29/01/2021·4 mins to read
What’s the buzz about Manuka honey?
The UK Advertising Standards Authority (UK ASA) recently ruled on an advertisement for Manuka honey, after a complainant challenged whether references throughout the ad to honey as a treatment for coughs and its “anti-microbial” properties breached the rule against stating or implying that a food can prevent, treat or cure human disease.
- The UK ASA considered that although a cough is not an underlying disease, coughs are a symptom for a range of diseases and adverse health conditions. Therefore, claims that food products can treat coughs are claims that those products could prevent, treat or cure human disease, are in breach of the UK Advertising Code.
- The use of anti-microbial claims in advertising could give consumers reasonable grounds to believe that a product can kill harmful micro-organisms. As such, consumers may obtain the impression that the product could prevent, treat or cure human disease.
- In New Zealand, the New Zealand Advertising Standards Codes of Practice (NZ ASA Codes) requires all advertising claims to be truthful, substantiated and prepared with a due sense of social responsibility. Therapeutic claims are also prohibited for foods under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. In addition, issues under the Medicines Act 1981 may also arise.
- Businesses should be aware of the heightened vigilance regarding therapeutic claims and the Covid-19 pandemic and take active steps to ensure that advertisements are compliant.
The advertisement generally linked Manuka honey to the treatment of coughs, through claims such as “honey should be the first line of treatment for patients with a cough” and “honey can help with the symptoms”.
While the advertiser agreed that Manuka honey could not prevent, treat or cure human disease, it argued that a cough was not a disease, nor could all coughs be linked to diseases. The advertiser also argued that the advertisement echoed official government advice to use honey for coughs.
In relation to the anti-microbial claim, the advertiser provided substantiation evidence (a peer reviewed scientific journal article) demonstrating that anti-microbial properties were indeed found in Manuka honey.
The UK ASA decision
The UK ASA upheld the complaint, stating that:
- Coughs are a symptom of a range of diseases and adverse health conditions. Therefore, claims that Manuka honey may treat coughs were claims that a food could prevent, treat or cure human disease. In addition, the ad’s references to public concerns about Covid-19 and Manuka honey as a “simple form of self-treatment that has government backing” would result in consumers understanding references to coughs in the ad as references to a symptom of Covid-19 in particular.
- Claims referring to anti-microbial qualities in Manuka honey would give consumers reasonable grounds to believe that the product would kill harmful microorganisms, therefore having the potential to prevent, treat or cure human diseases caused by such microorganisms. Because such a claim was prohibited, the UK ASA did not assess the evidence submitted to substantiate the claim.
What does this mean for me?
The New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority Codes of Practice (NZ ASA Codes) requires all advertising to be truthful, balanced and not misleading. In particular, food and beverage claims must be factual and substantiated, which includes not exaggerating the benefits foods and beverages. All advertisements must also be prepared with a due sense of social responsibility.
While the NZ ASA Codes do not contain a prohibition similar to that of the UK ASA, it may be that claims similar to the Manuka honey claims above could be considered in breach, on the basis that they are not truthful, unsubstantiated and/or not prepared with a due sense of responsibility (particularly in light of the pandemic).
It also worth noting that therapeutic claims in respect of foods in New Zealand are not permitted from a legal perspective. Standard 1.2.7 of the ANZ Food Standards Code (Food Code) specifically provides that claims must not refer to the prevention, diagnosis, cure or alleviation of a disease, disorder or condition. The Medicines Act 1981 (enforced by Medsafe) may also be triggered by claims that suggest or imply that the product concerned has a therapeutic purpose. Under both the Food Code and Medicines Act, re-labelling, product reformulation and monetary penalties could arise.