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Britain confronts fears of a (gasp!) tea shortage

February 15, 2024

For a country of morning-and-night tea drinkers, even the suggestion of a shortage of the household staple can elicit a nervous gulp.

So there might have been more than a few people spooked when signs in some Sainsbury’s grocery stores this week warned customers that supply issues had affected the “nationwide” availability of black tea, as Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea caused shipping delays, reports The New York Times.

Yorkshire Tea and Tetley Tea, two of the most popular tea companies in Britain, said in statements that they were monitoring the situation to ensure they could maintain supplies of black tea, but that orders were being fulfilled.

“This is a critical period, which requires our constant attention,” Tetley said in a statement. It said that it had implemented measures in recent months to mitigate any disruption to supplies because of shipping issues.

Tom Holder, a spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium—which represents more than 200 retailers in Britain—said that the Red Sea attacks had led to some delays, but that he did not expect them to last long.

“It’s a blip,” Holder said, adding that he expected companies to adjust their orders to account for the lengthened shipping times. He said shortages had probably been exacerbated by people panic-buying tea, somewhat like the toilet paper shortages at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Retailers assured customers that stores currently had plentiful supplies. Sharon Hall, the chief executive of the U.K. Tea and Infusions Association, which represents tea businesses selling in the country, said that they had “good stocks of tea.”

Still, thoughts of the teatime break at risk caused a stir.

“Brits left ‘genuinely distraught’ by prospect of tea shortages,” a headline in The Daily Mail read. “‘Keep calm’ scream shoppers as major supermarket warns of tea shortage,” another in The Sun said.

Britons drink about 100 million cups of tea each day, according to the U.K. Tea and Infusions Association. The largest share of tea imports to Britain from outside the European Union comes from sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Asia and Oceania, according to Statista, a market research provider.

Eirann Carney, 23, a shopper in London who was stocking up on Wednesday for her workplace, said that tea, to her, was “like a polite addiction.” She had not heard the reports about the potential shortage, she said, and the shelves before her had a relatively full variety of tea boxes.

If an actual shortage of tea hit? “In my office, it would be outrage,” she said. “Honestly I think people wouldn’t go in.”

Tea has long been intertwined with British identity and trade. The beverage arrived in Britain in the mid-1600s after Dutch traders began importing it to Europe from China. Expensive to buy at the time, it became a trendy drink among the wealthy in Britain—eventually spreading more widely to coffeehouses in the nation and then to supermarket shelves.

Today, people in Britain drink slightly more coffee than tea, according to a recent study, but tea is still considered a core part of the country’s culture. Even how the drink should be prepared caused a trans-Atlantic bristle recently, after an American chemistry professor suggested adding a pinch of salt when brewing a cup. (The United States Embassy in London, tongue in cheek, called it an “unthinkable notion.”)

Research contact: @nytimes