The New Zealand Government has launched a process aimed at standardizing the guidelines for labelling manuka honey after recent high-profile scandals in the UK concerning the mislabelling of manuka honey.
Shoplifters actively targeting manuka honey
The reason for the interest and need for clearer labelling is down to the increasing popularity and demand for manuka honey, which in turn is leading to higher prices due to limited supply. Manuka honey is only produced in New Zealand and to a lesser extent in South Australia, which are the two areas where the manuka tree, or tea tree as it is also known, grows. In fact such is the demand for manuka honey that some supermarkets are limiting the number of jars they display in a bid to thwart shoplifters, who have been targeting this highly prized, and sometimes expensive, natural product.
Confusion over labelling manuka honey exploited
Part of the problem for consumers has come about by the fact that there is no standardised definition of what constitutes manuka honey, and this has led to all the different types of labelling, including for example total activity, active manuka honey, bioactive manuka honey, UMF manuka honey, and MGO manuka honey.
It is hardly surprising that consumers have been confused and some retailers have been able to exploit this confusion. The problem was publicised by the Grocer trade magazine, which carried out a random test of seven manuka honeys and found inconsistencies in what the tests revealed and what was stated on the label.
Interim guidelines for labelling manuka honey
The New Zealand Government is working on a long-term definition of manuka honey, which it hopes will be completed by 2015, but in the meantime has published a set of interim guidelines (Interim Labelling Guide for Manuka Honey). This process is being carried out by the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries in consultation with the key producers of manuka honey.
The process has highlighted the different standards and practices used in testing manuka honey within the industry in New Zealand, as well as any lack of consensus as to what constitutes ‘genuine’ manuka honey. These guidelines are not binding on honey producers and exporters but suggest, for example, removing the terms such as ‘total activity’, ‘non-peroxide activity’, ‘active’ and ‘antibacterial’ from manuka honey labels. In other words, the guidelines state that manuka honey labels should not make reference to therapeutic claims.
However, producers will be able to include a rating system, the pollen count, and a ‘chemical marker’ such as the level of methylglyoxal, which is the compound responsible for manuka honey’s antibacterial properties. The rating system used will have to be clear to consumers and it must be verifiable and explained on the label without being misleading.
Big changes likely
The intervention of the Ministry for Primary Industries is likely to lead to changes in labelling and even by the well-respected UMF trademark, since currently the UMF rating system refers to its antibacterial level.
Before these changes take effect, consumers who are interested in purchasing a high quality manuka honey should buy a reputable brand and the UMF and MGO labels, for example still mean the manuka honey will have been independently tested and verified.
More information on the new manuka honey guidelines is available on the website of the Ministry for Primary Industries and more information on the current UMF and other rating systems is available on this site by clicking the links.