An industry offering Northlanders a way out of poverty and good income from Māori land has been ''crippled'' by rules governing what can be sold as mānuka honey, an iwi honey producer says.

However, the Ministry for Primary Industries is standing by its rules, saying it can't take account of regional differences in mānuka honey.

Following years of disagreement within the industry, MPI came up with a definition of mānuka honey based on the presence of four marker chemicals and mānuka pollen DNA.

The problem, according to Northland honey producers, is that the level of one of those markers is different in Northland mānuka.

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That means some Northland honey can't be sold as mānuka even if the bees have nothing but mānuka to feed on.

Jim Ngawati, who owns Ngabush Honey at Pokapu, near Moerewa, said his honey was fetching $35-$40/kg before the new definition came in.

Now it didn't qualify as mānuka he'd be lucky to get $12. Rather than sell it he was ''sitting on it'' in the hope prices would improve, and living from his farm income in the meantime.

Not everyone could do that, however.

''A lot of people have just chucked it in. The last three years the weather's been bad for beekeeping, so it's a double whammy with this MPI definition.''

What really annoyed Ngawati was that big producers could buy his officially non-mānuka honey, mix it with clover honey, and it would pass the tests as multiflora mānuka honey.

About 80 honey producers from Auckland to Kaitaia expressed their concerns to MPI officials at a hui at Otiria Marae, near Moerewa, last Friday.

Ngāti Hine chairman Pita Tipene said Northland's boutique honey producers were worst affected. Unlike the big players they couldn't mix honey from different sources to make it fit the criteria.

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Pita Tipene. Photo / file
Pita Tipene. Photo / file

''People like Jim [Ngawati] are really trying to make a go of it. They've invested tens of thousands of dollars setting up their own plant, but their value has been more than halved by the stroke of a pen,'' he said.

Encouraged by the Government's Billion Trees Programme, Ngāti Hine was training young men to plant more than 400ha of tribal land in manuka.

''Land which people have always said is unproductive because it's covered in scrub has turned out to be a real opportunity. A lot of people have got training and invested, this squashes all that effort.''

John Craig, a Pataua North beekeeper and former professor who manages Ngāti Hine's honey operation, said the level of one of the chemical markers used by MPI, called 2-MAP, was highly variable in Northland.

''We know Northland mānuka is very different, MPI's own studies have shown that. They did the science, found highly significant regional differences, then ignored them,'' Craig said.

''Northland should be the centre of the mānuka honey industry — we produce the highest UMF honey in the country — instead it has been crippled.''

MPI, however, is standing by its definition.

The head of NZ Food Safety, Bryan Wilson, said he understood the definition was frustrating for producers whose honey didn't meet it.

''A definition for a highly variable natural food product is by its nature going to exclude some product, that is its purpose. The key thing for the mānuka honey industry is that we're giving our markets and consumers confidence which will be valuable for the industry over time.''

Wilson said MPI's door was always open for industry concerns, but they had heard no evidence so far to make them change their minds.

MPI developed the definition because the industry couldn't agree on a way of authenticating mānuka honey and trading partners were concerned about honey being incorrectly exported as mānuka.

The definition had to be national rather than regional for regulatory purposes, Wilson said.

Mānuka honey facts

■ Mānuka honey accounts for an estimated three quarters of New Zealand's $350 million a year honey exports.
■ Top-grade mānuka honey can fetch up to $70/kg. If tests define it as non-mānuka, the price drops to less than $20/kg.
■ The current controversy centres around how mānuka honey is defined. A definition is needed to stop dodgy exporters passing off other types of honey as mānuka.
■ After years of disagreement within the industry, in 2017 MPI created an official definition for mānuka honey based on the levels of four marker chemicals, plus the presence of mānuka pollen DNA.
■ One of those markers, 2-Methoxyacetophenone (or 2-MAP), must be present at 5mg/kg or more in monofloral mānuka honey.
■ However, honey producers say levels of 2-MAP in Northland are lower than elsewhere in the country, which means much Northland honey can't be sold as mānuka honey — even if the bees have nothing but mānuka to feed on.
■ The honey industry also uses a definition called UMF (unique mānuka factor) based on the levels of three chemical markers, different to those used by MPI. Problems with UMF, however, include that it's trademarked and it changes over time.
■ In 2018 there were 879,758 hives in New Zealand producing an estimated 20,000 tonnes of honey, of which 8033 tonnes was exported.
■ Mānuka honey is valued for its unique antimicrobial properties.