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Storm in a tea cup ends: It’s not food

New Delhi, Nov. 11: For some people, it’s more essential than essential.

A cuppa in the morning, a steaming pot over breakfast, in plastic cups at work. Black or with milk, sugar or no sugar — it’s a drink that makes your day.

But certainly not your body, feels the country’s highest court.

In a ruling that’s bound to make tea addicts immediately reach for a cup, the Supreme Court today dismissed the beverage as a “mere stimulant” which could not be included in the category of essential foodstuff.

“Tea is not taken for the purpose of nourishment and therefore cannot be included in the term ‘food’,” Justice R.C. Lahoti, one of the two judges on the bench, said. “Tea,” he added, “neither nourishes the body nor sustains or promotes its growth.”

The court quashed provisions of a 26-year-old Tamil Nadu government order that had declared tea as an essential foodstuff. It said as the central government in 1972 had delegated power to the state to issue orders under the Essential Commodities Act, 1952, tea could not be included as the delegation specifically concerned foodstuff.

While giving their verdict, Justices Lahoti and Ashok Bhan set aside a Madras High Court order. The high court’s point was “many a poor man who live under the poverty line take a cup of tea more as a food as it keeps them active for some time and enabled them to work”.

Disagreeing with this view, the apex court said: “It is a wrong assumption to say that many a poor man in the country take a cup of tea more as a food. The high court has confused a mere stimulant with an article of food or foodstuff.”

Although Bengal is another state where anytime is tea time, the beverage is not listed an essential commodity. The state contributes about 200 million kg to the production basket.

Justice Lahoti said that by a notification dated February 1978, the central government has declared the commodity “tea” to be an essential commodity. “But then there was no delegation of powers by the central government under Section 5 of the Essential Commodities Act in relation to tea,” he said.

The bench said whether solid or liquid, the substance called “food” should possess the quality to maintain life and its growth and must have nutritive or nourishing value to enable the growth, repair and maintenance of the body.

Citing the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, the judges said coffee and tea, by themselves, were of no nutritive value, except that coffee contained some niacin and tea fluoride and manganese, but they could be a vehicle for intakes of sugar, milk or lemon.

“In common parlance, any one who has taken tea would not say that he has taken or eaten food. Thus tea is not food. It is not understood as ‘food’ or ‘foodstuff’ either in common parlance or by the opinion of lexicographers,” Justice Lahoti said.

C.K. Dhanuka, the chairman of the Indian Tea Association, said the verdict would not affect the industry. “Initially, after getting the Supreme Court order, we thought that we will not be able to protect the quality of tea under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act,” he said.

“But we have checked with the concerned authority and found out that anything which goes inside the human body in the form of solid or liquid can be protected under the PFA Act.” However, the association will seek legal opinion on the matter, Dhanuka said.

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