black&white #15: The quest for tea authenticity
3 min steep
Tea fraud is big business. As the world's most popular drink and an annual market worth over $15 billion (and growing), this comes as no surprise. The tea market relies heavily on imports from other parts of the world, with different regions famous for producing particular teas, and a huge variation in quality, taste and price. With millions of tons of tea being shipped across the globe each year, the vulnerability of tea’s global supply chain is significant, both in terms of false claims regarding provenance and opportunities to add harmful, or at least undesirable, bulking agents. This is nothing new. The 1818 fake tea scandals in Britain were one of the earliest examples of tea fraud in the West. Tea merchants were, rather ingeniously, creating fake tea leaves from sloe, elder and ash leaves, through a complex method of boiling, baking, curling, drying and colouring. The end products were usually harmless, but not always; logwood, a colouring used to make fake black tea, can cause gastroenteritis when consumed in large doses.
01 | Satirical print by vilifying tea dealers after the 1818 tea scandals, by G. Cruikshank, 1818, © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Of course, that was over 200 years ago, but incidents like this are still occuring, with potentially dangerous colouring agents like coal tar dye and Prussian blue added to sub-standard teas to improve appearance and con the customer. In 2019, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India seized 1.5 tonnes of tea dust with high concentrations of colourants, while in China, authorities raided a business that had been selling fake tea online since 2017, and seizing 40 tonnes of fake tea adulterated with colouring agents. Mislabelling of geographic origin, provenance, picking season and processing type is also rife – as these can all contribute to the price of tea. Darjeeling tea is a great example of this, with sales of supposed “Darjeeling tea” greatly exceeding the amount of tea produced in that region each year (read our blog ‘Why Darjeeling tea should only come from Darjeeling’ here). Ours is bought direct from the Potong tea garden. Even in the UK, one well-known tea producer markets their tea blends as ‘English tea’, when in fact the amount of English-grown tea in the blend is negligible. Not like our pals at the Tea Gardens of Scotland collective who only produce 100% Scottish-grown tea – like the fantastic Nine Ladies Dancing, which will be available on our website nearer Christmas.
02 | Darjeeling tea plucker at Samabeong estate.
03 | Beverly Wainwright, consultant and tea maker at the Tea Gardens of Scotland collective.
Like other globally traded commodities, tea is also more vulnerable to fraud because of problems like complex supply chains, climate-dependency and crop failure, consumer demand for sustainability and a tendency towards poor working conditions in the industry.
Until now, identifying fraudulent teas has been a lengthy and expensive process. But this could be about to change. Professor Chris Elliot and Dr. Di Wu at Queen’s University Belfast are conducting a ground-breaking research project as part of their work for the Institute of Global Food Security. Using cutting-edge analytical methods, they are testing tea from a range of geographical locations to produce what they call a ‘chemical fingerprinting’ map. If successful, the map will be able to test tea samples from anywhere in the world, and determine the country and region from which the tea came. It’ll also test for known bulking agents, like Prussian Blue, coal tar dye, indigo, soapstone, plumbago and gypsum.
This could be a revolutionary development in the tea industry and beyond. If we’re able to significantly reduce or even eradicate the amount of fraudulent tea in supply chains, the possibilities for improving transparency and integrity in the industry are endless. Until then, keep buying the very best tea you can afford from the most transparent outfits.
Canton wins our starry partners and pleasing plaudits because since 2007, we’ve always been true to our core aims and values: to build relationships with producers, to buy direct with the shortest supply chain, and to strive to serve the best.