which manuka makes up about 80 per cent. A target has been set of $1.2 billion export revenue for manuka honey alone by 2028.
Otago University genetics professor Peter Dearden, who has carried out his own research on manuka, is not convinced the Comvita definition is the best way forward.
"Leptosperin is stable and that's good but the problem is manuka plants in Australia also produce it. Some Australian manuka honey also has a high unique manuka factor (UMF) rating."
Dearden said New Zealand risked Australia jumping on the bandwagon and riding on the back of all the marketing work that had been done for over a decade. He said he had developed a test for manuka honey that not only showed its quality but also exactly where in New Zealand it came from.
"Our honey industry needs to say 'this is New Zealand honey'. We need to say our honey has New Zealand characteristics, but the Comvita definition muddies the water."
The fact the Comvita definition has been patented might also make MPI nervous about using it because they would have to licence it.
Comvita chief executive Scott Coulter said the science it had developed was "solid".
"We would like to see leptosperin in MPI's manuka honey definition, recognising both the scientific justification, and the strong industry alignment around this key compound. As science continues to advance the understanding of manuka honey, the definition needs to advance with it."
Coulter said over the past 18 months the main players in the industry had become "more united than ever".
He acknowledged MPI had to carry out its own independent research.