NZ mānuka honey makers 'welcome opportunity' for dialogue with Australian producers

As the battle over mānuka naming rights heads to court, honey producers in New Zealand say they welcome a proposal by their Australian counterparts to hold a compromise-seeking "workshop" on the subject.

New Zealand is taking legal action to secure international property rights and stop Australian beekeepers marketing their product as "mānuka".

But honey makers across the Tasman say the word manuka - without the macron - has been used in Tasmania since the 1840s and they have every right to use it.

Now as the court battle looms, Australia's trade minister Dan Tehan is calling for both countries to work together and reach a trans-Tasman agreement to market the honey to the world.

Tehan discussed the matter with New Zealand's Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor on Monday.

"I... propose that the Australian and New Zealand governments jointly facilitate a workshop with our respective manuka honey industries," Tehan told ABC News.

"Including in areas such as industry development, research, joint marketing, technology sharing and addressing fraudulent honey products."

John Rawcliffe, spokesperson for New Zealand's Mānuka Honey Appellation Society says while he hasn't heard any official word on the matter he would "absolutely welcome this opportunity".

"I think it's positive to get to the table," Rawcliffe told Newshub.

"We have a lot of good science that we're willing to share with Australia."

He said a preliminary court hearing was supposed to take place this week but - for reasons unrelated to the proposed workshop - it had been delayed.

Rawcliffe said honey producers here were all in favour of avoiding costly legal action if a compromise could be reached.

"If we can get this off the ground and not spend money on lawyers we could put money into marketing and that would be brilliant," he said, adding that talks between the two countries could be a "good chance to create a win-win".

'We must be able to differentiate'

Mānuka honey is produced from nectar of the Leptospermum scoparium plant, varieties of which grow in both New Zealand and Australia.

Australian beekeepers say if the New Zealand industry is successful in court it may force many of them out of business.

According to Paul Callander, chairman of the Australian Manuka Honey Association, the term manuka has been used in Australia for more than 100 years.

"We have no problems with the New Zealanders using 'mānuka' with a macron over the 'a' but we have evidence of the Anglicised version 'manuka' being used here in the 1840s," Callander told ABC.

But Rawcliffe, who stressed he was only talking from an economic perspective and would leave others to comment on the cultural side, said macron or no macron only New Zealand should have the right to call its honey manuka.

"It doesn't matter if it has a macron or not, if we're going to make economic win-wins - and I only can talk on the economic side -  we must be able to differentiate. If we're not differentiating  - and the macron doesn't differentiate - then it's not going to work."

He compared the term to the use of Champagne, which can only be used for sparkling wine produced in its namesake region in France.

"The key principle here is giving absolute assurance to the consumer that this product comes from this land, has this story and has these attributes and these values," he said

"The consumer can then have confidence in purchasing that product because of that story."  

Victor Goldsmith, chair of the Mānuka Charitable Trust's operating arm Te Pitau, told RNZ Māori would need to be at the forefront of any discussions taking place and said there would be no compromises at the "eleventh hour".

"There's not a conversation that will need to be had with iwi and Māori in terms of what our position will be -  it's very clear that mānuka is a taonga and we will be protecting our taonga for generations to come and we will not be selling that. So there will be no conversations around whether there is a compromise," Goldsmith told RNZ.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Newshub he would be speaking with those involved in the industry about Tehan's offer.

"From time to time Australian ministers have raised the issue of mānuka honey with us. In those engagements, I have emphasised the importance to Māori of the word mānuka and the Crown’s support for Māori as our partner under Te Tiriti o Waitangi," he said.

"My officials are in regular contact with the New Zealand industry and will be talking to them about Minister Tehan’s offer to facilitate engagement with the Australian industry."