By Yvette McCullough of RNZ.

The government is allocating nearly $6 million to a campaign to stop Australian beekeepers marketing their products as "mānuka" honey.

The Mānuka Honey Appellation Society is being granted $5.7 million through the Provincial Growth Fund, including a $1.7 million loan, to help in its bid to secure international property rights.

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Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones accused Australian honey producers of trying to steal what was indigenous to New Zealand.

"The Aussies are trying to promote themselves as the owners of the mānuka honey brand. That is wrong culturally, that is a type of economic larceny", he said.

Mānuka honey sells for as much as $400/kg and has purported medicinal benefits.

The funding announcement follows the government giving its support to an industry push to trademark mānuka honey in China and shut Australia out of the market.

Mr Jones said the money would be necessary to meet "the costs of securing international recognition of the mānuka property right" and certification in key markets.

"Undertaking more research, promotion and developing a more cohesive commercial entity to hold whatever property rights are secured in the patent courts at an international level.

"But the most important thing for myself with the mānuka investors and the mānuka players is to ensure that no other country can filch and essentially steal.

Shane Jones Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook
Shane Jones Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

"Mānuka represents a chance to expand jobs and wealth in regional parts of New Zealand and if the Crown doesn't step up and work constructively with our mānuka partners, there's a strong prospect that other international players will walk away with the bulk of the prize," Mr Jones said.

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Mānuka Honey Appellation Society spokesperson John Rawcliffe said the government funding was "very significant".

He said getting certification marks was a very long journey, but they wanted to head down the path of Scotch whisky in protecting their product.

"The industry has made a massive commitment towards this, it's got support from all the industry but it needed some government support, it gives us the infrastructure for the industry to advance," he said.

Mr Rawcliffe said the grant element of the funding would go towards scientific research.

"The science surrounds not necessarily the definition but all the elements that support that mānuka is true to label. That means, is it from New Zealand, is it Leptospermum scoparium, and has it not been adulterated?

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"So it's all of those other elements that make up and support the consumer that they're purchasing mānuka honey from New Zealand," he said.

Mr Rawcliffe said he believed this would actually be a good thing for Australian honey producers.

"They have unique honey, they have a unique position, instead of borrowing off of New Zealand's position they can develop their own. So in the medium to long term it is very beneficial to the Australian honey industry," Mr Rawcliffe said.

Mr Jones said this was an attempt to bolster the fortunes of all mānuka investors in New Zealand - and he said he would not let any disputes from hāpu about the ownership of mānuka derail that.

He said he's confident that the bulk of the mānuka players were on board.

"The mānuka brand and the mānuka tree does not belong to any single Māori tribe and if we continue to acquiesce and indulge in regional disputes between different tribes we will wake up and find the Aussies, the Chinese, the Americans have purloined the majority of the wealth because we couldn't get our act together," Mr Jones said.

In response to the New Zealand claims, Australian honey growers said they never wanted to fight with New Zealand producers on this matter.

Instead they wanted to work together with New Zealand honey makers, to jointly promote a product they could all benefit from.

But since they were knocked back, and the New Zealand Government became involved, there was no alternative for them but to go to the Australian Federal Government seeking support for themselves at a political level.

Paul Callander of the Australian Manuka Honey Association would not say what if any offer of help he had got in Canberra.

But he was determined to press on to safeguard an industry that was important to large numbers of beekeepers, packers and exporters.

And he rejected a suggestion that Australians did not have the right to take over a Māori word like mānuka and use it for themselves.

"I am not sure it's just a Māori word," Mr Callander said.

"I think it is found around the world in different languages, with different connotations.

"There is no macron over the 'a" with the Māori manuka word that they have applied to CTM (Community Trade Mark).

"We have got a lot of beekepers, packers and exporters and manufacturers involved with this.

"We have been shipping Manuka honey for over a decade and it is not something we intend to stop."

- RNZ