The India Tea Board has issued a release assuring domestic and export markets that Indian teas “are totally safe following stringent standards.”
The report, titled “Tea Board Dispels Misconceptions about Indian Teas”, followed a public campaign by Greenpeace to halt the use of pesticides in tea.
On Aug. 11 Greenpeace India published a report Trouble Brewing alleging that tea from many of the nation’s largest tea companies showed evidence of banned and unauthorized pesticides. The report launched a national campaign by Greenpeace which erected seven billboards that read “Clean Chai Now” with scaffolds and baskets manned night and day by protesters.
“The Tea Board of India having reviewed the findings of the Greenpeace study can confirm that all the samples tested comply with the Indian laws and regulations designed to protect customers,” reads the release.
The release continues: “The Indian tea industry led by the Tea Board of India has been constantly taking steps to make tea cultivation even more sustainable and reduce reliance on synthetic plant protection products to ensure that Indian tea continues to meet the high standards consumers expect.
Tea grown in the Nilgiris is free of unsafe plant protection chemicals, said R. Ambalavanan, executive director of the Tea Board of India (South).
He told the Economic Times that “we care deeply about the quality of the tea grown in the south from the standpoint of safe domestic consumption, trade and export, and sustainable production.” He added, “PPFs form a necessary part of ensuring a viable tea industry like any other agriculture crop. This study confirms that Indian brands comply with all the legal norms and are therefore safe to drink.”
India’s Central Insecticide Board & Registration Committee (CIBRC) lists 37 chemicals used to protect tea plants. All comply with standards established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA).
Greenpeace periodically tests products from retail outlets for residues that sometimes indicate the use of banned chemicals.
Tea Board members said they will address the pesticide issue in a generic promotional campaign that is being planned by the Indian Tea Association for the domestic market.
Tea in recent years has been at the top of the Greenpeace list of widely consumed products that are grown in the tropics and retain measurable residue. Bananas are similarly suspect and several tropical fruits.
The campaign led several companies to promise to reduce or eliminate banned pesticides and in some instances pesticides entirely. Growers and manufacturers produced results from tests during the same period showing exports met or exceeded standards.
In a public statement Tata Global Beverages reassure consumers “that Tata Global Beverages tea brands are safe to consume and fully compliant with food safety norms set by the countries in which our tea is sold.”
Wagh Bakri, Goodricke Group and Hindustan Unilever (HUL) issued similar statements.
During the period June 2013 through May 2014 Greenpeace sampled 49 branded packaged teas from 8 of the top 11 companies that market domestically. Many of these companies also export tea to Russia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and the United States and Canada.
A total of 34 pesticides were found in 46 of the 49 samples and 29 of the total contained residents indicating a cocktail of more than 10 different pesticides. One sample contained residues of 20 different pesticides. Some of which are banned.
“The chaotic and conflicting state of regulations in India regarding authorization of pesticides makes it extremely difficult to draw clear conclusions,” reads the report. “However 68% of the 34 pesticides found in the various samples appear not to be registered for use in cultivation of tea.”
Many of the big name, branded teas tested positive for Monocroptophos (a highly hazardous organophosphorus pesticide) and DDT which was banned decades ago (1989) as well as neoniconitoid insecticides which are associated with reproductive and developmental impacts in animals, bees and beneficial insects.
These pesticides (Monocrotophos, Triazophos, Tebefenpyrad and DDT) are not approved for use on tea. The DDT was found in 60% of the samples and neonicotinoid insecticides (Thiamethoxam) were found in 78% of samples. All are listed as hazardous by the World Health Organization.
The list of companies selling these teas includes Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Tata Global Beverages Ltd., Wagh Bakri Tea, Goodricke Tea, Twinings, Golden Tips, Kho-Cha and Girnar. These are top- and middle-shelf teas sold in grocery stores across India.
The findings merit a thoughtful assessment as headlines invariably raise consumer fears. Although only small amounts of these teas reach North America in loose leaf form many millions of tons are blended in billions of teabags sold worldwide.
Retailers should be mindful of two common misconceptions. The first is that these teas tested positive for pesticides. That is incorrect. The teas tested positive for residues of pesticides which are degraded from the substances toxic to insects and sprayed on plants. Pesticide residues are largely insoluble in water and generally fall within Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) established by importing countries including the European Union, Japan and the United States and Canada. Very careful attention is paid to exports as the importing countries test for pesticide residues. If residues are discovered the tea is abandoned at great cost to the exporter both in reputation and financial loss.
The second widely held misconception is that all pesticides are equally harmful. In fact, few residues are shown to even make it into the cup. The fact that Greenpeace discovered DDT and organophosphorus is more troubling that a list of other less-harmful (or at least less notorious pesticides).
It is important to contact your supplier to verify the teas you are selling meet the MRLs for the US and Canada.
Tea Industry Response
Use of pesticides in tropical regions is common. The bugs are thick in the jungle and tea plantations with tens of thousands of exposed bushes are a tempting meal. Monoculture is practiced across thousands of square miles in places like Assam and south India where planters are particularly vulnerable to infestations.
Immediately following the report the United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI) said that its members follow strict guidelines developed by The UPASI Tea Research Foundation. A report in the Economic Times.
The newspaper reported “UPASI had analyzed more than 1,000 tea samples last year for FSSAI ( Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) parameters on pesticide residues and heavy metal, from tea estates in South India and none of the samples failed the parameter and also the residue prescribed by the European Union, he said.
Hindustan Unilever Ltd. (HUL), one of the key companies whose teas were named in the report, told DNA India that its teas are safe. “We have internal HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) processes for all our factories. Samples of raw materials and finished products are regularly sent to third-party testing laboratories. Our data does not show the presence of any unapproved chemicals and we fully comply with the Indian foods regulations as stipulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).”
The company is looking to phase out and eliminate the use of the pesticides in tea cultivation altogether in collaboration with its suppliers by 2020. “HUL aims to source 100% of its tea from sustainable sources”, the spokesperson told DNA.
Tata responded with a more ‘conventional’ solution. It committed to minimizing negative impact of pesticides by combining biological means with chemical control measures.
Greenpeace is pressing for a solution currently being tested in Andhra Pradesh where Non Pesticide Management (NPM) techniques “have proven to be both economically and ecologically viable.”
“The tea sector needs to become aware of ecological agriculture systems which already exist and to apply the same principles to tea production,” writes Greenpeace.
In fact much of the tea grown in South India is certified by various bodies including Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International and UTZ. Organic certification precludes use of manufactured pesticides.
In a report published in Money Control both Unilever and Tata Global Beverages agreed to undertake a major scientific research including test plots to better understand non-pesticide management techniques applied to tea, according to Neha Saigal, Senior Campaigner, Greenpeace India. “All stakeholders in the tea industry should come forward,” she said.
Last year the Tea Board of India instituted the Trustea program, an effort to certify at least 50 million kilograms of tea by December of this year. The program is funded by Hindustan Unilever Limited and IDH–The Sustainable Trade Initiative. The Board also said that its Plan Protection Code aids best practice in tea cultivation.
A separate Plant Protection Code with guidelines for safe use of pesticides, was issued to the tea industry in March 2014.
The Tea Board writes that “Identifying, and advocating for, even higher standards by partnering with the industry on a scientific pilot that will ascertain the feasibility of non synthetic plant protection products for tea cultivation.”
To clarify any concerns that may have arisen in the minds of consumers and other stakeholders, The Tea Board of India posted factual information and responses on its website at www.teaboard.gov.in.