Industry discusses Ceylon Tea’s ‘ExclusiviTea’

Friday, 3 February 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Cheranka Mendis

Sri Lanka, popular worldwide for the strong cup of Ceylon Tea it serves, will not take its prestigious position as one of the world’s most sought after brands of the highest quality lightly and will continue investing and researching in the field.

Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe yesterday delivering the keynote address at the Colombo International Tea Convention assured the industry in the presence of a global delegation that the Government’s commitment to the industry would not waver in the future and would only be strengthened to support the private sector to keep the flag flying high.

From left Tea Research Institute CEO Dr. Sarath Abeysinghe, Sunshine Holdings Group Managing Director Vish Govindasamy, Asia Siyaka CEO Anil Cooke, Sri Lanka Tea Board Director Promotion Hasitha De Alwis, Van Rees Ceylon Managing Director Niraj De Mel, Kelani Valley Plantation CEO Kavi Seneviratne and Colombo Tea Traders Association Chairman Jayantha Keragala“Quality does not come on to the table just like that,” Samarasinghe said. “We must work hard. We will keep on investing and offer our full assurance to support the growth of the industry.”

Admitting that the industry development had been driven by the private sector, the Minister offered facilitation and regulation activities when the industry needed intervention.

“The tea industry is private sector-driven. It is the most efficient way for future growth. The Government will regulate to ensure that interventions are made for the benefit of the private sector if and when necessary.”

“We have taken a policy decision to invest a significant amount of money and resources in dynamic marketing promotion internationally for tea. The fund has been established for close to one-and-a-half years and has collected a sizeable amount of money for this purpose.”

Currently the industry and the Government are in the process of finalising an international tender that will be floated very soon. “We will come up with a campaign or a series of different campaigns based on the requirement of the country,” Samarasinghe said. “Money will be on the table to showcase what is special about Ceylon Tea. It will be a dynamic marketing strategy.”

Moreover, at this campaign, the industry will not only promote Ceylon Tea but tea and its general benefits as well. “I have advised a committee to commence an accelerated research and development program to establish what is good about tea and the heath aspects of drinking tea, etc. It is known that green tea has a health aspect, but it has been found that black tea, for which we are popular, has the same properties. Such things must be promoted.”

Having proposed a producer-only forum at the inauguration of the FAO/IGG conference on Monday, Samarasinghe noted that it was important to share knowledge and establish synergies on common challenges to run a coordinated effort to overcome challenges.

“We must ensure the sustainability of tea and we should not compromise on quality. Many compromise on quality now due to competition, because they want to get a piece of the action since some markets are driven by prices. However, this is not sustainable. We need to understand the special liking of the consumer and give them a proper cup of tea. The Government is in the process of bringing into law a minimum preferred quality of 60% of bought leaves given to factories to ensure quality.”

He warned that compromising on quality could drive demand for other beverages such as coffee and that sooner rather than later, tea would have to take a step back.

Finding exclusivity for ‘ExclusiviTea’

Answering the question as to why Ceylon Tea is in fact ‘exclusive,’ Kelani Valley Plantation CEO Kavi Seneviratne stated that the wide set of qualities and hard work by the stakeholders coupled with inherent luck was what made it so special.

He noted that Ceylon Tea, the only ‘ozone friendly’ classified tea in the world and the cleanest, is exclusive due to a number of factors, which include both natural and geographical conditions and skills and expert practices of the people in the industry.

Key however is the special variation in agro climatic conditions, Seneviratne said. Tea is grown in elevations ranging from sea level close to the Indian Ocean to over 600 ft elevation in the central hills. These varying agro climatic conditions have contrasting weather patterns and varied soil types, which impacts different seasonal characteristics. “A major contributory factor in diversity is some of the temperature differences in the planting districts up country.”

He pointed out that on 17 January Nuwara Eliya recorded a 2.7 degree C temperature while in close proximity the temperature was five to 13 degrees C. “Even growing near each other, there is a significant variation.”

The variations reflected vividly in the annual tea production of 35 million kgs of tea manufactured across over 700 registered operational processing units.

The tasters’ expertise of choosing quality products is complemented by the highly-developed packaging industry in the country. He noted that the packaging industry’s innovative presentation and uniquely designed containers were second to none.

Apart from highlighting the virtues of a vibrant Colombo tea auction, Seneviratne noted that the exclusivity of Ceylon Tea at plantation level could be divided in to four categories – purity and food safety of products, ethical business practices, environmental protection and society and people.

The industry guarantees food safety and product purity by committing itself to internationally accepted food safety by the certification systems such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), ISO 22000, ISO 9000, British Retail Consortium (BRC) and adherence to stringent quality standards and conforming to European Union, Japan and other international maximum residue levels. This makes Ceylon Tea one of the cleanest products in the market.

He also related a host of other initiatives taken by plantations to deal with socioeconomic challenges.

“Ceylon Tea is not simply a product of an industry,” Seneviratne asserted. “It is one of the most exclusive food products in the world and has wide ranging influences which make it exclusive and cannot be duplicated by any other. The exclusive nature of Ceylon Tea is an inherited factor.”

Industry standard for Ceylon Tea

A number of standards and international compliances have been fostered upon not only Sri Lankan producers, but also upon producers globally, Van Rees Ceylon Limited Managing Director Niraj De Mel said.

Be that it may, Sri Lanka has many standards for tea. Exclusivity of Ceylon Tea is enhanced by many features with the industry standards, he commented. As a responsible producer, the primary objective is to give the consumer a product that will give him such confidence that he will always want the same.

The industry complies with ISO 3720, which is the international standard for tea. “As we have consistently maintained at each FAO/IGG sessions particularly since 2003, whatever tea is officially exported from Sri Lanka conforms to this standard. The Sri Lanka Tea Board strictly appoints this at the point of auctions and exports and acts as an assuring body.”

De Mel noted: “Ceylon Tea is a standard by itself because it is grown and produced in Sri Lanka. It is grown on our soil and subjected to weather conditions exclusive to Sri Lanka. This God-given product needs to be conserved, which was the reason for the Lion logo being established in 1966.”

At the early stages even though the intention was to increase the marketability of Ceylon Tea, many mistakes were made which benefited others. The symbol went through many changes but finally with the addition of the tagline ‘Symbol of Quality’ in 2000 that the logo gave protection and strength to Ceylon Tea. The new symbol is registered in over 100 countries as a trademark and the Sri Lanka Tea Board monitors its performance and use by Sri Lankan exporters, he said.

The CTTA has appointed a subcommittee in the recent past to look at coming up with an all-encompassing standard. “Truly though, enough is enough,” De Mel expressed, “Ideally we would not want to confuse the global consumer with another logo. So using the current 17-spotted lion, the plan is to assure the consumers that all standards are covered in a sophisticated version of the Lion logo.”

The tea is also governed by many labour standards, he said, adding that even though consumers as well as marketers were now asking producer countries to abide by many international laws governing ethical standards, Sri Lanka had covered this aspect almost five decades ago.

With global consumers becoming more educated, it is now apparent that they want more than just the taste, De Mel said. The industry looked at product quality in the process of manufacture with a view of assuring health conscious consumers. Under a joint SLTB-SLSI program, currently approximately 182 factories are certified or in the process of being certified.

Many factories are also following good manufacturing practices, which are covered by ISO 12597. “Today we have 54 ISO 9000 certified factories and 70 ISO 22000 certified, one ISO 14000 and many on the pipeline; 73 are HACCP-compliant.”

The industry is also participating in international compliances such as Fair Trade Certification, Ethical Tea Partnership and Rainforest Alliance. “There are 15 estates that are FLO certified and 150 that are Ethical Tea compliant. Rainforest Alliance has 46 certified, which includes 18 that are in the progress of getting certified.”

He noted that though much has been invested by the producer, the result is poor returns. To add to that, the country has been asked to fall in line with standards of individual importing countries, which have nothing to do with internationally-accepted standards. “We have done so much, but the return has been poor,” he said. “In the industry if one is to survive, they must look at profitably staying ahead.”

Exclusivity of Ceylon Tea based on scientific advancement

Tea Research Institute CEO Dr. Sarath Abeysinghe addressed the issue of exclusivity under three sub categories – exclusivity through diversity, purity and sustainability.

He said TRI’s breeding programs supports the ‘exclusivity’ of the tea trade. From the 1950s, TRI has been releasing various TRI series such as TRI 2000, 3000 and 4000 and 5000 to be released in two years. In the early days the concentration mainly was on yield, but over the years has incorporated aspects such as quality and pest resistance.

“We have developed a successful range of cultivar with character. While the previous cultivars were released on elevation, the to-be-released 5000 will released based on agro ecological regions.”

On global climate change and its effects on the industry, Abeysinghe noted that TRI was now looking at shifting agro climatic zones and innovation in drought prone areas as the conventional tea breeding process may not be sufficient. An alternative is now being formed from the seedling side, i.e. to create prototype seedlings without the conventional cultivar.

“With the new and improved seeds, we can include productivity as well as other quality.”

Another task at hand is to identify suitable varieties of the increasingly gaining popular green tea for exports as well as specialty teas such as silver teas to address the future markets and its needs, he said.

“Also, the conventional tea brewing program can use biotechnology to supplement the conventional tea brewing program. The issue is the time taken to release the cultivar, which takes approximately 25 years. Our approach is to use tissue culture to shorten the period. We have been successful in cutting down the program by six years.”

Abeysinghe stated that an integrated pest management program should be adopted. In the world, 50% pesticides are used to control pests he said, while in Sri Lanka the use is only 30%. Furthermore, he noted that Sri Lanka does not produce pesticides and has good control over such imports. “We have been using integrated pest management for a very long time and thanks to that are in a good position when taking into consideration the cleanliness of the tea.”

He also noted Sri Lanka was the first to produce a biological controller of pests by producing a special wasp that works for the said purpose.

“In Sri Lanka, carbon balance is positive in all elevations in the plantation; this would go on to indicate that Sri Lankan tea plantations have a nett absorption of carbon; that is, local plantations do not contribute to global warming,” Abeysinghe added.

Value of logos and geographical indications

Way before any other countries can take off, Sri Lanka – then Ceylon – launched origin branding with the Lion logo symbol many decades ago. Since the early 1960s, the Lion logo has been promoted linked to Ceylon Tea and is today registered in approximately 100 countries.

“Whether we like it or not, Coca Cola is the most popular beverage in the world and is rated as the third most valuable brand globally, behind retail giant Walmart and Google,” Sri Lanka Tea Board Director Promotion Hasitha De Alwis said. The only tea brand in the top league is the Lipton Yellow label. “Consumers are prone to remember successful brands on the retail shelf mostly through logos. As such in today’s world, most brands are inseparable from their logos.”

Claiming that the values of logos are incredible, De Alwis stated that currently successful mega brands were more powerful than the UN. He noted that research had indicated that brand value could amount to as much as one third of the entire value of global wealth.

“Whether tea or any other market, successful global brands are owned by rich nations. Out of the 100 most valuable brands, 61 are American, eight German, six British and another six are Japanese,” he said.

De Alwis recalled that Sri Lanka started the brand building concept of Ceylon Tea in the 1980s, which picked up momentum in the 1990s with the liberalisation of the former Soviet Union.

The ozone friendly status logo that Sri Lankan tea industry brand owners can now use in all their pure Ceylon Tea packs came about due to successful research after the Montreal Protocol. “The protocol agreed to protect the ozone layer in the atmosphere. TRI undertook successful research to find alternative methods to control this. Since 2002 the tea industry in Sri Lanka stopped using methyl bromide and by 2007 received the accolade of being the first-ever ozone friendly tea in the world.”

Speaking about Geographical Indications (GI), De Alwis explained that it was part and parcel of the traditions of a country and was extremely important to the country as it contributed to the reputation of a product and brought about goodwill among global consumers.

While the Lion logo is a trademark registered in almost 100 countries, the new GI logos will denote specific agro climatic regions of Nuwara Eliya, Uda Pussellawa, Uwa, Dimbulla, Kandy, Sabaragamuwa and Ruhuna. These regional names and logos are now registered in Sri Lanka as a certificate mark.

“Awareness must be created among consumers to look for the genuine Ceylon Tea and Lion logo symbol and that it is the most reliable guarantee of Ceylon Tea. Registration of the Ceylon Tea name and the agro climatic regional names will increase the protection of the good name of the Ceylon Tea and discourage the misuse of the Ceylon Tea name while using other origin names in offshore packaging by private label brands,” De Alwis acknowledged.

Pix by Upul Abayasekara