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The FDA Used to Have People Whose Job Was to Taste Tea

Literally, that was it

A federal tea taster at work. (National Archives)
smithsonian.com

For 99 years, the United States government employed a group of people to check the quality of incoming tea by tasting it. That’s right: almost a century of “slurp, swoosh, spit,” as Karen de Witt put it for The New York Times in 1996.

The Board of Tea Experts, as they were called, was created as part of the Tea Importation Act of 1897. The act, writes the FDA, “aimed to protect consumers from imported tea judged at the time to be ‘little better than hay or catnip.’” The Act was passed at a time when there was great public concern about the purity of food, as well as the beginnings of the regulatory structure that would come to regulate cosmetics, food and drugs. The government wasn’t just concerned about taste: it was concerned about “quality, purity and fitness for consumption.” Analyzing the chemical qualities of each tea would be a prolonged task with the equipment of the time, and in the end, to pass the “fitness for consumption” criteria, it would still need to be tasted: thus the Board of Tea Experts, a group of men with finely-tuned tongues on the lookout for bad teas.

“Tea tasters, working in FDA offices around the country, examined every lot of imported tea, using standard teas selected by the Board for comparison,” the FDA writes. Tasting, like making a cuppa in general, had a ritualistic element: weighing the tea, brewing it, pouring it and tasting it. A 1965 photograph from Science Newsletter shows a taster, wearing a white lab coat, seated in front of a rotation tray of cups of tea, sipping a sample from a spoon. Beside him is a glass beakers full of presumably used spoons. It sounds like a peaceful existence.

But this peculiar office was perceived as an example of wasteful Big Government as far back as the Nixon administration, de Witt wrote. Their argument: Teamakers should self-regulate. At the time the office was closed, it employed a head tea taster, chemist Robert H. Dick, an assistant tea taster, Faith Lim, both based in Brooklyn, and two further tasters at the ports in Boston and San Francisco. Its total annual cost: $253,500, or about $400,000 in today’s money.

Various government officials had been trying to shut it down for around 20 years, but as most lawmakers can tell you, getting anything done in Washington can be difficult. It wasn’t until 1996 that the government passed the Federal Tea Tasters Repeal Act, which specifically addressed that portion of 1897’s Tea Importation Act. “Tea is the only food or beverage for which the [FDA] samples every lot upon entry for comparison to a standard recommended by a federal board,” the act read. “The Committee believes that there is no justification for tea being held to a higher federal standard on behalf of the tea industry, which should assume responsibility for the competitive quality of its products.”

Talk about a tempest in a teapot.  

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