Insight: U.S. Organic Tea Imports

The volume of tea imports has declined since 2013 following a sharp rise, dropping in 2016 to a figure below the five year average – but the declared value of tea imports continues to increase.

The Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS) maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Foreign Agriculture Service) tracks tea (except herbals) by value and quantity.

In the past five years, the U.S. has imported an average 212,815,262 kilos (470 million pounds) of tea per year. In 2016, the total declined 1% to 211,814,264 kilos. During this same period, the value of tea imports rose 5% continuing a steady climb from $642 million in 2011 to $759.5 million in 2016. In general, the price of tea has been steady on world markets the past five years, suggesting that the United States is importing more expensive tea.

One indication of that is the increase in organic tea imports, which today represent about 5% of total tea imports by value. GATS tracks four categories of organic tea, three green teas and a black fermented tea category. The data largely ignore bulk imports of black tea as very little is certified organic. Specialty black teas such as those from Darjeeling are usually imported in smaller quantities by air and may not be included in the import totals.

The value of organic flavored green teas (such as jasmine) increased 24% in 2016 to $2.3 million compared to 2015. Values in this category have risen sharply from $632,000 in 2011. The reported value of nonflavored green tea, typically used for blending, increased slightly from $15.3 to $15.5 million in 2016. The total value of all organic green tea, as reported by GATS, was $26 million versus $13.5 million for organic black teas. The value of organic tea imports, overall, increased by 5% last year to $39.6 million.

“Growing environmental concerns, rising health concerns and increasing instances of food adulteration are driving demand in the United States organic tea & coffee market according to the TechSci report United States Organic Tea & Coffee Market released last week. TechSci researchers predict a combined annual growth rate of 13% for organic tea and coffee during the forecast period 2017–2022.

Origins

China is now the world’s largest supplier of organic green tea and that is true in the U.S. where imports of organic certified Chinese green teas were valued at $12.3 million. China shipped $13.7 million worth of organic tea to the U.S. last year. Total U.S. imports from China were valued at $152 million last year, up 7% compared to 2015. The value of Chinese tea has increased from $114.5 million in 2011. China exported 1,500 metric tons of organic green tea to the U.S. in 2016 accounting for 67% of total organic green tea imports. Japan is a distant second, shipping 16.5% of organic green tea imports.

In the smaller category of black fermented tea, which includes puer and dark tea, China has seen a significant 50% increase in value over 2015 to $1.38 million last year. The value of these imported teas has increased nearly fourfold from $385,000 in 2011.

The GATS database reveals another trend. The value and volume of unflavored organic green tea declined 8% while more expensive flavored green teas jumped 77% from $452,000 to $802,000, up from $236,000 in 2011. The volume of flavored organic green tea imports from China last year rose 27% to 57 metric tons as quantities of organic bulk green tea declined 13% compared to 2015.

Black Tea

The International Tea Committee compiles monthly statistics submitted by tea boards and government agencies in various producing countries. The latest report, showing imports by country of origin, indicate China is now the third-largest supplier of black tea to the U.S. Last year, China exported 9,486 metric tons of black tea to the U.S., nearly double the 4,623 metric tons shipped by Sri Lanka and closing the gap with India, which has been the nation’s second-largest supplier for many years at 11,967 metric tons. Argentina continues to dominate the black tea category sending 48,886 metric tons to the U.S. in 2016, most of which was for iced teas.

The ITC has not released final numbers but a cumulative 12-month total through November indicates imports may have crossed an important threshold. The 2016 total of 120,074 metric tons was ahead of 2015 when ITC reported 119,638 metric tons. This means the U.S. has possibly passed Pakistan as the second largest tea importer. ITC has thus far tallied 104,110 metric tons of black tea and 15,964 metric tons of green tea. An update will follow when the final numbers are available.

Tea is a tiny fraction of agricultural imports into the U.S., which totaled $9.7 billion in December. The value of an entire year of tea imports is less than 0.01% of the estimated value of food imported by the U.S. in a single month.

Source: USDA GATS