Trademark Battle for Mānuka Honey

The Manuka plant is native to both New Zealand and Australia

When a legal dispute about New Zealand’s attempt to trademark the name is heard later this month, it could be the Oxford Dictionary that defines the future for Australian producers in the billion-dollar mānuka honey industry.

The famed dictionary’s definition of the honey will be one of three key arguments in a legal defence by the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA) when it disputes a trademark request by New Zealand producers during a hearing in the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office this month.

Mānuka honey has become globally sought after, including by stars such as tennis great Novak Djokovic, due to its wide-ranging medicinal benefits. It has antimicrobial properties, can help the healing of wounds and costs between $300 and $500 per kilogram.

Australia is one of its main producers, with China, Japan and the UK among the biggest buyers of the superfood, which is also used in pharmaceutical and medical products.

The New Zealand Mānuka Honey Appellation Society has lodged a trademark request in several regions around the world, claiming mānuka is a Maori name inextricably tied to New Zealand, like the term champagne is to a region in France.

Mānuka honey, however, is made from the nectar of leptospermum trees, which are native to both Australia and New Zealand.

The first recorded evidence of the word manuka in relation to the trees was by the Tasmanian government in 1882.

A three-pronged legal defence by the AMHA will put forward “indisputable scientific evidence that manuka (leptospermum scoparium) has its origins in Australia”.

The Australian defence will also use “the authoritative Oxford English dictionary definition of manuka as a native of New Zealand and Tasmania”. The dictionary defines manuka as “a small tree with aromatic leaves which are sometimes used for tea, native to New Zealand and Tasmania”.

AMHA will also submit the Māori Language Commission’s 2018 statement that “manuka” has no meaning in the Māori language given the versions are “mānuka” or “maanuka”.

AMHA chairman Paul Callander said the motivation was not only to allow Australians to continue producing the honey but also to prevent a harmful precedent.

The only government around the world that has approved New Zealand’s trademark is the UK, but that is due to be appealed by the AMHA in September. The trademark request has also been lodged in China and Europe.