''WE WANTED TO CONDUCT THIS TEST SECRETLY"
It was last February that the story of 53 tea factories, which allegedly adulterate tea with sugar during production, was revealed. The raids on these tea factories had been carried out by the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB). The Minister of Plantation Industries of Sri Lanka Navin Dissanayake said that any culprits found guilty would be punished severely. This was revealed through ‘Sathya Gaveshana’ ( Exploration into the truth) an expos article which appeared in our sister newspaper ..Lankadeepa. But, the SLTB has to now check whether it adhered to the proper procedures when doing its research. When it comes to regulations relevant to the tea industry, why does the SLTB, being the legal authority, become so powerless? This week’s exploration is about the much talked about story in the tea industry.
This investigation, that was done under the leadership of the former SLTB Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda, is the first of its kind in the history of Sri Lanka tea. However, he retired from service one month after this investigation; termed as High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The position he vacated was filled by Lusil Wijewardena, no stranger to the tea industry. He was entrusted with the task of taking action against the allegations levelled against the 53 tea factories. But there emerged another problem because the alleged factory owners’ stand was that they aren’t guilty.
Minister Dissanayake said no quick decisions could be made and it would take about three months before arriving at a conclusion
They have taken steps to challenge the investigation, said to have been done in keeping with a pure scientific method. The minister in charge later afforded an opportunity to the factory owners to express their views. Accordingly, the minister had a discussion on March 29 with the these tea factory owners and the officers of the SLTB. As a result, these factory owners got the opportunity to express their views in writing. But the SLTB encountered an unexpected situation; they had to verify the outcome of the investigation they had already carried out.
In the meantime Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti made a written request to Minister Dissanayake to publish the relevant list of factory owners alleged to have adulterated the tea during manufacturing. His request was to reveal at least the names of 27 factory owners among the 80 factories who have produced tea by reasonable means. When inquired by journalists, a senior officer of the SLTB said that it was not possible to reveal the names of those concerned because no final decision had been arrived at thus far.
However, Pethiyagoda, who was in the forefront of this investigation, is no more with the SLTB. The tea board does not seem to be interested in the relevant research methodology as well. When journalists made inquiries in this regard, Minister Dissanayake said no quick decisions could be made and it would take about three months before arriving at a conclusion. This scenario highlights a negative aspect associated with the tea board. The SLTB has a research institute as well and should be in a position to take responsibility with whatever activities it carries out. The counter allegations made by these factory owners have been aimed at distorting the truth. If this is how the SLTB takes responsibility it’s no shock to see that ‘Ceylon tea’ has become a subject of controversy.
When it comes to the tea industry there are many processes which are connected to it. For instance a number of activities such as tea production, export, brokerage, import and packing are involved in the tea industry. In the event of stemming a defect associated with any process, it is inevitable that the entire tea industry will be affected adversely. Given the present crisis it seems that contributions have been made by the tea plucker to the labourer to intensify the problem in the tea industry. The Tea Small Holders’ Association claims that it is dumped in a chaotic situation when there is a tug-of-war between the SLTB and the tea factory owners. According to them, the main reason for this competition in the market is that despite there being an increase in the number of tea factories it has not been in proportion with the production which has remained low. In reality it is the tea small holders who are in danger because they have to see to the welfare of 2 million dependents. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the authorities to take note of their grievances.
There are various differences of opinion among the business community and the groups who are connected to this industry. These differences were highlighted in the media. However much of these differences are associated with wrong opinions, which have led to arguments. The best example for this is the tea board of neighbouring India. The Tea Board of India (TBI) acts as a facilitator to help people identify real tea from the tea that has been adulterated with colouring. In this aspect the TBI adheres to a rigid policy. Various strategies have been introduced to identify the real products. These strategies not only help the consumer to avoid buying bogus products but also assists the authorities to nab the culprits. They publish newspaper advertisements in this regard. India in comparison to Sri Lanka reveals the truth about the team that’s produced in her country. India makes it a point to make it known to consumers that the future of a tea brand depends solely on honesty and trustworthiness.
It was last year that the tea industry in Sri Lanka celebrated its 150th Anniversary. But, the negative news about the defects in the island’s tea has spoiled the anniversary celebrations. Sri Lanka should not forget that it is facing a challenging situation when other players in the tea market like Kenya and India are doing well. Sri Lankan tea is bought by countries like Russia, Iraq and Iran. It is not very healthy for the SLTB to take such an irresponsible stand because there are so many dependents. It should reveal the truth about the wrong doing of the factory or otherwise accept defeat. If this isn’t done it is the ‘Ceylon Tea’ brand name that’ll suffer because as of now the country’s tea is termed ‘impure’. This is a time when the entire tea industry must remember that old Sinhalese saying, ‘an act of washing clothes and dipping them again in muddy waters’.
‘Cultivators are in trouble’ - Kularatna
Association of All Ceylon Tea Development Small Tea Estates Alliance Chairman K.L. Kularatna said that tea is presented to the world saying it’s ‘Pure Ceylon Tea’. “It will damage to the reputation of tea. This is an industry which paves the way to earn the living of 2 million people. There may be only six hundred factory owners. They are engaged in unnecessary competition to earn profits. Now they have a harvest of about three to four hundred kilos from each acre.
This is not sufficient. Factories are increased while the production of tea is going down. Then the tender leaves are not sufficient to meet the capacity of the factory. Then they make various methods to increase production. Small tea owners are doing this for their living. We are in trouble due to the work of this small group. Most of the investors are local people who have invested more money on this tea industry.Tea factory owners can change this business, but we can’t do it. We are experiencing a major crisis.
“We wanted to conduct this test secretly”
The following are excerpts of an interview done with the former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tea Board Rohan Pethiyagoda.
Q What sort of test was conducted by SLTB in connection with blending tea with sugar?
The issue of tea being mixed with sugar has been prevalent for sometime. I thought of a new method to verify the truth of this charge in a quick way without waiting for the processing of the black tea. Various properties of sugar are subject to several chemical changes during heating. Any difference detected in the tea leaves during the process of drying, after grinding, proves that the tea has been mixed with sugar. But some were of the view that this test could be done only with black tea and it didn’t surface in the mind of anyone that this test could be easily done at the factory premises. When tea leaves are put in water before they are put in the oven at the factory, the tea begins to dilute and will taste sweet, if sugar has been added. This is a simple and easy method of testing whether there is sugar in tea.
Q But the alleged factory owners maintain that sugar, to a certain degree, is an inherent property of tea itself. How do you explain this view?
It’s true that sugar is naturally found in tea leaves and also in other kinds of leaves. But this sugar is present in fructose form and includes glucose and sucrose. This is less than one percent of the sugar which is produced by the leaf itself. However there is no possibility of increasing this minute degree of sugar during the drying and grinding stages.
We deployed them in groups of two according to the list of factories. Instructions were given to take samples and transport them in cabs while keeping the mobile phones off. What was happening was not known to them - Rohan Pethiyagoda
Q There is another allegation that this test has been conducted without the direct involvement of SLTB.Your comments.
We wanted to conduct this test secretly. We didn’t even use the SLTB’s vehicles as drivers would come to know about our task. This would have made the factory staff take every precaution to stop their misconducts. I made arrangements to bring the relevant officers to the auditorium of the Tea Research Institute in Kottawa, Galle by inviting them to a so-called farewell party on my retirement from the SLTB.
We deployed them in groups of two according to the list of factories. Instructions were given to take samples and transport them in cabs while keeping the mobile phones off. What was happening was not known to them.
If they had known about our purpose their abuses in the processing of tea would not have been detected.
Q Why is sugar added in the processing of tea?
Ferrous sulfate, potassium permanganate, sodium hydroxide and sugar are added to give a black colour to the tea. Black tea is expensive and Arabian countries prefer this type of tea. Normally processed tea is grayish in colour. The other thing is that sugar helps in the process of fine grinding. The third factor is the weight. A kilo of sugar costs only Rs.100 while a kilo of tea is Rs 600-700.
Q Some accept that they mix sugar with tea and also argue that there is no harm in this blending process.
A scientist at the Tea Research Institute (TRI) in 1971 prescribed as acceptable a small amount of sugar to be mixed with the tea. This was included in a research paper. However some factory owners have taken it as a recommendation of the TRI. There are easy and profitable ways of manufacturing tea. But it should comply with the legal requirements.We assure the quality of our tea when dealing with the international market. If the real sate of our tea is revealed it will badly affect the produce from Sri Lanka. Other main exporters like India and Kenya follow strict procedures in the operating of their tea industries.
The mixed tea tends to develop a certain fungus three months after the tea auctions and becomes unsalable. These factory owners should realise that they are causing a bad global impression when they do this to our tea.
Q TRI is preparing to do a review of this particular test. Do you agree to such a review?
For our tests we brought down samples of withered tea leaves and leaves of the later stages to Colombo. These samples were brought by the tea inspectors employed under the Commissioner of Tea. They were sealed and signed samples and were also given to the factory owners to avoid any possible disputes.Therefore the allegation of blending tea in Colombo is not true. There was transparency when these tests were done. If there is any suspicion a sample could be retested.
Private Tea Factory Owners’ Association behind issue
Following are excerpts of an interview done with a factory owner who is shrouded in allegations.
Q What happened really?
That is the general methodology used by SLTB. We are harassed first and then slapped with a fine of Rs.50,000 or 100,000. The factory owners pay the fine because they can’t bear the oppression. The SLTB is an institution where bureaucracy reigns supreme. The main question is whether they have done this to stop the malpractices in the tea industry or whether their aim is to be in the good books of the Minister. Even the officers of the SLTB aren’t aware of this methodology. Opinion is divided within the SLTB itself.
Q But, hasn’t it been proved that tea is adulterated with sugar?
The sugar level in the tea may fluctuate due to the climate, fertilizer and manner in which tea leaves are plucked. It is practically difficult to prepare a baseline. On the other hand, the chemical composition in tea differs from the places where the leaves are plucked. Tea leaves are put into the dryer after 2 hours of withering and rolling. No recent study has been done in this regard. The SLTB proved that the glucose content is more in the rolled leaf than in the withered one. These claims aren’t scientific because the carbohydrate content increases as soon as the leaf is put in the roller. The HPLC methodology is only a reading.
The SLTB should get involved in this and find out what’s happening. There is a big problem of labour in Sri Lanka - A factory owner
Q More or less, sugar in the tea may appear as fructose and glucose whereas there may be a slight presence of sucrose. Do you support the argument that there is no reason to increase the natural sugar content while drying and grinding tea leaf?
That is wrong. There is ample evidence of research to prove it. This person who is making this claim has no knowledge about botany. If that is so, this person should do a research and prove it. Really, the former chairman wanted to show that he is a big shot.
Q Do you accept the suggestion that the sealed tea sample test can dispel doubts?
That is useless. For instance the average value of blood samples should be known to see whether there is dengue. Comparisons are done like that. Here, there is no average value to be compared. What are here are his dimensions. That is not a definition.
Q Are there people who adulterate tea with sugar?
Yes. We have to find out why do they do so? The quality of the Sri Lanka tea is gradually declining. The SLTB should get involved in this and find out what’s happening. There is a big problem of labour in Sri Lanka. The people in the past plucked tea leaf every five days. Later these figures changed from seven to ten days. If mature leaf is adulterated with sugar then it will become wet. When we get 25 kgs. of plucked tea leaves by paying 6 dollars, the countries like Kenya pay 1 dollar and get 60 kgs of plucked leaves. It is useless boasting about ‘Ceylon Tea’ without having a means to survive.
The SLTB is an institution where bureaucracy reigns supreme. The main question is whether they have done this to stop the malpractices in the tea industry or whether their aim is to be in the good books of the Minister. - A factory owner
Q Do you say that there is no problem in mixing tea with sugar?
Really, there is no problem. Even though sugar is mixed, it will not remain as we boil the tea in a high temperature. For instance, this is not an act similar to mixing brick dust with chili powder. On the other hand, all types of chemicals are sprayed in the growing process until the tea leaves are brought to the factory after plucking. If there is nothing like that there is no need for the tea board to intervene. It is the ‘Brahman’ caste or the Private Tea Factory Owners’ Association which is behind this. In the chairman’s factory, 15,000 kgs of tea is not produced per month. Their factories are closing down on a daily basis. They who are unable to face the competition and are trying to close the biggest factories in Sri Lanka.
Q What did you demand from Prime Minister?
To start a scholarly discussion including the tea board and factory owners. We also asked to conduct a research with the Tea Research Institute. Now there are bogus tea plants all over Sri Lanka. The Tea Board must be committed to start genuine tea nurseries. But, they do not address these real problems.
‘It is baseless to make allegations’ - Ranasinghe
Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owners Association Chairman Harith Ranasinghe said that if sugar is mixed with tea, the weight and color change resulting in extra profits. “Then they can overcome others. Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owners Association is not going behind anyone. The Minister was informed in one voice by the Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owners Association to inquire into this as it is a disgrace to the name of Sri Lanka Tea, if such a things are happening,” he said.
‘Methodology needs to be examined’ - Edirisinghe
Tea Commissioner E.A.J.K Edirisinghe said that all 53 factories have already submitted reports on the production process of their factories. They are now being studied by the Tea Board. Their main concern is about the methodology applied by the Tea Board in the testing process. Therefore we are now reviewing our testing methodology.