Allegations abounded on Wednesday during the soft launch of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) - Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) product certificate when SLTB Director General H.D. Hemaratne held up a sealed, clear and unlabelled package of tea which had stones easily visible in its contents; a situation he alleged was a result of a lack of certification in the tea industry.
This was compounded by allegations by Anselm Perera, owner of tea exporter Mlesna, who noted that there was a serious problem with Sri Lankan tea and who further alleged that, after his annual visit to Japan, he had brought back two kgs of 'muck' which was found in bulk tea exports to that country. Mr. Perera also alleged that, from the 640 estates operating locally, foreign contaminants were present in approximately 50% of their output.
Adding weight to Mr. Perera's assertion was an additional comment by Mr. Hemaratne that as recently as last week 5,000 kgs of tea had to be withdrawn from the local market due to the presence of foreign contaminants as well as with further allegations tht the totality of withdrawal in the domestic market was "massive" and numbered in the millions of rupees.
Additionally, Mr. Perera also alleged that, after tea has been bought in bulk, there had been extractions of a number of contaminants in tea his company had bought, including multi-coloured plastic bristles from brushes, plastic shavings from crates dragged across non-tiled factory floors as well as, in the course of one month, two kgs of steel particles.
These comments by Mr. Hemaratne and Mr. Perera prompted several statements by tea manufacturers in the audience which alleged that "only a handful" of manufacturers were responsible for this behaviour. Mr. Hemaratne also stated that manufacturers, when made aware of foreign contaminants in their domestic tea packs, had often alleged sabotage, which, in his opinion, was not always the case.
Meanwhile, the newly launched SLSI-SLTB product certification process has already received 21 applications. Costing Rs. 115,000 for the first year with a reduced amount in the following years to maintain the certificate, this product certification enables the tea's packaging to carry the "SLS" mark, which, according to SLSI Director General, Dr. L.N. Senaweera, is a local quality guarantee that has over its 30-years maintained equivalent international quality standards as laid out by its certifying body, RVA Netherlands.
The mark will further indicate to consumers that the tea it certifies has been tested, its history and processes documented, and that it will continue to be monitored to further reduce chemical, pesticide and biological contaminants as well as foreign objects in the tea. All of which would also be in keeping with the current international standard for black tea. ISO 3720.
In addition, according to Mr. Hemaratne, another benefit of certification for Sri Lankan tea exporters, a group which together accounted for 20% of global market share in tea, was that proper certification of tea exports could result in an easing of various non-tariff barriers for the industry.