A survey conducted by French consumer magazine 60 Millions de Consommateurs (60 Million Consumers) examined 26 tea brands, including popular brands such as Lipton and Kusmi Tea and findings revealed certain teas contained up to 17 different types of pesticides. This report inspired a broader examination of pesticide levels applied in the tea industry.
Most regular tea drinkers will have an immediate reaction of “Tell me more” or “Is this really true?” to headlines like “Tea Bags Sold in France Found to Contain ‘up 17 Types of Pesticides.’” It is hard to overlook when it is phrased more pointedly: “Most Popular Tea Bags Contain Illegal Amounts of Pesticides (Avoid These Brands at All Costs).”
It can be difficult to evaluate such statements or counterclaims to them. If a healthy diet and lifestyle are major priorities, consume certified organic teas.
If one views pesticides as a generally minor and inescapable feature in food production, official food safety warnings and product recalls can signal harmful effects. Regardless, it is worth stepping back to make a comprehensive grasp of the issues in order to be comfortable in one’s final judgement.
Consider asking three questions:
- How widespread is pesticide use in tea growing and how does it affect what gets into your cup?
- What is useful to know about the legal aspects of tea production, import and selling?
- What about safety, not just regulation?
The report on teas sold in France is a useful starting point. It is one of a small group of studies that are widely re-cited as evidence of a profound retrograde pattern in prevalence, legal protection and safety across the global tea market. The case they make and the arguments against them point to entirely different conclusions depending on how they interpret “legal”, “safe” and “limit.” It is a point to ponder when considering the pesticide MRL: maximum residue limit.
MRL is measured in parts-per-million (ppm), with a default level of .01 ppm set for pesticides for which there is no established “tolerance” range and safety data. Many of the pesticides identified in studies are illegal small quantities where the limit was set very low. So, for instance, this finding may not – or could be – as striking as it initially appears: “Of 49 Indian tea samples, 60 percent contained at least one pesticide above the safety limits set by the European Union. For Chinese teas, the figure was 67 percent.”
The French tea report
The French study that showed evidence of up to 17 pesticides in 26 brands of tea bought in French stores appeared in 60 Millions de Consommateurs at the end of 2017. It has a long track record of reporting on product risks, including e-cigarettes, diapers, cake molds and sleeping pills. The journalist, Patricia Chairopolous, early in 2019 wrote a comparable article on pesticide residues in bread.
Her analysis of tea found that of the 26 brands, nine contained “barely quantifiable” traces of residues but four showed “very inadequate” results: high levels that exceeded regulatory limits and/or a wide range of pesticides. One black tea is a definite surprise. It is produced by Damman Frères, one of the luxury tea names with an outstanding reputation for flavored and natural teas. It showed traces of 17 pesticides. Another brand contained four times the authorized limit of anthraquinone, a bird repellent. This was the most common chemical compound found, along with a fungicide, folpet. The article notes that all the teas contained metal traces, including cadmium, mercury and arsenic.
The article observes the amounts are small and not dangerous and adds that many of the teas contain pyrrolizidine oxides, toxins produced naturally by the plant itself, but known to be carcinogenic. The main point the magazine highlights is that there is no regulatory framework for the pyrrolizidine oxides or the metals, and hence no limit on them.
So what can be concluded about the safety of these teas?
The following brief aims not to influence choice but help promote comfort surrounding the basic facts.
How widespread is pesticide use?
The term “pesticides” includes fungicides, rodenticides, bactericides, insect and animal repellents, and antimicrobials. For most agricultural crops, 80 percent of the application is herbicides. For tea, insects are the primary concern and growers apply the same fraction of usage (80 percent). The subtropical climates in which tea grows are a breeding ground for some three hundred varieties of voracious pests. Without controls, the crop loss from a harvest will be in the range of 10-40 percent.
The dangers of pesticides are augmented by widespread overapplication, which depletes soil and degrades the environment, along with unmanaged spraying that leads to severe health problems in tea growing communities. As with DDT, some pesticides have generated dangerous impacts: carcinogens, neurological damage and decimation of species and fauna. For many decades, there was a surge in uncontrolled and underregulated chemical overuse of both pesticides and fertilizers, most notably in China and India. This is being brought under some degree of control.
Climate change, the need to increase global food supply by 70 percent in the next decade to meet population growth; and the decline in global prices complicate matters by compounding the priority of short-term yields and low costs. Organic production is increasing but is expensive in terms of investment, lower initial yields and the heavy costs of certification.
Another growing general problem is that monoculture and reduction in biodiversity increase pests and impede control. Poverty, ignorance and fraud generate pesticide misuse. The use of pesticides is a decision by individual farmers and enforcement is difficult.
Evidence suggests the elite tea industry players are ahead of the problem. There has been an accelerating and impressive push among the global players to adopt supply chain transparency, authentication, certification and supplier accountability. Quality assurance programs are applying sophisticated technology and strong controls. There remain many doubters who see corporate giants as “blatant” in their lying and placing profit ahead of environment.
A 2013 EU report shows tea, coffee, and herbal teas together had less than half the non-compliance rate of legume vegetables.
Measuring and permitting tea pesticide levels: MRLs
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) Database indicates the maximum acceptable levels of pesticides in agricultural products. Any given pesticide content can be classified in precise numbers that indicate the milligrams of detected residue per kilogram of product. The results can then be compared with the MRL. That is the simple part.
In application, it is very complex:
- Dried herbs and tea leaves are extremely difficult and expensive to analyze. Gas and liquid chromatography can only look for a subset of compounds, increasingly using mass spectral detection. Organic certification adds $25-50 per bag of herbs. The Food and Drug Administration tests only 1 tenth of 1 percent of agriculture imports. This makes it essential to know something about the quality of the testing and the organization carrying it out. Such information is consistently missing in the articles claiming high levels of MRLs in tea, including the French study. A controversial and aggressive challenge by Greenpeace
states, “The tests were conducted by an independent, nationally qualified laboratory but Greenpeace declined to disclose its name to ensure its independence.”
- MRLs are trade rules not direct safety measures. There is no one MRL, and there is no systematic methodology for setting them. They are pragmatic and situational, determined by regulators and import authorities in individual nations and by the European Union. MRLs really stand for “tolerance level” and are very much a judgement call. Every major importing regime builds in an often-large safety factor. One leading global brand’s green teas tested out in the Greenpeace report at 0.13 milligrams per kilogram. The EU MRL at the time was .01 indicating this tea was not safe. But it is safe in the US, where the MRL is 50 and also in Japan, which has the tightest restrictions on harmful pesticides. There, the MRL is 30.
Is your tea safe?
Greenpeace scathingly rates tea as unsafe. The French report tots up the number of “fails” in its samples as being as many 17. Both figures treat MRLs as absolutes. In many, even most, negative reviews, the MRL default base is 0.01 ppm. This is a convention used for teas that amounts to “not evaluated” so that even a tiny 0.03 ppm shows up as over the limit.
However, pesticides are a universal problem that is not going to disappear. Advice on purchasing safer tea is:
- Buy from trusted suppliers: the elite brands, noted blenders, high-rated online sellers – all of whom benefit from enhancing quality versus the largely nameless bulk sellers who gain from commoditization and lowest cost.
- Favor teas grown in terroirs that are remote from pollution sources (including car traffic that is a source of heavy metal contamination: lead and cadmium) with strong commitment to bio management, the wider context of organic production.
- Favor organic teas but with skeptical attention to their certification and reputation. Be wary of no name China organics and generic flavored and herbal teas. (These are generally subject to less regulatory oversight and testing.)
Sources: FAO, 60 Millions, Greenpeace, EU and FDA reports, Guiding Instincts