All is not so sweet in the honey industry, as apiarists come to grips with the latest efforts to pin an incontestable label on pure manuka honey.

New Zealand is the only source of authentic manuka honey in the world and in exporting terms the industry knows it is important to have a clear definition that delineates genuine, premium product from the fakes.

Manuka honey can be made only during the short time that the manuka plant is flowering — usually about six weeks of the year. It typically sells for about four times the price of 'ordinary' honey.

To many, it is a no-brainer that manuka must come from New Zealand, but there are plenty of overseas beekeepers happy to cash in on the name — not just in Australia — including going to the extent of planting their own manuka.

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This is despite the fact that manuka is a Maori word — and the New Zealand industry is working hard to protect it through trade certification and geographical indicators, similar to the protection afforded to products such as champagne in France and Scotch whisky in Scotland.

There may even be a need to differentiate the geographical definition on regional factors, with Northland beekeepers now finding some of their manuka honey fails to meet the latest testing markers set down by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

Scientists step in

Our scientists are being called on to nail down exactly what it is that makes manuka unique — and rigorously defendable.

In the latest move, Hamilton-based Hill Laboratories has been contracted by MPI to investigate the challenges around collecting a representative honey sample for testing. The goal is to help MPI develop clearly defined sampling protocols for this rapidly growing industry.

Hill Laboratories' executive director, Roger Hill, who is leading the project, says ensuring that any sample submitted for analysis is truly representative is a problem that is not unique to the honey industry.

"All of our testing services are affected by this issue, but it is particularly important now for the sector, given the regulatory testing requirements for authenticating manuka honey."

The first phase of the project is an industry survey, to learn how people are currently collecting samples, and to hear their concerns and experiences, which will enable Hill Laboratories to understand what factors are likely to influence the "representativeness" of a sample and the practicalities of testing.

This will then be used to develop a sampling and testing plan to
honey

Manuka honey is a potential extra income stream for hill-country farmers who are being stung by the increasingly high interest in manuka honey and carbon credits from trees.
quantify these factors.

The second phase will involve collecting samples and subjecting them to a comprehensive range of tests, including the tests for the MPI manuka honey definition, tutin, and the "three-in-one test".

Once the nature and extent of sample variation is understood, sampling protocols will be developed to ensure sub-samples collected for analysis are truly representative of the batch or drum, says Hill. These guidelines will not be disruptive to current practice and no major changes will be required.

"MPI is working closely with us in all phases of the project. We are excited to have the opportunity to enhance the value of the analytical testing for the New Zealand honey industry."

Liquid gold, mānuka honey usually sells for four times the price of 'ordinary' honey. Photo / NZME
Liquid gold, mānuka honey usually sells for four times the price of 'ordinary' honey. Photo / NZME

Winning technology

That relationship has already earned Hill Laboratories the 2018 Roy Paterson Trophy at the Apiculture New Zealand Conference held in Blenheim earlier this year. The trophy is awarded to the person or company recognised as having the most innovative idea, invention or new piece of technology that has been designed to benefit beekeepers.

The winning piece of technology was its digital honey blending tool, a web-based app that helps those with large inventories blend individual honeys to form a target blend.
Protecting the honey industry at the top level costs money, and there was an attempt recently to extract a levy from honey producers to fund ongoing work.

Liquid gold, mānuka honey usually sells for four times the price of 'ordinary' honey. Photo / NZME
Liquid gold, mānuka honey usually sells for four times the price of 'ordinary' honey. Photo / NZME

Led by Apiculture NZ, the introduction of a commodity levy was put to the vote nationwide, but came up well short of approval. Overall, about 76 per cent of the votes returned were against the levy idea, prompting Apiculture NZ chairman Bruce Wills to suggest it was perhaps not the ideal time to put the levy proposition to the vote.

"It's no secret that this is not the outcome I, or the board, wanted to see. I believe it will set back the development of the honey industry, but I understand that at present commercial beekeepers are hurting with the erosion in honey prices as a result of over-supply, for all floral types other than manuka honey.

"The industry must accept the decision the beekeepers have made, but it is a disappointing result for future development of the industry, particularly given the experience and examples of other successful primary sectors who are collectively focused and funded based on everyone contributing financially to industry-good outcomes."

Lack of common ground

However, despite the outcome, the challenges and issues faced by the industry remain the same, says Wills.

"Issues such as working with Government to make compliance requirements less onerous and taking action to see how we can grow the value of our key native monofloral honeys, remain priorities. Other issues, such as making sure our bees stay healthy and having strong biosecurity programmes in place both to control and prevent new incursions, are also on our agenda.

He says the poll result indicates there is no common ground in the beekeeping industry — a factor he says is a characteristic of other industries in the primary sector.

Karin Kos, chief executive of Apiculture NZ, says honey exports in the year to June 30, 2018 totalled $348 million, and should reach $370m this year. The top three recipient countries were China, US, and the UK.

"We estimate that manuka honey sales make up 83 per cent of the value at $274m," says Kos.

"The manuka honey industry is still young — the opportunity is hugely exciting — not just manuka honey as a honey, but all the value-add products. Medicinal products are obviously significant, such as wound dressings, but also food products, health supplements and cosmetics. There are ambitions for the manuka honey industry to grow to a $1 billion industry by 2028."