* Specialty teas fastest-growing segment of industry
* Traditional supermarket teas seen as recession-proof
By Marcy Nicholson
BOCA RATON, Florida, March 21 (Reuters) - Tea imports in the United States are projected to have climbed 7 percent last year compared to 2007, as people responded to the perceived health benefits of green tea, the Tea Association of the U.S.A. said on Saturday.
"Tea enjoys positive imagery regarding its contributions to health versus other beverages," said association president Joe Simrany, speaking at the annual convention of the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. in Florida.
U.S. tea imports in 2008 are projected to be around 257 million lbs (117 million kg), up from 240 million lbs (109 million kg) in 2007, Simrany said.
Imports of traditional tea -- black, white, green and oolong -- have been growing in volume at an annualized rate of 3 percent to 5 percent over the past decade, he said.
Simrany said he expects the growth to continue.
Specialty tea is the fastest-growing segment of the industry, as most of the big coffee houses have included a line of such teas, he said.
While growth in the high-end specialty tea segment may slow during the recession, Simrany said he views traditional tea that sells in supermarkets as recession-proof due to its lower price.
A prolonged economic downturn could drive even faster growth in this low-cost sector, he said.
"This is virtually just the tip of the iceberg. Packers are beginning to use a health message to sell," Simrany said.
The popularity of ready-to-drink tea beverages also has grown, and soft drink and water companies are becoming allies as they look to add tea to products, he said.
He sees ready-to-drink teas giving bottled water "a run for its money" as a hydrating drink that also has flavor.
The United States is the world’s seventh-biggest consumer of tea, behind China, India, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Japan and the United Kingdom, according to the association. (Reporting by Marcy Nicholson; Editing by Xavier Briand)