Sri Lankan cinnamon faces threat from cheap rival

KOSGODA, Sri Lanka, March 12, 2006 (AFP) – Arabs and Europeans invaded Sri Lanka partly to control the island’s cinnamon trade, but centuries later the commodity is facing a new threat from a cheaper substitute.

Tropical Sri Lanka is better known for its aromatic black tea, but it is also the world’s top supplier of natural cinnamon, accounting for more than three quarters of the global market.

The cheap competitor is cassia, also known as “Chinese cinnamon” or “Bastard cinnamon,” is a look-alike and costs less than a fifth of the price of natural cinnamon which is grown here in abundance.

Cinnamon was the magnet which drew Arab traders and European colonists to the southern sea port of Galle, near here, to grab the island’s spice trade. Cinnamon goes into spicy dishes, pharmaceuticals as well as flavoured tea.

At a lush plantation in this southern Sri Lankan coastal village, a model factory processes the bark of cinnamon branches and turns out dried “quills” for overseas gourmet chefs, but the industry is threatened by cassia.

“The main problem we have today is that China, India and Indonesia sell cassia as cinnamon,” says Wijith Jayatilake, a fourth generation planter who runs the lucrative Dassanayake Walauwa Cinnamon Plantation here.

Industry officials say Sri Lanka wants to take up its case with the World Intellectual Property Organisation to protect natural cinnamon and make the distinction between the real macoy and the cheap cassia.

As an interim measure, the local cinnamon industry has managed to lobby customs authorities to accepting that cassia is not the same as cinnamon.

But, that a globally accepted customs harmonising system will allocate two distinctine “HS: numbers to cinnamon and cassia only from next year giving more time to local customs authorities to be adopt the separate classifications.

Jayatilake charges that some of the cassia producers mix real cinnamon to add flavour and dupe consumers world wide, but the test is simple.

The real cinnamon quills which look like large Havana cigars have several layers of thin cinnamon rolled inside, he says pointing to a 20-kilo bundle ready for export from his factory.

Botanically known as Cinnamomum Zeylanicum, the plant which is pruned at 10 to 20 feet, can be used for about 50 to 60 years chopping off branches to take their bark to dry in the shade and produce the cinnamon spice.

For centuries, cinnamon has shaped the Indian Ocean Island’s history. Dutch invaders started commercial crops in the 17th century. Before that, Sinhalese kings used cinnamon to pay mercenaries for protection.

Cinnamon was seen as better than gold in ancient Sri Lanka.

About 30,000 hectares of land is under cinnamon cultivation. Some 30,000 people are employed in chopping off cinnamon branches and turning out quills.

Sena Jayantha, 40, has been peeling cinnamon for the past 20 years and it is a craft he has learned from his parents. K. Ivan, 24, is also in the business keeping up a family tradition.

“It’s good money,” says Ivan, explaining that he earns up to 1,500 rupees (15 dollars) a day, which is three times what a casual labourer would earn in the country.

“It’s a specialised job,” explains Sena while gently removing the twigs and outer bark of a tree branch. “The quality of the end product depends on our skills.”

The industry is irked with the recent forceful entry of cassia into the spice market.

“Most people don’t taste the real cinnamon, they experience a dilute form of the spice, usually cassia,” explains Sarada de Silva, the president of the Sri Lanka Spice Council.

Cassia cinnamon, is another variety, produced on mass scale in Indonesia, India and China. Major food manufacturers use cassia because it’s five times cheaper.

Sri Lankan cinnamon is sold at 6.00 dollars a kilo of quills, while cassia sells at 1.80 dollars, de Silva said.

“You can’t compare the two, the flavours are poles apart,” says de Silva. “Cassia has a thick dark flavour, with an unrefined taste.”

Sri Lankan cinnamon comes in three qualities – Mexican, Hamburg and Continental. All tastes the same but judged depending on the diameter of the quills.

Cinnamon leaves are used to make oil and the spicy distinctive fragrance finds ready buyers in Europe.

Sri Lanka exported around 230 metric tones of cinnamon oil last year earning over three million dollars.

The oil also has medicinal qualities and can be used to treat toothaches, diabetes and stomach upsets, according to the industry.

Sri Lanka exported 12,000 tonnes of cinnamon last year and earned 14.3 million dollars, but the industry says the prices will be even better if not for cassia competition.

Nearly 70 percent of cinnamon is shipped in raw form as quills, to key South American markets like Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Chile where consumers dip a cinnamon stick to add flavour to their tea.