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Tempest in a Teapot: Tea and Politics and Health

Board of Tea Experts

A set of four United States postage stamps illustrating the Boston Tea Party. Over a century after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, America passed its own Tea Act - not in protest against taxation, but to protect the tea trade itself from inferior teas reportedly being "dumped" in America. The law, passed in 1882, was amended in 1897 in the midst of America's "tea craze."

Five men sit around table drinking tea. In this amendment, Congress strengthened the Tea Act by establishing a national Board of Tea Experts to create uniform standards for imported tea. All tea would be evaluated for "quality," "purity," and "fitness for consumption." The Board met once a year to sample all tea varieties submitted for consideration as a standard tea each year. Tins of the chosen standard teas, one from each variety, were distributed to importers, dealers, and tea inspectors, and served as a uniform basis of comparison for judging a tea's quality.


U.S. Government Standard Black Tea tin. Minutes United States Board of Tea Experts Act of March 2, 1897 Volume II

In 1902, the Supreme Court in Buttfield v. Stranahan upheld the Tea Act's authority to outlaw the importation of substandard teas and set standards for tea quality.

This ruling galvanized the less scrupulous elements of the food industry in their opposition to a federal food and drugs act. Worried that food standards set by the government might outlaw certain controversial foods and ingredients, this group lobbied influential Senators. They succeeded in eliminating appropriations for food standards research and deleting standards provisions from the draft food and drug bill. Thus the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, which recognized the U.S. Pharmacopeia and the National Formulary as standards authorities for the nation's drug supply, provided no standards for foods. Federal food standards were not established until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act was replaced in 1938 with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Man pouring tea Although the Board's picturesque ritual frequently inspired photographers, photos alone could not capture the messy essence of the selection process. One taster fondly recalled, "the boiling kettles, the traditional tea cups and the sounds of slurping and spitting and other rude noises . . . within the chaos there was a sense of order."


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