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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Anger and Frustration in Northland at Mānuka Honey Reassessment

Ever since the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) introduced a chemical standard for mānuka honey exports in 2018, Northland beekeepers have cried foul as much of their honey has failed to meet the new grade. They hoped a reassessment of the standard, which commenced in 2020, would see improvements put in place. However, last month MPI announced that the two-and-a-half-year process would result in no changes, leaving Northland beekeepers angry and frustrated over what they see as a drawn-out and “secretive” process which lacked Māori involvement.

“The result of this review has been totally disappointing,” says Pita Tipene, chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Hine.

Mānuka honey – The accuracy of MPI’s export standard has been disputed by Northland honey producers since its inception in 2018 and the latest reassessment has created more anger and frustration.

The Northland iwi, with beekeeping interests, were instrumental in bringing about the review of the mānuka honey standard imposed on exporters by MPI in 2018. While the change to a chemical definition, as apposed to pollen counts, meant many batches that might previously have been marketed as mānuka honey now fell outside the new standard, no single region was as hard hit as Northland. With one of the key chemical marker levels, 2’-MAP (2-Methoxyacetophenone), regularly testing below the grade in Northland honey, what was once an abundant mānuka honey producing region has seen huge retrenchment in beekeeping operations, and many go out of business.

Therefore, they pushed for a review and change, thus MPI committed to collecting more samples and analysing regional variations, as well as looking into further concerns from the industry, such as blending and adulteration risks, DNA stability, the value of DNA markers and alternative markers.

On June 2 – just hours before the result of the review was publicly released – a hui was held at Waitangi, attended by Ngāti Hine and other Northland beekeepers and stakeholders. An MPI delegation announced there would be no change to the export standard.

While that decision was clearly not what the Northlanders had pushed for, it was the process used to get there which wrangled too, and Tipene says the mood of the meeting reflected that.

“We clearly expressed our disappointment, our anger, our frustration at how the Ministry for Primary Industries has gone about this.”

Pita Tipene, chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Hine. The Northland iwi was instrumental in calling for a reassessment of the mānuka honey export standard only to be “totally disappointed”.

The Review

The findings were a long time coming, with the review committed to in November 2020 and a call put out for honey samples and test results, which were collected up until July 2021. A period of standardising, cataloguing and collecting more information about the samples followed, before analysis from NZ Food Safety. Those findings then went through an independent peer-review process, completed in late 2022, the recommendations of which were then subject to more scrutiny, this time an internal NZ Food Safety and MPI review process to ensure “that we not only got the science right, but that how that science relates to our role as the regulator was well-considered”, says acting deputy director-general of New Zealand Food Safety, Jenny Bishop.

“Good science does take time. There was a big amount of data to work through and during Covid times, those interruptions do have an impact on our work programmes,” Bishop says.

Ultimately, the independent review panel put together by MPI found that on all four areas of the honey standard to be assessed “it is difficult to test the topics with a high degree of rigour”. Reasoning for this was the unsuitability of the honey sample collection reviewed and a lack of “metadata” around many honey samples. Therefore, MPI’s original assessment from 2018 stands, with its conclusion that “there were not regional differences in 2’-MAP concentration that would discriminate against a particular region’s ability to produce monofloral manuka honey”.

The panel of scientists advised MPI that “to improve the analysis, it would be necessary to collect detailed and accurate metadata for the samples”. Given the multi-year review – all while Northland beekeepers were going out of business – why did MPI not make greater efforts to ensure the suitability of the data to reach a conclusion, one way or the other?

Dr John Craig. The retired professor of environmental management contributed “hundreds” of honey samples to the reassessment programme, which he condemns for being “secretive”.

Holes in the Data Dr John Craig, a retired Professor of Environmental Management at The University of Auckland, as well as the head of Ngāti Hine’s beekeeping operations, believes, for MPI, it is “convenient” they didn’t have adequate data to draw conclusions.

“It was really just an exercise in how to take as much time as possible, and convey as little information as possible to come out with what, politically, you would expect them to come out with,” Craig says.

“If they wanted to actually have a real investigation, they should have handed it over to an independent body to do all of the work and then made the information available. There are no numbers which have been made available. So, I have no idea what they found and how many samples they ended up accepting.”

MPI manager of operational research Dr Claire McDonald has overseen the original manuka honey science programme that led to the 2018 standard and also the latest review. She says there were around 70,000 “datapoints” used as part of the review, gathered from the honey collected ahead of the 2018 standard, honey test results from laboratories and those submitted by stakeholders as part of the reassessment. However, a “very minimal” amount of the honey samples provided by beekeepers for the purposes of the review had the full scope of data required to overturn the standard in place. That being, GPS location of hive sites, age of the honey, existing test results and details of storage or processing.

MPI went back to beekeepers when data was missing, but still the required information was not forthcoming in many instances they say.

“Apiary sites and locations are commercially sensitive and so it can be difficult to get the level of information required to assess that. We often get the region, or the rough area, but not the specific apiary site to drill down into the level of detail we might want to,” McDonald says.

As MPI see it, in the case of the reassessment process, the onus was on those wanting change to provide adequate new data to overturn the existing manuka honey standard.

“We have had people go out and take samples straight from the apiary sites and work with beekeepers to get them direct as part of the MPI science programme [for the 2018 standard]. That’s why we went out to industry – to know what was out there that we didn’t previously have access to. That is what we built into the reassessment process,” McDonald explains.

However, Craig says his experience with the process involved limited communication from MPI’s end regarding the hundreds of samples he submitted following their own scientific and statistical analysis.

“Graham Wood, a former statistics professor at Otago University, and I put together a collection of samples that I managed to get from people from Kaiwaka through to the Bay of Islands area. Hundreds of them. He analysed those against MPI’s original samples, after they gave us all the samples they had. He showed that the 2’-MAP was significantly lower in Northland, but the other three chemicals were not significantly different. So, we submitted that to MPI and no response whatsoever. I know many others in Northland submitted information. We have no idea how it was used, or discarded, or anything,” Craig says.

It is that lack of transparency that really rankles the scientist, as it leaves the out-of-pocket Northland honey producers without an understanding of where they have gone wrong.

“What faith can you have in something which is secretive? That's not the way you do science. Science is very open,” Craig says.

Blanche Morrogh’s Kai Ora Honey business gathers honey from a range of sites in Northland which she claims can return high UMF ratings, yet fail MPI’s mānuka honey standard.

Māori Involvement

Failings of the sample collection process are not the only area of MPI’s review to draw criticism from the far north though. Among those to voice their frustrations at the Waitangi hui was Blanch Morrogh, CEO of Kai Ora Honey, a Kaitaia based beekeeping business and exporter. Morrogh says she is concerned that the review was “an internal audit on themselves (MPI)” and she questioned the MPI delegation about the Māori representation in the process.

“During the meeting they made it sound like they had consultation with Māori by referring to a Treaty partner in the Mānuka Charitable Trust,” Morrogh says.

However, Tipene, who chairs the Trust, reports that when that level of consultation was questioned, it became apparent there had not been consultation and the MPI team apologised for giving the wrong impression.

“It took a lot of probing to come to the understanding that there was zero Māori representation and consultation throughout the review. When I asked, specifically, ‘out of the 10 expert scientists, how many were Māori and how many were from Tai Tokerau?’, only one was Māori and none were from Tai Tokerau,” Morrogh says.

Bishop identified Dr Nikki Harcourt of Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research as the Māori research expert on the review panel.

Morrogh and Tipene both believe mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) considerations should have been included in the review process.

“If they had more Māori scientists in the review they would have seen things differently, asked different questions and carried out more analytics on specific regions,” Morrogh says.

It appears mātauranga Māori scientists have not been fast to get involved though, with MPI claiming an appropriate person “could not be identified”.

“We prioritised it, but sometimes you can’t find the right person to help with the work. It’s a shame and something we want to keep building on. I don’t know how we could have done it any different, given there was no one identified to be available,” Bishop says.

On their Own?

While the decision not to alter the MPI mānuka honey standard may be angering those in Northland, there appears to have been little reaction from other parts of the country to the announcement.

Apiculture New Zealand chief executive Karin Kos says the general consensus is it has taken too long to get to a decision of no change, and they will take a closer look at the review when their Standards Focus Group meets in July. For now, their sense is that most in the industry are “well across the existing definition”.

In Northland though, the reality of what they deem an unjust standard continues to bite with Morrogh claiming Kai Ora Honey – which has had to drop from almost 2000 hives in 2018 to now under 500 – has 40 drums of honey from the past season in the shed, all of which tested as non-mānuka as per MPI, despite some having up to 20+UMF ratings. That has dropped its value from approximately $120,000 to about $50,000, she says.

As for anyone who says they should just get in the blending game, the Kai Ora chief executive says it “ain’t that easy” as they are limited by a lack of facilities and, for the most part, the economics of buying in appropriate blend honey, transporting honey, re-heating and blending costs just don’t stack up.

They hoped that the multi-year reassessment would offer a lifeline, but instead have been left with conclusions they deem unfairly reached.

“They paid somebody to do all this, so why didn’t they pay someone to be on the ground in the far north, to work with far north beekeepers, to ensure there was enough representation, to ensure adequate honey samples were provided, to ensure a fair analysis? There was none of that. If they want to do a review, why would they do it behind a desk and not out in the field?” Morrogh asks.

“If you are going to carry out consultation which is fair to Northland beekeepers. You get out on the ground and be fair to Northland beekeepers,” she says, adding “Don’t leave the onus on beekeepers, who are struggling to find time and money to scramble through the mess that MPI have made.”


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