Although Tahiti has a reputation as producing the Pacific region's best, most nutritious noni fruit - high labour and production costs mean it's also far more expensive than that of its neighbours. Now the producers are claiming that noni from other countries such Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands is being used in juice carrying the Tahitian label.
Presenter: Helene Hofman
CEO of Royal Tahiti Noni, Vatea Quesnot; Scott Tuitupu, manager of quality assurance with Morinda, Scott Tuitupu; acting president of the Pacific Island Noni Association, Helen Russell
HOFMAN: Noni juice is said to benefit everything from your digestion system, immune system and even skin and hair. And while those claims are often disputed, no one can argue with the fact that in the last decade noni-juice has become a multi-million dollar industry. Worldwide sales of noni juice reportedly add up to several billion US dollars a year. At the forefront of this success is the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, the first of the Pacific Islands to tap into the international market.
However, with demand for local noni fruit falling, producers suspect that many companies maybe be using cheaper fruit imported from other Pacific Islands. The CEO of the noni producer and exporter, Royal Tahiti Noni, Vatea Quesnot, says he saw this happenING several years ago with juice sold in the United States and thinks it may now be happening on the Asian markets.
QUESNOT: I have seen it in Japan, I have seen companies sending noni juice with Tahiti (labelling), because I know that they are not buying the juice from Tahiti because I know most of the noni producers in Tahiti and I know they are not selling in Japan, so I know exactly where they are buying from. Because Noni from Tonga and Vanuatu is much cheaper than ours, so I can understand why they are using our name and buying noni juice cheap, but for us it's very easy to get it cheap because we are from Tahiti, and prices are very different from the juice producing in those areas. Normally there should be regulation in the country where the product is sold, so we are telling the US you are not required to mention the origin of your product. For example, Morinda still sells noni juice from Tahiti and I am not sure if they buy all their noni in Tahiti.
HOFMAN: What makes you think that?
QUESNOT: I have seen people in Fiji saying they were working for Morinda, so I am not saying they are, it is a supposition.
HOFMAN: But is the quality of juice, is there really a difference between noni that is produced in Tahiti and noni that is produced elsewhere?
QUESNOT: There is a difference. The noni produced in Tahiti is indeed of a very high quality in terms of nutrients due to the Pacific soil. I am not saying that the noni juice produced elsewhere is not good. It's just quality-wise, it is different.
HOFMAN: According to Mr Quesnot, one of the main problems facing Tahiti's noni producers is the higher cost of labour and production which pushes the cost of Tahitian noni higher than that of its competitors. However, Morinda International, which provides raw materials for Tahitian Noni International in Utah in the United States and is French Polynesia's largest exporter of noni products, says it hasn't been tempted to buy outside of Tahiti.
It has found itself at the centre of the producers' accusations. But Scott Tuitupu, Morinda's manager of quality assurance, says the fall-off in demand for Tahitian noni is in line with market conditions that have been hit by the global downturn.
TUITUPU: All of our fruit that Morinda provides comes from French Polynesia.
HOFMAN: Do you have anyway of guaranteeing that?
TUITUPU: Yeah, we do have a paper trail that follows all of our shipments and all of the fruit that comes through our manufacturing plant. I think we do have some sort of guarantee on our products that they do come from Tahiti and the islands around Tahiti in French Polynesia and then on our bottles of juice and noni juice and if anyone has ever really questioned that then Tahitian Noni International should contact us and we can provide the paper work.
HOFMAN: The Pacific Island Noni Assocation has been working to promote noni fruit around the world. Its acting president, Helen Russell, says the debate over where the noni fruit originates from is irrelevant. The Association has conducted tests which show that noni fruit has the same nutritional value, regardless of its origin.
RUSSELL: The noni fruit is the noni fruit and it grows throughout the Pacific Islands. It is a very, very common tree and a very common fruit. Now it just so happens that French Polynesia was the first country that actually promoted this product and so there is a strong association that Polynesian noni has in the industry, but in terms of it having any unique or particular features, I would have to say no it doesn't.
HOFMAN: Now the claim that is coming out of French Polynesia at the moment is a concern among Tahitian producers that some local companies are buying the cheaper fruit from places like Fiji and Samoa and the Cook Islands and selling it as Tahitian noni. Does that seem like something that's plausible to you?
RUSSELL: Eh well look, from my experience, and I know that all the major producers in Fiji, in Samoa and in the Cook Islands and I know that they sell their noni juice really proudly as product of their particular islands. So the Fijians are quite sure, the Fijian noni juice is the best, same with the Samoans and same with the Cook Islands and I don't know of any of them that sell it as Tahitian noni juice. So in terms of this is the source of cheap juice, no. In my experience this is not the case.
HOFMAN: French Polynesian producers are currently lobbying the territory's government to introduce a "guarantee of origin" for Tahitian noni. The request is being considered by the French Polynesian government.