New NZ mānuka honey regulations helping to 'clean up' industry: PRI CEO

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

The MPI has introduced a stricter definition of and criteria for what constitutes mānuka honey. ©Getty Images
The MPI has introduced a stricter definition of and criteria for what constitutes mānuka honey. ©Getty Images

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New regulations and more stringent testing standards are "cleaning up" New Zealand's mānuka honey industry, according to the founder and CEO of US manufacturer PRI (Pacific Resources International).

In an interview with NutraIngredients-Asia​, David Noll said the stricter definition of and criteria for what constitutes mānuka honey — introduced by New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) earlier this month — will help remove inaccurately labelled products from the market.

The MPI made a last-minute decision to delay the implementation of the updated definition late last month in order to avoid a legal battle with NZ Beekeepers Inc., but went ahead with new labelling standards on 5 February.

The updated definition would have affected export standards, requiring a designated chemical marker in multi-floral mānuka honey, called 2 MAP, to be increased from 0.001mg/kg to 0.005mg/kg.

NZ Beekeepers Inc. claimed this would result in an annual loss of above NZ$100 million in export products that would no longer meet the minimum criteria to be considered mānuka honey, and a case between the organisation and the MPI had been scheduled for 30 January at the High Court in Wellington.

This was the called off due to the MPI's 11th-hour decision not to change the existing requirements for mānuka honey, though it has since introduced new labelling standards that require tests for one DNA marker and four chemical markers before a product can be sold as containing mānuka honey.

Good but not enough

Noll said, "It's good that the industry is being cleaned up, but it's always a two-edged sword. Understandably, they couldn't take everything into consideration the first time around.

"A lot of products will be removed from the market, which is good for consumer protection, but will dry up supply and in turn, make real mānuka honey more expensive."

He explained that the new rules do not address vital aspects of mānuka honey production, such as UMF (unique mānuka factor) and NPA (non-peroxide activity), which are important to consumers.

"The issue is that the New Zealand government treats mānuka honey as more of a food than a health supplement, but taking these factors into account would in fact improve consumer protection.

"For instance, a bottle of mānuka honey with a 20+ UMF would cost much more than one with a 5+ UMF: healthy individuals don't need something with a high UMF, whereas only those suffering from conditions like diabetic ulcers or IBS may need the 20+ UMF honey, which studies have shown can promote skin healing and gut health.

"Making sure consumers are informed about such details can prevent them from overspending on something they don't need."

Getting testy

To this end, PRI has taken steps to strengthen consumer protection and raise industry standards.

The firm, which is credited with being the first to introduce mānuka honey to the US in 1989, has been working with UK-based laboratory Fera Science to develop and conduct tests to ensure the authenticity and quality of mānuka honey products.

Noll revealed: "Three years ago, we conducted a study and found that there was more 'mānuka' honey being sold in the UK than there was being produced in New Zealand.

"We discovered that companies were skimping on quality and authenticity — they were blending mānuka with a similar honey called kānuka, which is also good but has lower NPA.

"We wanted to make sure the US market didn't suffer the same fate as the UK market, where consumers who weren't getting the desired results despite taking what they thought was mānuka honey simply stopped buying honey altogether."

PRI then approached Fera Science, which had recently been accredited in the industry. The test they developed focused on three specific criteria: DHA (dihydroxyacetone), MG (methylglyoxal) and HMF (hydroxymethylfurfuraldehyde).

DHA is needed to produce MG, which is responsible for mānuka honey's NPA, while HMF is a naturally occurring indicator of heat and storage changes in honey. The lab also tests the honey for leptosin, a chemical marker found only in mānuka honey.

Noll added that PRI works directly with beekeepers, and to ensure consistently high quality throughout the production process, has all their honey samples tested three times: at the points of harvest, removal from the barrel, and packaging.

He said, "Samples sent to the UK and New Zealand for testing can cost up to US$3,000 per batch, depending on how many samples are sent.

"It's not cheap, but it's necessary. Some Kiwi mānuka honey suppliers have pulled out of the US market since the tests were introduced, and there's now a higher level of purity and honest labelling."

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