When Uncle Sam Used to Taste Your Tea for You
See how the US government has a say in your cup of tea in the past
Today, the tea coming into USA doesn’t go through any sort of quality control, besides being examined by US customs. But for almost 100 years, from 1897 to 1996, all of the tea in the United States was a lot better tasting. For that period, the Tea Importation Act was in place, prohibiting tea that did not meet a certain level of quality.
And, someone had to verify that the tea met the standards of the law. So the government formed a Board of Tea Experts. This group of tea tasters had the job of tasting the tea shipped into the country, and deciding if it was worthy of American’s palates.
Tea actually may have been one of the first food items to be regulated by the US government. In the late 19th century, regulating food that was produced domestically would have required Congress to take broad reaches over interstate commerce. While we might take this kind of regulation for granted today, it took decades for states to allow such oversight. But tea was an import, so it was not subject to the same laws.
Congress’s efforts to control the importation of tea began in 1883. That year, they passed the first Tea Regulation Act. Importers were to submit samples of tea for inspection, and tea was held at warehouses after arriving in the US until it was approved. An importer could appeal a decision if their tea was rejected, but if the appeal failed the tea had to be re-exported within six months, or it would be destroyed. However, this first act seemed to have failed to keep adulterated tea or low quality tea out of the market as there were too many places where inspection was lax or non-existent.
The Tea Importation Act of 1897 repealed previous controls on tea importation, and built them again from the ground up. The Secretary of the Treasury was to create a standard for what tea could be brought into the US. The Secretary oversaw a board of seven expert tea tasters, the Board of Tea Experts. These tea experts would recommend guidelines to the Secretary of the Treasury concerning the quality of tea brought into the US. If an importer’s tea was rejected, and they decided to appeal the decision, a Board of Tea Appeals was created, consisting of an expert chosen by the importer, an expert chosen by the government, and an expert chosen by the two selected experts. Often, choosing the third expert could take up to a month, as this expert would usually break tied votes between the other two, and thus usually decide if the tea could be imported or not.
Further changes in the 1897 bill improved tea quality in the US. Now, inspectors, instead of importers, would draw samples for inspection. Importers, of course, were not satisfied with this stricter regulation. In 1904, attempts to repeal the bill went to the Supreme Court three times. In 1908, the act was amended to allow tea dust in specific circumstances. The idea was that dust would be cheaper than tea to extract caffeine and theanine for industrial and medical purposes. The Board of Tea Experts voted against this amendment, but H.A. Taylor, Acting Secretary of the Treasury at the time, allowed it anyway.
Board of Tea Experts (Photo courtesy of US FDA)
Eventually, the Tea Importation Act would fall. Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan were all in favor of repealing the act. But their attempts to dismantle it were largely ignored, as the act had little effect on budgets (it was a very cheap program). In the 1990s, Senator Harry Reid became the Act’s most vocal opponent. He reportedly said, “These tea-tasting people are just like lizards. You grab them and jerk something off and they are right back.”
It wasn’t until 1996 that the Act was fully repealed under the Federal Tea Tasters Repeal Act. This was the final death of the Tea Importation Act. Now, there are very few regulations on tea imports into the US, and the government is no longer tasting your tea.
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