New Zealand Honey International, the closely-held honey products maker, wants a judicial declaration on whether its trademarks Manuka Doctor and Manuka Pharm amount to health claims after the Ministry of Primary Industries withdrew export approvals, blocking the firm's sales into certain markets.
MPI has been cracking down on the manuka honey industry amid international criticism there was more manuka honey coming out of the country than New Zealand actually produces.
With no industry consensus on what constitutes manuka honey, MPI introduced an interim labelling guideline in July 2014 to give the industry clarity and protect consumers from false claims, as well as to try to improve credibility of the manuka products.
The regulator cancelled NZ Honey's export assurance in May, saying the company's brand names Manuka Doctor and Manuka Pharm breached food labelling standards.
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MPI undertook a survey of manuka honey labelling last year, and first contacted NZ Honey in October with concerns over the labelling, before ultimately deciding both Manuka Doctor and Manuka Pharm were not compliant.
Appearing at the High Court in Wellington before Justice Simon France, NZ Honey counsel Andrew Brown QC said the company hasn't been able to export manuka products since May 22 because of the lack of an export certificate, including $500,000 in manuka honey waiting to be shipped to Thailand, Japan and China.
Asian demand for manuka honey has seen the price for all New Zealand honey increase, amid a global honey shortage. Bees produced $187 million of exported honey in the June 2014 year, up 8 percent by volume and almost 30 percent by value on the previous year.
The trademarks didn't make specific or identifiable claims as listed in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, and were to identify the source of the product rather than speak to their health benefits, Brown said.
When asked by Justice France whether there wasn't a vague suggestion that the use of doctor or 'pharm', shortened for pharmacy, didn't imply "it's good for you", Brown said consumers were used to "that sort of puffery". Because there was no direct or specific claim it couldn't fall under what the food standards code defines as a claim, he said.
Appearing for MPI, Rachael Schmidt-McCleave said consumers were aware of the premium they paid for manuka honey, and that branding was important to inform that understanding. Doctor implied the "healing powers of a physician" while pharm associated it with a pharmacy, where a consumer goes to get medicine or drugs, she said.
Schmidt-McCleave was unsure of MPI's stance on other manuka brands, including Manuka Health, but submitted the regulator was either in the process of determining if there were claims or had resolved the issue.
The hearing is set down for one day and is continuing.