SINGAPORE: New Zealand honey producers have lost their latest battle against Australian beekeepers to trademark the name manuka.
In a decision published on Monday (May 22), the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand ruled that the term manuka honey cannot be registered as a certification mark in New Zealand.
The certification mark was sought by New Zealand’s Manuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS).
But the Australian Manuka Honey Association opposed the move, arguing that the word manuka honey is not sufficiently distinctive to be registered as a certification mark in New Zealand.
Producers in the two countries have for years been locked in a dispute over the lucrative name.
Late last year, New Zealand’s MHAS discontinued its High Court appeal in the UK to trademark the words manuka honey, weeks after withdrawing its application for a certification mark in the EU.
New Zealand producers first sought to trademark the term in 2015, emphasising the Maori origin of the word manuka and its association with their country.
Manuka refers to a tree with white flowers from which bees collect nectar to produce a type of honey said to have antibacterial and health properties.
This premium status has allowed manuka honey to command higher prices in the global market.
But the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand noted that the manuka plant is native to both New Zealand and Australia.
It added that the term manuka is of a descriptive nature.
“A trademark that is descriptive of goods, and therefore not distinctive, cannot be registered for those goods unless the trademark has acquired distinctiveness, either through use or any other circumstance,” it said.
The intellectual property office ultimately concluded that MHAS has “fallen short of establishing the necessary distinctiveness, both inherent and acquired” to trademark the term manuka.
Calling the case one of the most complex and long-running proceedings to have come before it, the intellectual property office ordered MHAS to pay the Australian Manuka Honey Association NZ$6,430 (US$4,000) in costs.
In response to the judgment, Australian Manuka Honey Association chairman Ben McKee said the group was delighted with the outcome.
“(It) confirms what we have been saying since New Zealand producers began this legal process nearly eight years ago – our product has a long history of being recognised as manuka honey, it is produced like the New Zealand product is, and it also offers the sought-after antimicrobial properties that consumers around the world value so highly,” he said.
“This decision is a sensible outcome that ensures Aussie beekeepers can fairly market their produce. It also sees New Zealand following other precedents around the world that manuka honey is a descriptive term,” he added.
The New Zealand association can appeal the decision to the High Court.
Chair of New Zealand’s Manuka Charitable Trust, Pita Tipene, said the decision was “disappointing in so many ways”.
“If anything, it has made us more determined to protect what is ours on behalf of all New Zealanders and consumers who value authenticity,” he said.
“We will take some time to absorb the details of the ruling and consider our next steps.”