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Why branded tea is safer

The problem of tea adulteration is as old as the trade itself. Back in the day, it was called “lie tea”. Now, there are tests to find out whether your daily cup is safe to drink

The Tea Board of India has tips to check whether tea is adulterated. (iStockPhoto)
The Tea Board of India has tips to check whether tea is adulterated. (iStockPhoto)

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These past few weeks I have seen quite a few articles on tea adulteration. I turned to friends in tea to understand what we need to know as tea drinkers. As with any conversation on food safety, this too led to traceability, of how our tea is grown and made, and also how it travels to us.

I learnt that there are a series of checks in place but chemical residue assessments are limited to tea meant for exports. Sourcing, then, becomes important.

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On the field, tea farmers have a plant protection code issued by the Tea Board of India that details everything from pest control and management to formulations allowed for spraying, worker safety, etc. In the factories, manufacturers are mandated to meet Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) standards, whether in requirements for factories, workers, hygiene checks, or contamination. FSSAI information on a label is indicative of a licensed brand.

From the factories, tea is sold to buyers, directly or via an auction, with a minuscule quantity sold directly to consumers. Its journey from the time it’s processed to the time it reaches the consumer sees several intermediaries—brokers, buyers, blenders, wholesalers and retailers. Several checks are incorporated in how the tea is bought, handled, stored and sold.

Typically, tea producers send samples to brokers and buyers. Every “invoice”, as a batch is referred to, is sampled and judged for both price and suitability. Buyers abroad have stringent compliance requirements, especially when it comes to the maximum residue levels (MRL) of chemicals present in tea. One producer told me that every batch of his tea is tested for 399 substances. These are expensive tests, undertaken only by those producers who export. Within India, we don’t yet have mandatory testing for MRL, which means we have to rely on sourcing our teas right.

Here’s where the large brands have an advantage, for they have the wherewithal to check and ensure safety, whether in vendor or tea selection. Many teas are blended teas, and the blending areas of these facilities are equipped with cleaning equipment to remove foreign matter. There are also new retail brands that highlight clean teas as a value-add.

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So, packaged and branded tea is safer than loosely sold tea. This is perhaps the biggest benefit branding offers.

But then again, the problem of adulteration is as old as the trade itself. Back in the 17th century, tea adulteration was a huge problem in Britain. There are reports of “lie tea”, or tea dust with sand and dirt rolled with starch to small granules and dyed. Green tea was usually enhanced for colour with a dye, often Prussian blue. Then there was “exhausted tea”, re-dried tea leaves with nothing to offer. The fight to clean tea turned into the move to make tea “English”, which in turn led to the establishment of British tea plantations in their colonies and the end of Chinese monopoly in tea.

How can you check if your tea has added colour? The Tea Board of India suggests adding some tea to cold water. Coloured tea will wash off and the water will turn bright red. Take some tea on your palm, add a little cold water and rub it. Added colour will run on to your palm as a red stain.

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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