Protected Origin Status Granted to Darjeeling Tea

In October 2011 Darjeeling tea was granted Protected Origin Status by the European Commission on behalf of the Tea Board of India, the Darjeeling Tea Association and all of the tea growers in Darjeeling, India.

Due to the unique and complex combination of agroclimatic conditions (terroir) Darjeeling tea has a distinctive and naturally-occurring quality and flavor which is recognized by tea lovers around the world. The combination of factors give Darjeeling teas qualities that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Essentially, and briefly, this protection, which will ease in over a period of five years, will, when fully in effect, once and finally protect Darjeeling tea producers and their tea from the labeling abuses of others. This is great news for all involved in the business of producing Darjeeling tea, and it is great news for consumers, too.

(In order to be absolutely certain about the origin of our Darjeeling teas, we purchase these teas directly from respected sources in Darjeeling. Our teas are air-shipped directly to our shop with no other parties involved in-between).

Abuses by unscrupulous companies marketing non- Darjeeling tea ( tea grown in other parts of India or in other tea producing countries )  as authentic Darjeeling, or touting tea blends containing a below-minimal percentage of Darjeeling tea in the mix as authentic Darjeeling tea are well-known.

These shady practices have gone on for years with little recourse by the Tea Board of India to stop it. But the Tea Board has been moving up the ladder, one step at a time, over the past dozen or so years, ticking off a list of the requirements and paperwork necessary to build their case for protected status for Darjeeling tea. While I am sure that the amount of time that it took for this achievement to be fulfilled must have been daunting, and at times produced moments of great uncertainty and near loss of faith, the triumphant result has made it all worthwhile.

This is what the group Property Rights Alliance said about the necessity of such legal protections:  “An adequate legal protection is necessary for the protection of legitimate right holders of Darjeeling tea from the dishonest  business practices of various commercial entities. For instance, tea produced in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka or even Nepal has often been passed off around the world as ‘Darjeeling tea’.

Appropriate legal protection of this GI can go a long way in preventing  such misuse. Without adequate GI protection both in the domestic and international arena it would be difficult to prevent the misuse of Darjeeling Tea’s reputation, wherein tea produced elsewhere would also be sold under the Darjeeling brand, causing damage to consumers and denying the premium price to Darjeeling tea industry. The industry is now waking up to the fact that unless Darjeeling Tea is properly marketed and branded, the survival of the industry may be at stake and GI protection along with stringent enforcement can go a long way in helping the industry to improve its financial situation.”

The European Commission (DG AGRI) has operated three registrations for  agricultural product and foodstuffs worldwide since 1992:

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
Open to products produced, processed and prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features and characteristics attributable to that area.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI or GI)
Open to products produced or processed or prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features or qualities attributable to that area. The difference between PDO and PGI products is that the latter can receive that characterization as long as a certain stage of the production process takes place in the pre-determined region (whereas for PDO products, the entire production process must take place within the pre-determined region).
Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG)
Open to products that are traditional or have customary names, and have features that distinguish them from other similar products. These features need not be attributable to the geographical area the product is produced in, nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production.

When a food product is granted protection under one of these schemes, the producer is allowed to place a colorful logo on its product to  announces this distinction.

Hundreds of well-known and loved European products have received these protections. So when I shop for French Champagne, or French Roquefort Cheese, Italian Parma Ham or Basmati Rice from India, or many other products, I always support the products bearing one of the EC’s logos.

EU agricultural product quality policy
Quality is an issue for every farmer and consumer/buyer, whether dealing with commodities produced to basic standards or with the high-end quality products. EU farmers must build on high quality reputation to sustain competitiveness and profitability. EU law lays down stringent requirements guaranteeing the standards of all European or EU protected products. In addition, EU quality schemes identify products and foodstuffs farmed and produced to exacting specifications. Better product protection will ultimately result in better prices for the tea, better economic health of the industry, sustainable educational and health systems resulting in a better quality of life for the tea workers.

Protected product status for noteworthy tea is much more than a mere badge of vanity, or the trumpeting of self-promotion. Here are a few examples of what product protection offers both producer and consumer.

  • First: The certifying mark on packages of these teas is a value-added incentive recognized in the marketplace, that, along with other certifications such as organic, fair trade, etc, allow producers to obtain a fair price for their products and maintain a healthy share of market. These products provide support to a larger piece of their agricultural economy by casting a spotlight on that local industry, and this in turn protects the livelihood of local producers and workers.
  • Second: Value-added incentives have a great deal of customer appeal too, as these certificates offer reassurance to consumers that the product they are purchasing is the real deal, and that cheap ingredients or raw materials have not been used.  And, that the product has been made in a manner that is in accordance with the tradition of a specified place.
  • Third: Protected status is essential in combating counterfeit or copycat teas, as well as intentional or accidental  mis-labeling of tea on the wholesale or retail level.  As more and more tea producing countries move outside of their usual tea manufacturing methodologies and produce their versions of another country’s famous teas, the true origins of certain teas (white tea is a good example) will become confusing and murky for consumers to discern.

Darjeeling has been granted a PGI or GI, which is wonderful news for these growers. In fact, it is good news for the future of all producers of authentic, unique, terroir-specfic, teas who will, I hope, feel empowered by this judgement and follow the long road and apply for protected status for their teas, too.

China’s prized Longjing tea is the only other tea to receive a Protected Origin Status, and they were granted a PDO.

Darjeeling tea is the first PGI status product for the entire country of India. Italy, on the other hand, has dozens upon dozens of protected status food products in all categories from wine to olive oil to bread to legumes, etc. For example, Italy has:

  • 42 PDO’s and PGI’s for cheese alone, with 6 more pending
  • 43 PDO’s and 1 PGI for extra virgin olive oil from different geographic regions, with 4 more pending.

Products grown outside of the borders of the European Union have only recently been  able to qualify for this protection, so tea is new to this scheme. But I believe that it is crucial that tea boards and government agencies take the threat of copy-cat tea and mis-labeling abuses seriously.

I hope that the tea industry will learn from the Darjeeling example, and realize that their is something that can be done to protect unique tea. Just imagine how wonderful it will be someday to see a listing of teas protected with PDO and PGI status, and to know as a consumer that you are purchasing the real deal and indeed  supporting the workers whose livelihood you think you are supporting.