Perhaps no product so encapsulates this country's image as a clean green food basket as manuka honey. Bees visiting manuka flowers native to New Zealand are responsible for a natural product that is highly valued for its healing qualities. With devotees such as tennis star Novak Djokovic and singer Katherine Jenkins, manuka honey has developed into a $120 million a year industry. Buyers worldwide are prepared to pay a substantial premium for it, based on its unique anti-bacterial properties, its rarity, and this country's credentials. That price cannot be sustained, however, if there are concerns about the efficacy of the product and the integrity of some of its makers.
This makes particularly disturbing the revelations in today's Herald on Sunday that Britain's Food Standards Agency has warned local authorities to check manuka honey because much of the labelling is misleading and illegal. Honey that has none of the non-peroxide activity that makes manuka honey special is apparently being passed off as having it. As much has been confirmed by British laboratory testing, which found that honey produced by 12 of 27 New Zealand producers had none of the unique antibacterial properties attributed to manuka.
The implications are readily apparent. Consumers are entitled to be confident that a product contains all and only the ingredients it purports to contain, and has a chance of doing what it claims. They will avoid products not true to their labels or their claims. Any publicity about disreputable practices steers them firmly in that direction.
More broadly, the ignominy associated with such disclosure is a further blow to this country's image. There are some obvious parallels with Fonterra's infant formula scare. Manuka honey's woes relate to authenticity, not safety, but both industries leverage off New Zealand's environment and extract a premium because of it. Fonterra's problems in China may stem from a different cause than those of the honey industry, but the doubt raised in consumers' minds is the same.
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The situation is more unfortunate because industry body the Unique Factor Manuka Honey Association has striven to avoid just this scenario. It champions the labelling of products with a unique manuka factor number, a quality mark that represents the degree of unique non-peroxide activity. But some producers label their jars with a cryptic "activity level", useless as a guide to efficacy. They are prepared to jeopardise the industry's long-term prospects for the rich pickings immediately on offer.
Now, British, Chinese and Singaporean laboratory testing has revealed the full extent of the mislabelling. The consequences will, hopefully, cause British consumers to shy away from manuka honey that has vague or misleading information on it, without casting too great a shadow over the reputable operators. Those guilty of misleading labelling will have to abandon their bogus activity, enabling the association to uphold the integrity of the industry.
Some support for its efforts will be offered by a natural health bill that has slowly wound its way through Parliament. A proposed new regulator will ensure products are accurately labelled. One intention of the new regime has always been to give overseas buyers greater confidence in New Zealand products. Now, more than ever, they demand reassurance.