The Taste With Vir: Crisis faced by Indian tea
Worse still, I added, there were new scares about how safe Indian tea was: Did it contain too many pesticides? And were the fluoride levels in some of our teas so high that they could eventually contribute to bone disease?
Two years ago, I wrote about the crisis faced by Indian tea in Rude Food, my column in Brunch. It was acknowledged, I said, that though some Indian teas were among the best in the world, the tea industry itself was in bad shape. Worse still, I added, there were new scares about how safe Indian tea was: Did it contain too many pesticides? And were the fluoride levels in some of our teas so high that they could eventually contribute to bone disease?
Certainly, most of the safety concerns I expressed in that column went largely unaddressed though there was pushback to the article from fans of CTC teas. These are teas made using a process called Crush, Tear and Curl (hence CTC) which is usually associated with the cheaper teas that hold sway in about 88% of the Indian market. I said that India’s best teas were leaf teas made in a style that it called orthodox. This provoked baffling outrage from fans of CTC.
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Two things have happened since that column appeared. First of all, the pandemic may actually have helped the tea industry. As Anshuman Kanoria, chairman of the India Tea Exporters Association (and owner of two famous Darjeeling gardens) explained to me, the reduction in supply caused by the pandemic led to a rise in prices. Fortunately, for the industry, the rise in prices was so high that it compensated for the loss in revenue caused by having less tea to sell.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the concerns about safety that I had raised in my piece which were generally brushed off can no longer be ignored. Last month, the Tea Board wrote to all tea producer associations warning them that various teas offered up for auction had been tested and found to be not fit for human consumption. According to the Federation of All India Tea Traders, failure rates of teas that had been tested were between 15% to 40%. These teas would now have to be destroyed. Apparently, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was conducting random raids at tea warehouses and had found that much of the tea produced in India did not meet the standards required for human consumption.
So far, at least, this development has not attracted that much attention outside tea circles and among consumers, but within the tea industry it is hotly debated and much discussed in WhatsApp groups and on social media.
So, are there genuine safety concerns about Indian tea?
There are those who argue that there always have been concerns but that the industry has failed to address them in time. Nirmal Sethia, the London and Dubai-based billionaire who runs Newby Tea as a passion project (all profits go to charity), had complained about fluorides and pesticides when I wrote about tea two years ago. Sethia says that Newby spends lakhs on testing every year to make sure that its teas are safe. “Every tea of ours is compliant with EU and US standards. We are the number one tea brand in the world when it comes to safety.” But, he says, others have been reluctant to do so. Now, he argues, FSSAI’s decisions have vindicated his position and the criticisms he made of the rest of the industry when he spoke to me two years ago.
In fact, tea safety is a complicated business. The problem of fluorides in tea hit the global media a decade ago. The pesticide charge is also familiar. Tea companies all over the world (including such prestigious brands as Singapore’s TWG) have had their teas rejected by various export markets.
Every country has its own criteria for acceptable levels of pesticides. So even if you meet say, US standards, you may not meet the EU’s standards. So Indian tea exporters have had to try hard to adjust to different global standards. By and large, the guys who make the prestige teas have learned how to cope.
As Prabhat Bezbaruah, chairman of The Tea Research Association says, “Nobody wants to make any product that harms consumers. But because acceptable levels and standards vary so much from market to market and new conditions keep being added, it becomes difficult for tea producers to keep up.”
The FSSAI raids and the rejection of so many teas as unfit for human consumption, however, strike at the very heart of the industry not just at top exporters. It echoes similar trends in Iran and other export markets where cheaper Indian teas have begun to face problems. It begs the question: Have Indian tea growers got away with using too many pesticides for too long mainly because they have been under the radar?
This is no simple answer to that question, but what is clear is that growers are much more careful when they grow teas for the export market than when they grow tea for the Indian market. Some large companies are reputed to even have two sets of standards, one for teas that are grown for export and one for the cheaper stuff meant for domestic consumption.
The sad reality is that using pesticides is the most economical way to grow tea. The organic approach, favoured by a few top growers, costs much more than farming with pesticides. Not only are yields lower (which they are even if you don’t go fully organic but simply use less pesticide) but there is also the problem of weed growth. Tea gardens need to hire extra workers to root out the weeds which can be expensive.
Sethia says that his cost of production at Newby Tea is around double that of other gardens. That’s because he wants Newby to guarantee safety. On the other hand, as his critics point out, he charges high prices for a passion project; his tea business is a rich man’s indulgence, designed for charity.
At the lower end of the market where margins are small, gardens try and get the largest yields. Often this is impossible without lots of pesticides. Teas that are grown at higher altitudes (say Darjeeling) are usually less vulnerable to damage by pests. But tea gardens at lower levels (in Assam, for instance) can be severely infested with pests. So, argues the tea industry, it is not difficult to see why more pesticides are needed.
Within the tea industry, some even see conspiracies. Why, they ask, has this issue suddenly come up at a time when it could affect the sale of the second flush? Is it a move to drive prices down to pre-pandemic levels?
I have no idea how this will end and while I worry for the future of the Indian tea industry, I think we have to accept that we live in a globalised market. India cannot sell one kind of tea, grown to one set of standards, to its domestic population and grow another (to higher standards) for foreigners.
Whether we agree with global pesticide norms or not, we will have to follow them. The FSSAI action may be harsh but, on the other hand, it is frightening to note that as much as 40% of tea offered for sale at some auctions was ‘unfit for human consumption’.
There is a tendency now to sensationalise the issue and to claim that our teas are being sent back from export markets. This can be an exaggeration. And it’s not even the real issue.
What matters is this: The tea industry should not fob Indians off with teas that it would not dare send abroad. I understand the difficulties faced by small growers and why they use so many pesticides.
But health is more important than profit.