The Safety of Chinese Teas

Recently I sent out a newsletter that had a picture of puer being fermented. Someone sent me an email that said that the photo was not appropriate for people who were already afraid about the safety of Chinese products.

I can understand why that might be a perception commonly held. There have been some well-publicized scandals about lead paint in toys, and unsafe dog food. In relationship to tea there is David Lee Hoffman in his nineteenth century Christian missionary garb sniffing out chemicals in bags of tea like some bomb sniffing dog, implying that the tea is safe if it is sold by his company. The ‘tea documentary’ even had a scene of a crop duster spraying toxic chemicals on an implied tea garden.  Can you imagine a bi-plane flying thought the misty, cloud covered Chinese mountains, while Mr. Hoffman explains worm excrement to farmers whose ancestors invented organic farming and crop rotation thousands of years ago? The truth is that Chinese tea — if it is exported legally — can be trusted to a degree that no tea from any other country can claim.  I know that is a staggering statement, so let’s examine it a bit.

In 2008, China passed some very strict laws involving the export of tea. I wrote about this development earlier in the year. The World Tea News, however, did not publish it because they could not verify the information in my press release, even though I supplied them with sources to contact in China who spoke English. The laws are complicated (they are Chinese laws after all) but here it is in a nutshell: For any tea to be legally exported it must be inspected, this part of the law was not new, but the inspection has become a lot more stringent. You must be a registered and licensed company in order to present tea for inspection, and the tea must come from a registered and licensed tea base. In order for a tea base to be registered the producer must submit detailed documentation to the Department of Inspection and Quarantine about their farming practices, as well as soil and water samples.

Building upon the work of Luo Shao Jun, who is the Director of the National Tea Quality Control Center and the Director of Hangzhou’s Institute of Tea Supply and Marketing (in brief, she is the top-ranking government official in charge of the Chinese tea industry), the tea is evaluated for quality based on color, smell, and plucking configuration. The tea is also tested for contaminants and is passed or failed based on the food safety standards of the importing country, in our case the FDA. If the tea passes it is submitted to Chinese customs by a licensed export company.

This process provides for a fully documented supply chain.  The Chinese government does not take kindly to people who are responsible for export scandals, as evidenced by the recent execution of the head of the Chinese equivalent of the FDA. No other country goes to these levels of regulation.

Of course that doesn’t mean that all tea that makes it to the US is exported legally. There are ways to game the system, but to do it through the process I described above is risky and hardly worth it. The second way is to smuggle it to Hong Kong. It’s pretty easy to do, but you have to pay. The importer still must navigate past the FDA, but if your paperwork is in order, that is not a problem. The FDA almost never actually tests products. You can bring tea in your suit case, and if you have a big enough family, you can get a lot of tea into the country that way. You can also buy tea on Ebay that is mailed from China in small enough amounts that it can be under the radar of the legal process. There are a couple of websites that are illegal in China that operate under the radar by hosting in the US and blocking the URL from being viewed in China that do the same. I don’t mean to say that the tea they are selling in the US is unsafe, but I am pointing out that they are circumventing the safeguards established on both the Chinese side and the American side. Tea smuggling has always been popular for consumers because it’s cheaper to do it that way.  John Adams is said to have remarked when drinking tea was considered unpatriotic, ‘Can’t I just have a bowl of tea that is smuggled past the British?’

I will say more about the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides in a follow-up post, but I want to point out that Chinese tea, especially tea grown for export in China, is very safe. There are some teas that should be consumed with caution, mainly those harvested in the summer in Anxi and certain areas of Yunnan and Hubei. More on that later.