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Tea Supply During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Resilient but Challenging Landscape

By Karen Raterman

Botanical ingredients are used in a variety of different products beyond dietary supplements and herbal extracts, and each market segment has faced specific supply chain challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) industry is a case in point. Like suppliers of botanical dietary ingredients (including herbal extracts), tea ingredient suppliers also provide high-quality, dried botanicals from producers around the world. And just like in the supplement category, suppliers, brand manufacturers, and private-label packers of tea ingredients have confronted many challenges in 2020, including unpredictable demand and disrupted supply channels.

The tea plant is the source of one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, second only to packaged water.1 Because large processors tend to hold significant inventory volumes to guard against, for example, a plant harvest failure, many suppliers had about a year’s worth of inventory to meet the early spikes in demand, noted Richard Enticott, president of Boulder, Colorado-based Meridian Trading Company, which imports bulk ingredients for retail tea companies, private-label packers, and multinational coffee (Coffea spp., Rubiaceae) chains, like Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, which also sell tea (oral communication, November 18, 2020).

But the tea segment did experience uncertainty. Early in the pandemic, retail outlets like Starbucks closed, Enticott noted. However, the good news for the tea space, he said, “is that fruit and herbal tea consumption mostly happens at home. What we saw early after the March lockdown was good for business.” There was some panic buying early on, he added. “Whether it was toilet paper or tea, people felt the need to stock up.”

After about two months of pulling inventory forward to meet demand, Enticott said, the concern became that people would realize there would not be tea shortages and so they would drink their existing supply rather than buying more. “But that is not what we saw,” he said. “People were drinking more tea than ever, even in the summer months, which are not typically big for tea consumption.”

As of late November (at the time of this writing), Enticott does expect to see another spike in demand as parts of Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, announced new lockdowns. “These are significantly larger markets for tea than the US, so we expect demand will go up. Plus, the winter months are traditionally heavy demand months for tea.”

Because larger processors maintain about a year’s supply in case of localized weather issues or crop failures, high-volume tea ingredients (e.g., medicinal herbs and botanicals used for flavoring) experienced few shortages. The impact of the early spike was greater on wild botanicals that rely on people to collect them. For example, Enticott explained, the harvest season for rosehips (Rosa canina, Rosaceae) in Chile is in February and March. “So, the trouble there is if you don’t get them off the plant in time, they fall off and spoil. It is the same in the Balkan states, where a lot of medicinal botanicals come from. Getting people organized to do the collections has been the big problem,” he said.

Looking ahead, the botanical tea supply may become more problematic, with continued high demand and less inventory buffer now available, Enticott predicted. “Growing [herbs] to produce industrial tea cannot be done overnight, so I expect we will see a very challenging 2021.”

Other botanicals may also experience supply shortages, such as echinacea (Echinacea spp., Asteraceae), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus, Poaceae), tulsi (Ocimum spp., Lamiaceae), and ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae), some of which are already in high demand and popular during the cold and flu season, Enticott noted.

While the tea industry has been resilient through previous crises, including economic downturns, Enticott believes there are some takeaways from 2020. “We do see companies making longer-term commitments to safeguard supply — not just because of COVID, but climate change, which is an even bigger threat.”

Just changing suppliers, however, is not always a practical option. The tea industry is very sensory based, Enticott noted. “In the tea category, taste is important, so if you are used to chamomile [Matricaria recutita, Asteraceae] from Mexico, it would be very difficult to accept chamomile from somewhere else and accept that difference in quality and taste.”

With some exceptions, the tea segment has been fortunate in its continuity of supply during the pandemic and has managed to satisfy the sharp increase in retail demand for tea in 2020, which is correlated with COVID-19. The initial panic about expected supply chain interruption has helped many tea companies better appreciate that they would not have a business without farmers and processors, Enticott noted. After years of having a “just-in-time” approach to deliveries, companies in the segment are recognizing the value of maintaining larger inventories of botanical ingredients.

Historically, companies that have been successful in the tea space have used marketing, storytelling, and packaging to increase the perceived value of the raw materials they use, Enticott explained. “I think they are realizing the best stories in the current market environment are the true ones about origins, farming communities, and the countless people involved in bringing these ingredients to market,” he said.

Reference

  1. Bolton D. Tea consumption second only to packaged water. World Tea News. May 1, 2018. Available at: https://worldteanews.com/tea-industry-news-and-features/tea-consumption-second-only-to-packaged-water. Accessed November 18, 2020.
References