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An international legal battle is brewing between New Zealand makers of manuka honey and others around the world, amid claims some are producing it without the nectar of leptospermum scoparium, a native manuka bush.

Led by the UMF Honey Association, the Antipodean honey producers have submitted an application to protect the name ‘manuka honey’ as a Certification trademark in New Zealand, claiming that the methods used to make the product there define it as unique.

If it has not already done so, the association could also consider seeking protected food name status for manuka honey in the EU. Applications for EU-wide protected food name status are normally brought by groups of producers such as butchers or milk producers.

Obtaining this status can be complex because applicants have a number of potential routes open to them. For this reason, it is often overlooked when checking out new brand names.

When seeking legal protection for a protected food name in the EU, there are three routes open to producers, which are to apply for Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Indication or Traditional Specialities Guaranteed status. In this case, the UMFHA could consider applying for the latter status, which would require it to demonstrate that manuka honey was manufactured in a specific way, unique to it and by a defined group of producers. Applications for TSG status can take several years, however, and a period of three months needs to be allowed for challenges from other parties.

The UMFHA is already the owner of an EC trademark for the phrase ‘unique manuka factor’. This means it is able to prevent competitors using or applying to register any mark similar to it. However, given the generic nature of the term ‘manuka’ for honey, it is very unlikely it could obtain a trademark registration for that as a word on its own.

Instead of trying to register a mark in the EU, the UMFHA could consider obtaining a Certification trademark in the UK only, which would at least afford it some protection here in the meantime.

Mark Armitage is trademark attorney and consultant at Withers & Rogers