The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued an order at the end of January banning staples in tea bags. It will take effect on July 1. It is quite likely that the European Union will follow its lead in declaring them a risk hazard and require the use of knotted connectors for sealing tea bags and attaching the key convenience for consumers – the thread for dunking the tea and removing it from the cup.
The FSSAI’s main concern is that the staple can be accidentally ingested, through its becoming loose, a torn bag or other risks of being “consumed inadvertently.” It refers to “several” cases of severe health damage and the frequent complaints it receives about the staples. They are mostly made of galvanized iron and zinc that may be soluble in water. Metallic dust on them may be ingested and cause pulmonary harm. The staple impedes recycling and composting.
FSSAI first issued its order in late 2017, with a deadline of January 2018. The food operators, that include food courts, restaurant providers and distributors, gained a delay on the grounds of the cost and time needed to replace old machines, all of which must be imported.
The new machines use materials, including nylon, fiber and food grade plastic for the bag and non-heat and heat sealing, with the thread knotted, not stapled. Whereas a machine that is staple-only costs around $60,000, a top-of-the-line knotting tea bagging machine is $500,000. Used equipment is commonly imported. A German tea packing machine made in 1991 was listed in 2015 for more than $100,000. Knotted bags amount to an estimated 3-4 percent of the Indian market, with a high growth rate of 50-60 percent a year. The India Tea Association claims that the switch away from staples will increase overall manufacturing costs by 30-40 percent.
At one level, it is easy to dismiss the FSSAI order as knee-jerk regulatory alarm and bureaucratic overkill. The reported cases are not cited and do not seem in any way an incipient epidemic. Cynics might agree that the EU will follow India because it is ever on the alert for trivia to expand into working groups, negotiations, fiats and long, long lists of rules.
However, there is a strong case for action on behalf of public safety. The tea bag has been a focus of attention for a decade now, with beneficial impacts. The low-cost paper often contained traces of known carcinogens or used chlorine-bleached plastics with unstable chemistry and leaching risks. There has been a comprehensive improvement in every aspect of manufacturing here, supported by food safety certification standards, such as BRC (British Retailer Consortium), FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) and many others. These were initially driven by concerns about pesticides but now cover every aspect of safety, including packaging, shipments and labeling.
The sophistication of scientific methods across regulatory, customs and trade associations has led to ever more detailed analysis. Germany and Japan are perhaps the strongest players in sophistication and enforcement, tracking even the micro-level presence of contaminants that are intrusions from cargo ships. Regulators are addressing every issue of food safety and environmental impact. U.S. states are banning plastic straws. Many countries impose rules on disposable cups and utensils, recycling, and waste.
The staple is a natural target of focus in this context. It is after all a strange way to package an agricultural product whose primary claims are healthiness, freshness, organic/natural purity and the like. Why should it be served with a piece of metal embedded in it? Yes, the risk is very low for a single bag but multiply that by the three billion cups of tea consumed daily across the globe and maybe it’s not so trivial. In the U.S. and Europe, there are many consumers who query online services about the safety of the staple in making tea in a microwave. The answer is again that the individual risk is low but the staple should be below the surface of the liquid to avoid electrical arcs.
So, mock not. The staple and bubble tea straw are pointers to more regulation on the way. The EU won’t be opting for less. Japan won’t permit lax standards. U.S. states will range across the extremes of hands-off to California’s comprehensive and all-encompassing food safety legislation. Enforcement will be erratic and often ineffective, with entrepreneurial crooks at the ready to fake and smuggle.
Of course, one can always switch from tea bags to loose leaf tea.
Sources: FSSAI, India Tea Association, Hindustan Times, Business Standard.