The New Zealand honey that’s causing legal problems in the US

New York • There’s been an unexpected wave of food crime in the first half of 2018. In mid-August, US$98,000 (RM404,740) worth of ramen noodles were stolen from a tractor trailer in Georgia.

In Chile, a long drought and surging avocado demand has resulted in organised armed groups assaulting producers in broad daylight.

To address rising theft, the country has appointed “guac cops”, as well as its first avocado-focused prosecutor, Bloomberg reported.

Theft of the fruit is likewise a problem in New Zealand, which has led to the installation of alarm systems in orchards.

Yet, New Zealand has an even fancier food that’s raising legal issues.

Manuka honey is the pricey sweetener with remarkable anti-bacterial properties — heralded for its ability to heal wounds and burns, aid digestion, and keep skin smooth.

The dark, medicinal-flavoured honey is produced from the manuka tree, which is native to New Zealand. It has been rising in popularity, particularly over the past six years, growing 33.5% from 2012 to 2016, according to QYResearch.

But its “liquid gold” reputation is causing problems inside the industry. In July, three people filed a class action lawsuit in Oakland, California, against Trader Joe’s for selling counterfeit manuka honey that had been labelled as 100% pure.

The consumers allege that they paid a premium for honey that was 100% manuka, but tested as being a maximum of 62.6%.

The case, Moore vs Trader Joe’s, notes violations in New York, California and North Carolina.

Earlier this month, Good Morning America started an investigation into the product: The show teamed up with Sweetwater Science Lab to test a number of widely available brands to check purity.

Even back in 2014, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries revealed that only 1,700 tonnes of manuka honey were produced, while more than 10,000 tonnes of honey labelled manuka were sold.

One of the major players in the manuka honey market is Comvita Ltd. It’s the only honey listed on the New Zealand stock exchange, where it posted a US$9.3 million profit for the year ending in June. In January, Comvita expanded its presence to 200 Costco stores in the US and to warehouses around Canada.

Corey Blick, VP of Comvita North America, keeps tabs on the amount of drama in the manuka honey world. “We talk about it every day,” he said. “Who would have thought honey would cause lawsuits?”

He won’t comment on the Trader Joe lawsuit, but he notes that “whenever you’re seeing a low priced manuka honey out there, it raises reason for suspicion. It’s an expensive product to make, in terms of cost to goods”.

The prices of Comvita products range from US$23 to US$150. A range of numbers measure the UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, a rating developed by the New Zealand- based UMF Honey Association.

It’s an evaluation based on purity and quality, with grades that include 5+, 10+ and 15+. The highest-priced

is the highest-strength — the 20+. For Manuka honey producers such as Comvita, the problem is that they can’t manufacture enough to meet demand. It’s produced from bushy manuka trees that flower only a few weeks a year.

“We turn down orders every single week. It’s frustrating,” said Blick. The remaining product is precious. “I was at our warehouse, we had a pallet of our 20+ jars on the top shelf, and the driver looked a little shaky,” he recalls.

“I said to him: ‘Don’t stress; it’s only the value of an Aston Martin that you’re working with’.” — Bloomberg