However, that unique New Zealand flair has brought on an onslaught of controversy. The fervor surrounding this earthy treat has sparked a complex, yearslong — and still ongoing — legal battle that threatens to damage the Kiwis' relationship with their Aussie neighbors.
While manuka comes from the nectar of the Leptospermum scoparium's flower, the plant goes by many other names such as Tea Tree and Red Damask. Although this shrub is native to New Zealand, as the value of manuka honey soars, other countries seek to capitalize on this proverbial gold mine. Australian companies are getting in on the manuka honey cash grab. However, New Zealand beekeepers insist that the Australian version cannot properly be called manuka honey, and they're taking Australia to court over the matter of who can really trademark manuka honey.
New Zealand honey producers filed applications for trademarks not only in New Zealand, but also in the European Union, the U.S., Britain and China. Australian producers have challenged some of those claims with their own paperwork. There are also concerns over copycat manuka honey brands popping up elsewhere as demand for the product soars, especially among the growing middle-class in China.
"This is a very complex matter not too dissimilar to the years of legal and political battles that took place to protect the Champagne brand," says Rawley. "Protection of the term 'mānuka honey' for New Zealand passed an important hurdle, with the announcement that the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) had accepted the term as a proposed certification mark." IPONZ ruled in favor of the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society, which Rawcliffe says represents the majority of manuka honey producers in New Zealand.
Beyond protecting the manuka honey brand, there's another important reason for keeping the honey in its country of origin: cultural preservation. The cultivation of manuka honey has its origins in the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, who refer to manuka as their treasure (taonga).
"Manuka is unquestionably a Maori word with significance to the Maori people and a deep connection to Aotearoa (New Zealand). To use the term outside of the New Zealand context with no consideration to the cultural significance is inappropriate in the 21st century," says Blick.
The UMFHA also notes that consumers come to expect a certain level of authenticity and high quality from UMFHA-certified manuka honey products. "We want to assure consumers that what they are buying when they purchase products that carry the UMF quality mark, mānuka honey name and New Zealand badge of origin is genuine, not fake," says Rawcliffe.
Therefore, keeping the trademark in New Zealand could ensure that high-quality seal of approval and prevent imitation honey from flooding the market.
"At the end of the day, cheap perfume is cheap perfume. If you want the genuine product then you have to be prepared to pay for it along with the quality and processes that stand behind it," says Rawcliffe.