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A Little History Infusion: Before the FDA, there was a Board of Tea Experts

Who knew that for almost a hundred years, the tea in your cup had to pass federal inspection? But that’s exactly what happened, thanks to the Tea Importation Act of 1897, which also had the unintended consequence of excluding entire categories of tea.

The Act was intended to set standards for “purity, quality and fitness for consumption” and was modeled after laws in Great Britain. You might think the Brits, whose passion for tea sparked the opium wars, would only settle for the best.  But tea was also a source of tax revenue and sold by weight. So the stage was set for tea to be cut with clay or even iron filings by unscrupulous merchants while at the source,  green  tea was often spiked with Prussian blue  (to make it look greener) and black tea spiked with gypsum.( Prussian blue, as you might already know, contain arsenic.)  But since the fillers were not taxed as much as the pure tea, tax revenue went down and stiff fines were given to dealers in adulterated tea.

While tea drinking in the US was never as part of the culture as it was in Great Britain, it became an increasingly popular drink by the 1880s. Problem was that the US was often a dumping ground for cheap, inferior tea. The aim of the 1897 Tea Importation was to ensure quality — and prevent practices such as mixing tea with other plants, bulking up tea with sawdust and pawning off used tea leaves as new. Tea, according to a 2004 paper by then-Harvard law student Patricia deWitt, was the first federal food to be regulated.

The goal was noble — to establish standards and to protect the public from shady tea importers who dyed tea to look green or added bulk by cutting tea with stuff only limited by the crook’s imagination. A Board of Tea Experts made up of seven taste testers was set up, standards were set, tea was examined. Initially, samples were provided by the importer; by 1910, the government picked samples. And since was initially under the US Treasury, the emphasis was on the importer.

Specific tests were detailed in the Code of Federal Regulations to check for impurities. Here’s the test for paraffin: “If the examiner suspects the presence of paraffin or any similar substance, he should make the following test: Spread the tea between two sheets of unglazed white paper. Place there on a hot iron. The greasy substance, if any, will appear on the paper…” Other tests using black paper were used to check for “the presence of talc, gypsum, clay, barium sulfate and kaolin…” The regulations go into minute detail for other tests and what to do with rejected tea.

So what happened?  By the 1920s, the Tea Act came under the Bureau of Chemistry; forerunner of the FDA, which came into being in the 1940s. Tea purity wasn’t exactly high priority during the war years. And with the FDA testing foods, it seemed to many that having a separate tea section was redundant at best, wasteful at worst. Yet the tea testing program carried on. When funding dried up, tea industry official stepped in. Yet the Act lasted until 1996. One of the most vociferous  opponents was none other than Senator Harry Reid who according to the New York Times, called for a  “a congressional tea party” to ‘dump tea experts overboard” in a speech on the floor in 1993.

Next: The demise of the Tea Act and the odd legacy of chief Tea Taster Robert Dick.

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