Forget pavlova, Aussies win 'extraordinary' trans-Tasman mānuka honey legal battle
Australian beekeepers have won another important legal battle in their years-long fight with rival New Zealand apiarists for the right to use the name "mānuka honey".
In a trans-Tasman dispute which has shades of the age-old pavlova debate, Kiwi producers have tried to exclusively claim mānuka, arguing it is a Māori word and a distinctive product of New Zealand.
But where the classic meringue dessert is about parochial bragging rights, the mānuka honey trade is worth around $1 billion globally, making this food showdown a lucrative battleground with vast sums of money at stake.
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Yesterday the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand ruled a crucial copyright decision in favour of the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), securing the rights of producers to keep marketing their honey as prized mānuka.
AMHA chairman Ben McKee told 9news.com.au the ruling had huge significance for Australian producers, saying the local industry faced a "near-impossible" hit if the judgment had fallen on the side of New Zealand.
"We're all very relieved," McKee said, saying that the New Zealand government's strong support for copyrighting mānuka had led to fears this side of the Tasman that "domestic bias (in NZ) could have seeped into the ruling".
McKee said Australian producers had been waiting with bated breath because "a very strong New Zealand lobby was trying to get this trademark through" and livelihoods here were hanging in the balance.
"We always believed we were on the right side of the law," he said, while hailing "the overwhelming integrity of the judgment".
McKee said the AMHA always felt it was "on good legal footing" but absolutely nothing was being taken for granted.
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The ruling, which took nearly 18 months to be released, stated the case was "a trans-Tasman tussle of extraordinary proportions" and "one of the most complex and long running proceedings to have come before" the intellectual property office.
Central to the dispute is the plant Leptospermum scoparium, which produces the unique nectar which bees use to make mānuka honey.
"Not only is this plant native to New Zealand but it is also native to Australia," the ruling said, while acknowledging that mānuka is indeed a Māori word, and that the plant and word were regarded by Māori as taonga, a word which translates into treasure.
But the ruling went on to state that mānuka had "for many years" been used in the English language in New Zealand and Australia.
It was, the ruling said, "an English loanword, meaning it has been adopted into the English language" from the Māori language.
There is precedent for names of well-known products being copyrighted to a specific country, such as champagne in France and parmigiano reggiano in Italy.
New Zealand may appeal the ruling, McKee said, but he hoped they would "rethink their strategies now" and "we can all move on".
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An Australian victory effectively prevented New Zealand from using a favourable ruling as a precedent in other jurisdictions, he said.
Previous attempts by New Zealand to trademark the term in the UK, US and Australia have also failed.
Marketed for its health benefits, high-grade mānuka can sell in China for up to $400 per kilogram.
McKee said Australian producers made up just 5-10 per cent of global mānuka stocks and "there's plenty to go around" in international markets.
"We're not a big threat to New Zealand," he said.
"They're a much bigger industry than us, they produce a lot more honey than us.
"We will be reaching out to them again to try to work out a way that we can stop fighting each other in courtrooms, and try to work on the marketing of the honey together."
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Had the ruling gone the other way, McKee said reworking the branding and backstory of Australian mānuka would border on catastrophic.
"We've put all our efforts into marketing mānuka honey as mānuka honey and that's the name of the honey from the Leptospermum plant."
The New Zealand-based Mānuka Charitable Trust described yesterday's outcome as "disappointing in so many ways".
"We remain resolute in protecting our reo Māori (language) and the precious taonga (treasure) and today's ruling in no way deters us," chairman Pita Tipene said.
"If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity.
"We will take some time to absorb the details of the ruling and consider our next steps."