Panelists Respond to Crisis with Measured Calm

LAS VEGAS, Nev.

New revelations of radioactive contamination, product recalls and eventually recrimination will haunt the Japanese tea industry for years.

The overarching theme of Friday's panel discussion was one of measured calm. Cesium levels are present in some shipments of Japanese green tea, yet the Japanese government has erred on the conservative side of safety, only allowing tea to come to market that meets its stricter levels of less than 500 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. FDA will not intervene below 1,200 bq/kg.

Panelists included Nozomu (Nez) Tokugawa an importer, wholesaler and retailer of his company Chado-En and the founding director of the non-profit The Wellness Gardens; Rona Tison, Senior Vice President-Corporate Relations, ITO EN (North America), Inc.; Yoshiyuki Ogata advisor and leading new product development for Kagoshima Seicha, President of the Wellness Research Institute and Chairman of Kagoshima Healthcare Instructor’s Association; Mitsushi Orita, who worked and lived in Fukushima for many years, is responsible for sales for Orita-En and has been farming using organic methods since 1965 and Yasuharu Matsumoto, representing the International Tea Farm Alliance, Soraku-gun, Kyoto.

Tokugawa assured the audience that Japan, with a long-term vision of tea industry sustainability, opts to keep tea off the market if there is any question of contamination. Mitsushi Orita, at Orita En, clarified that Japanese tea manufacturers would continue to provide certificates of origin for their teas rather than certificates of insurance of safety.

Therefore, consumers can know where their tea originates and whether they want to buy from that particular region.

Both Yasuharu Matsumoto  and Yoshiyuki Ogata reminded the audiece that the problem exists in small parts of the country. Not all green tea producers are affected, and the contamination, for now, is held to small pockets of the Japanese countryside. In addition, the span between many green tea production areas and the nuclear accident on the east side of Japan is as great as 3,000 miles in some cases — about the distance from New York to California.

Rona Tison of ITO-EN shared with audience members the thorough and consistent testing that ITO-EN tea undergoes from farm all the way through to manufacturing processes. She also related to the gathered group the recent CNN report that illustrated how much tea would have to be consumed in order for a consumer to experience toxic levels of radiation. The amount one would need to consume is equal to 200 bottles of RTD tea or 3 lbs. of tea per day for a year. It was a reminder to keep the situation in perspective.

Retailers were encouraged to learn their geography and clarify with their customers where their particular green tea is grown. Education is the theme. Know what is happening and share this with your customers.  As one audience member pointed out, a big part of the problem is responding to consumer perception, more so than the parsing of the actual facts of radioactive contamination.

Plan B

The first consideration in Plan B is to apply the Precautionary Principle. Play it safe, avoid what may cause harm to your customers, your business and reputation by sourcing and exhausting 2010 teas. Make sure you can authenticate the tea as pre-dating the Mar. 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Customers seeking this year’s harvest should first understand that Japan’s export threshold is very conservative. Readings of 500 becquerels/kilo are half the international threshold. United States Customs halt shipments only if readings exceed the FDA’s 1200 bq/kg intervention threshold.

A lesson in geography will convince customers that green tea from the south of Japan is safe. Kagoshima is 1650 miles from Fukushima.

Guy Munsch, owner of Zen Tara Tea near Washington, D.C. suggests: "For perspective, and for those old enough to remember, we do offer this more familiar comparison to customers about the question of distance from the Fukushima power plants and tea growing areas – when Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania happened in the U.S., did you stop buying produce from Florida?" 

Be sure to provide reputable test results with lot numbers that correspond to your offerings.

Teas from China, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and even Vietnam that are cultivated with meticulous attention to the Japanese practices using equipment and Japan-trained processing staff are a satisfying and safe alternative. Notify customers that terroir invariably introduces variances in leaf size and flavor. Look for product from firms that truly understand "Japanese Taste" tea and use precautions to demonstrate their products are well below radiation thresholds.

Use the opportunity to bring to light the green gems of Nepal, Darjeeling, Assam and Asia. Customers will appreciate your insight and additional offerings.

Shizuoka, a marvelous marketing construct that has served Japan’s tea growers for so many years, is being shattered as I write. Shipments from many as a quarter of the prefecture's Warashina factories are banned, product recalls initiated. Intercepts like the recent 162 kg shipment seized in France make government assurances suspect.

The situation would be much better had authorities expressed uncertainty and exercised caution until they knew where to draw the line demarking contaminated tea. The line is clearly south of Shizuoka and on Wednesday was extended to include Shimizu Ward and the Omaezaki peninsula. It may extend further south but it certainly does not encompass all of Japan.

This misfortune may afford the many growers outside Shizuoka an opportunity to re-brand their tea to emphasize the fact not all great tea grows in the shadow of Mt. Fuji.

The most critical element of Plan B is to not give up faith that Japan's magnificent teas will remain available to the world. This crisis eventually will pass.

The situation should give rise to serious research into the actual harm that can be done drinking what we all know to be very, very lightly contaminated tea. Readings of 1000 and even 500 bq/kg sound ominous but remember the scale. No one I know drinks tea by the kilo. Exposure is slight. Greens are consumed in very small quantities and little of the cesium isotopes actually find their way into the liquor.

A bacterial outbreak like the one originating in teas shipped from Seattle this year was far more dangerous than the current low-level contamination of tea.