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  • Patrick Dawkins

Liability Disagreement Leads to Mānuka Honey Appellation Resignations

The organisation which first launched, and continues to lodge appeals, regarding protection of the term ‘Mānuka Honey’ on behalf of New Zealand producers has been setback by resignation of its chairperson and another committee member following a disagreement over indemnity protections.

With the resignation of Ian Fletcher MHAS has lost considerable relevant expertise from their committee and membership.

The Mānuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS), which has around 20 members, elected Ian Fletcher as chairperson at their AGM in June. The former chief executive of the UK Patents Office and also European Union trade negotiator brought considerable relevant experience to the organisation, but less than six months into the term has withdrawn, along with fellow committee member Jane Lorimer, who is the president of industry body New Zealand Beekeeping Incorporated (NZBI). Fletcher has acted as an advisor to NZBI for several years.

In a message to NZBI members in December, Lorimer says the pair “separately, then collectively” decided that it was not right to remain on the committee. Lorimer has maintained her membership to MHAS, while Fletcher has withdrawn his.

The key point of contention appears to be in the lack of financial protection afforded to MHAS committee members as the Society carries on an appeal of the UK Intellectual Property Office’s (IPO) unfavourable December 2021 ruling in their bid to gain exclusive use of the term ‘Mānuka Honey’ for Kiwi producers. A case is also before New Zealand’s IPO court for similar protections.

“At the MHAS AGM, it was agreed that MHAS would work to put its financial arrangements with UMFHA (Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association) on a more formal footing, so as to provide appropriate enduring financial support for the MHAS and also provide suitable Directors’ and Officers’ insurance or equivalent indemnity for committee members,” Lorimer says.

“We were given to understand at the time of the AGM that the UMFHA would work with the MHAS committee to progress these objectives. However, it later became clear that these objectives were not fully shared, and it proved impossible to settle these issues in a timely manner.”

UMFHA is an incorporated society whose members include many of New Zealand’s leading mānuka honey beekeepers, processors and marketers. Members can use the ‘Unique Mānuka Factor’ rating on their products and they claim to represent over 70% of New Zealand mānuka honey retailed. UMFHA provides the basis of industry financial backing to the legal proceedings undertaken by the Appellation Society, alongside government grants and loans.

Despite the disagreement over the indemnity of committee members, MHAS secretary John Rawcliffe says they are on strong financial footing, and the committee will continue to operate and have the required quorum of three, albeit as a smaller group.

NZ Beekeeping Inc president Jane Lorimer is still an interested member of MHAS proceedings, but concerns over the liability of committee members has led to her resignation from the committee.

“The membership of the UMFHA, through various partners including Mānuka Honey Association, has backed this [protection] programme since August 2015 without wavering. This year members voted to continue substantial financial support for the next five years through an increase of UMFHA levies and membership fees, providing long-term confidence to all involved, including MHAS, Te Pitau Ltd, and the Mānuka Charitable Trust,” Rawcliffe says.

The Mānuka Charitable Trust, along with its legal operating arm Te Pitau Ltd., was formed in 2020 to take ultimate ownership of the ‘Mānuka Honey’ proprietorship bid, gain broad Māori support, and tap into government funding. However, it is this convoluted structure of associations, societies, trusts and businesses which seems to have played into the MHAS resignations, with Lorimer expressing concern about the lack of control the Appellation Society has over legal decisions.

“The MHAS committee (both collectively and individually) thus faces potential liability if proceedings don’t go well, without control over the decision-making, or countervailing insurance or indemnity arrangements. It remains our view that MHAS’s relationship with UMFHA and Te Pitau Ltd, and the position of its Officers, are issues that need to be addressed,” Lorimer says.

While admitting that with the loss of Fletcher as, first, chairperson and, ultimately, a member of MHAS means a considerable loss in expertise, Rawcliffe says there will be other opportunities to tap into his knowledge through the various groups, if not in an official capacity.

“The door is open for that, in any form. No one has been turned away and no one has not been part of the programme who has wanted to be. Ian has provided a lot of good, sound advice along our journey,” Rawcliffe says.

Despite the depletion of the committee, which still includes himself, Tony Wright, Rob Chemaly, Pita Tipene, Karin Kos and soon to be Nathan Guy, Chair of Apiculture New Zealand, Rawcliffe says they are striving on towards their goal of ‘Mānuka Honey’ protection. He recognises that honey producers are having difficulty gaining value for their mānuka honey at present, but believes the backing of UMFHA towards their programme is sound.

“When you look at overall export figures, we should have confidence there is a good baseline of export trade to ensure we have the foundations to continue to improve aspects of the industry going forward. That is, a quality product from New Zealand, well protected, created through good beekeeping practices, which are sustainable. With them, we are on to a winner. So that is the focus,” Rawcliffe says.

The appeal into the UK ruling is set to be heard in January, while the New Zealand case should progress in the first half of 2023.


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