On Contaminates & Pesticides in Tea

I promised to answer a question I received through an email (Sorry it has taken so long) on the blog, because it is an issue of concern to all of us. The person that wrote me had heard a lot about Chinese tea being contaminated with pesticides, lead, and other contaminates, and he wanted my take on the issue. This is as complex issue, as it is here in the US, and I wanted to explain some of the complexities in the Chinese and international market.

First of all I think that it is important to point out that the Chinese government is very supportive of organic products and have gone a long way to establish some pretty respectable standards for organics based on a European model. When I first started in the tea business I focused on organic green tea, and at the time there were only five internationally certified producers in all of China and only in green tea. Over the last five years there has been an explosion of organic certification going on in China. Tea is a natural product for this kind of certification because to a large extent it is produced in some of the more unpolluted areas of China, in mountainous areas away from cities, factories, and highways. It is also away from cotton farming, which is notorious for DDT and other airborne pesticides. The tea industry has been organics in China because it has been the easiest. That is of course the good news, but it is not as simple as having organic producers. There are a lot of tea makers in China and the organic producers are a some minority. It is not difficult to buy a fake certification at any wholesale market in China. The Chinese can certainly use Photoshop, and have been masters of forgery for many dynasties. (I have also seen tea with organic certification labeling in the US health food groceries, when I knew there was no tea of that type being made that had become certified.) The producers are not the problem. It is true that they will produce other teas made famous in other areas, but the problem largely comes from the people like me that are in the middle between the producers and the consumers. Like any business where there is a lot of money involved it is industry full of many ways to cheat consumers, and the tea industry has a long history not only in China, but everywhere tea is produced in the world, of deception. The English merchants were notorious for adulterating tea. It got so bad in the 18th century when a lot of green tea was sold in Europe, the use of copper compounds to turn the tea green, wiped out the green tea business in England and replaced it with black. Some Chinese middlemen were arrested and jailed for the very same thing in China a couple of years ago for coloring fake Bi Luo Chun. Of course it is not hard to figure out that all of the Long Jing being sold is not authentic and the there is not enough land in Darjeeling produce all of the tea sold by that name. It might surprise some of you to know that the majority of the tea sold in the US comes from South America and most of the tea sold in Europe comes from Africa. The environmental standard in both places are questionable, and despite all the talk about fair trade the conditions for workers are shameful. It is also important to understand the distribution channels for tea internationally. Never have producers had anything like direct access to the market. Just a few years ago in China, there were only a dozen or so companies were allowed to export anything. The best importers to dealing with the old Chinese export companies were German brokers. The German clearly defined the standards for the tea they would buy before it was produced and tasked the export companies with insuring that the producers met those standards. Still the best Chinese tea that comes into the US comes from German brokers. The Germans don’t get the best qualities tea but they know exactly what they are getting and they pay a fair market price for it. The other brokers from Europe, the US, and India focus on one aspect of the market, price. When only price is the issue, really anything is possible. The Chinese government, worried about the reputation of tea being exported inspects tea being exported and rejects a lot of tea for export. Still it seems like a token effort. Last year the EU raised the standards for tea being imported and rejected a lot of Chinese tea. Now Chinese producers are racing to meet the new EU standards. It is hard to believe that India and Africa met these standards. There is a quite trade war going on with tea. The demand for higher quality tea, and greater variety, especially green tea, has slammed the markets in India. Africa, and South America, that produce only black tea of questionable quality. The plantation model set up by the East India Company, the first multi national corporation has been in collapse for a while, unable to compete for price with the cheaper labor in Africa and South America. Except for the Germans, and a few independent brokers from other countries, the major international distribution channels are controlled by the Indians that inherited them from the English. So what does all mean to you? I think once tea enters into those established channels all bets are off. Tea is blended and shuffles around. If you go down to the store and pick up a box of tea, no telling where it came from. The was a women a couple of years ago that sued one of the major companies with a new age reputation when she found that there was DDT in her green tea, and as she dug deeper found out that the origin was South America. In a polluted world what can we do? I don’t want to sound like a messenger of doom, but I think we are all becoming aware of how connected we are in our small environment. (Ever gone into the no smoking section of a place that allowed smoking?) I asked a Chinese grower one time about how they grew tea in the days before pesticides, and he told me that in those days there were more birds. So what can we do? Ask a lot of questions, the more questions consumers ask about what they buy the more pressure there is to be able to answer those questions with better practices. Of course, organics and quality teas cost more. It is a hard issue with tea, because the focus has been on price since the East India Company made tea into a commodity.