Monday, March 21, 2016

All About the Tea Importation Act of 1897

Did you know that for 99 years there was a government agency in the United States dedicated specifically to tea? The Board of Tea Appeals fell under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration from 1897 until 1996. Their primary function was to ensure the quality and safety of all of the tea being imported into the country. The act also authorized the FDA to appoint a board of tea experts whose job was to taste all of the tea being imported to determine whether or not it was fit for consumption. I can't decide if that is a dream job or some bizarre form of torture. I'm sure those tasters had to try some pretty terrible teas over the years.

In the 19th century tea was an important part of society but drinking it also seems like it was dubious at best. Adulteration was very commonplace both here in the U.S. and in England.  Coloring agents, leaves of other local plants and sheep dung were all potential inclusions. While the Board of Tea Tasters was ostensibly set up to protect consumers, it also meant that just a handful of people had total control over what types of tea Americans had access to. They famously barred the importation of puerh tea for many years because of its mustiness. I definitely think that is part of why most of us are still discovering this kind of tea.

There were several attempts to repeal the Tea Importation Act, most notably during the Nixon and Carter administrations. Congress was not successful until 1996 during Bill Clinton's first term in office. Senator Harry M. Reid was quoted as saying "These tea-tasting people are just like lizards. You grab them and jerk something off and they are right back.". While he did not succeed initially in getting the act repealed, congress did succeed in forcing the tea industry to pay for operations rather than the federal government.

I found several interesting quotes from Robert H. Dick, the last tea taster before the act was repealed. A link to the full interview with him is listed with some addition reading links below.

"I was also able to down to Yunnan, practically down to the Laos border where the the Pu Ehr teas are produced. Now, the Pu Ehr teas are rather infamous in this country because the Chinese treat them so that they produce a mustiness. They have a musty favor. Now, to the tea expert in this country mustiness is something on which they all agree. They would throw it out. The Chinese, from that area, like it and that is where I have a lot of my troubles from their attempts to bring it in."
"Most of the larger packers follow the Act faithfully and they follow the procedures that were set up. However, there are some who do not and some of them, especially the Chinese grocers and some of the Japanese and the Indian grocers do not seem to understand or at least they pretend they don't understand and we have difficulty at times getting these samples. Also, we have difficulty in really checking as to whether the samples are what they are supposed to be. Most of the Chinese invoices will come in and they will just list "tea", and it can be just about anything. You really don't know what they do have. I am sure that a lot of the teas are coming in and are not being recorded or else they are coming in under another name because there are these types which we would reject because of the fact that they are very musty in taste. But they are very highly prized and highly priced in the Chinese community. I don't have very many rejections and yet I go down in Chinatown and I'll see all of these teas displayed in the grocery windows. I am unable to follow through on that."
"Then later on I was able to go to China and I managed to cover quite a bit of territory in that country right after it was reopened to general travel. Imanaged to visit Hangchow, then the West Lake. The West Lake is a famous vacation spot for the Chinese. On the shores of the W~est Lake is a tea garden, Lung Ching Tea Garden, which is supposed to be one of the finest green teas in the world, and which the Chinese in particular prize very highly. They are willing to pay several dollars a pound. Even years ago, they were paying $10.00-$20.00 per pound, when $5.00 was considered a high price for tea."
If only Dragonwell was still $20 per pound! I hope that you all enjoyed this bit of tea history. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Additional Reading:

A Brief History of Tea: The Rise and Fall of the Tea Importation Act
Tea Importation Act; Tea Standards - A Proposed Rule by the Food and Drug Administration on 02/07/1996
99 Years of Federal Tea Tasting
Tea, but No Sympathy, for the Tasters
History of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - Interview with Robert H. Dick