To tea drinkers, the safety standards of tea leaves is always important. From time to time, concerns are raised about these standards (such as pesticide use, heavy metal residues...). But there are not many systematic studies on these issues. Sometimes, media reports are even influenced by myths and paranoia.
Tea is an agricultural products. However it's unique in many ways. In most tea producing regions, regulation on pesticide use for tea is much stricter than the regulations for other agricultural products such as crops, fruits and vegetable. Besides, the processing of many tea products (especially when high temperature is applied) largely helps purify the products. Therefore, most studies on safety standards of agricultural products don't provide good information about tea products.
Here are mainly excerpts of conversations between some Chinese tea professionals/tea farmers and tea consumers (drinkers, vendors...). They are not objective studies. But I believe they can reflect at least some of the truths, as well as breaking some myths. The discussions are about organic cultivation in broad sense, not just restricted to official organic certification. I started these inquiries and collected these conversations mainly to satisfy my own curiosity on this issue, and the conversations happened randomly here and there. Besides, this is a complicated issue and I am a poor writer. To make it easier for me to write and probably easier for people to read, I would just put the contents in bullet points. (Lighter-colored texts are my additional comments.)
1. Q: Is heavy metal residue a major concern in tea? (this turns out to be a relatively uncomplicated issue...)
A (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer): In the past, some tea products were found to have high heavy metal residue. All of these products are from plantations next to roads with relatively high traffic, and the heavy metal of concern is mainly lead. Tea products from road side plantations are the bottom quality teas and probably you've never had any. (I guess I've never had any and most viewers of this blog have never had any tea of that low quality. But from the view of the entire "tea industry", it's still worth thinking where those low quality teas go. My guess is for extraction of tea ingredients and for making cheap type of teabags. But it's just my guess.) High quality tea is always cultivated in well-managed plantations, away from contamination, and most of the times, up in the mountains (this is often true for not just Tie Guan Yin, but tea of other genres too) where few mobiles or none could reach.
2. Q: How much pesticide is used on tea? (Here included are some answers I've got. Answers from other people about different tea types are quite consistent with them.)
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) There is no need to apply pesticide during the winter and before spring harvest, because the bugs are not out yet by the time. In summer, pesticide is used, but only the minimum amount necessary. Currently all pesticides allowed to be used on tea are pyrethroid pesticides, which have the fastest degradation rate among all pesticides. The pesticide is degraded in 3 days, and tea is only allowed to be harvested at least 10 days after pesticide application.
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin farmer) In Fujian province, even when pesticide is applied, most of the time it's not directly applied on tea bushes, but applied to floral, non-tea bushes planted next to tea bushes. The floral, non-tea bushes can attract a lot of the insects in tea plantation, and therefore pesticides applied to them will reach most bugs. This is an interesting idea, and probably partially explains why tea plantations are often seen with floral bushes and trees planted near tea bushes. Later, I did see a few photos demonstrating what he said. For example, this man is applying pesticide on grasses in a tea plantation. This is a corner of a tea field, and tea bushes are several meters behind him.
A: (from a Huang Shan Mao Feng green tea manufacture) There is no need to apply pesticide during the winter and before spring harvest, because the temperature is still low and there are barely bugs by the time. We make Huang Shan Mao Feng only in early spring, and the harvest of the entire year ends around April 20. There aren't many bugs in such high mountain before May. (This is the one who provided the wonderful semi-wild Huang Shan Mao Feng to us.)
A: (from a government employee of Fujian) Pesticides regulation is much stricter on tea than on other agricultural products. For example, Kelthane was banned in 2002 all over China for tea. It was banned even earlier in Anxi County of Fujian. However, Kelthane is still widely used for fruits and vegetables. And Kelthane is widely used in developed nations including US and Canada, for fruits such as apples, peaches and grapes. I did some internet search on Kelthane. Kelthane leaves relatively higher DDT residue than most other legal pesticides. But since it's still allowed in developed nations, I assume all these countries believe the pesticide residue can be minimized through guidelines and regulations. Another example of pesticide not allowed for tea but allowed for other agricultural products is Methamidophos. It was banned on tea, vegetables and fruits in 2001 throughout China (most other countries in the world banned it for fruits and vegetables too). But it is being used for crops in many countries in the world, including developed nations such as US and Canada. In terms of the concerns of Kelthane, Methamidophos and some other highly dangerous pesticide, tea products are much safer than fruits, vegetables and crops.
A: (this opinion has been expressed by several oolong people who work on Tie Guan Yin, Yan Cha and Taiwan oolongs) Besides the strictly controlled application amount, the high temperature processing of tea leaves, as well as sitting time will further cause degradation of any pesticide residues. We usually drink a tea many days after the harvest of tea leaves. The fruits and vegetables we eat are not treated with such harsh procedures, and they can't sit around for many days before we eat them. In this sense, tea is much safer than fruits and vegetables. (That being said, fruits and vegetables, especially those produced in developed nations, are generally safe too, because the amount of pesticides and periods of application are strictly regulated. These people's point is, tea is no less safe than many other food products, which I agree.)
3. Q: How can the government enforce these regulations on pesticide? As far as I know, large companies will submit samples and pass government inspection, but most farmers won't do the same. (In upscale tea market, most tea is from farmers and small factories rather than large companies. Large companies have very high quality tea, but there aren't many large tea companies in China and none of them dominate the market.)
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) Nowadays many smaller factories like ours would obtain government inspection certification, because consumers are more and more concerned of safety of agricultural products. As far as I know, most farmers will not go through government inspection, because it's costly and unnecessary for the family size small production. But all the farmers I know of are extremely careful about using pesticide. They would minimize the amount because overuse doesn't promote the quality of the tea. Farmers sell tea leaves to factories. Factories that failed to pass inspection will be shut down, and farmers who sell bad tea leaves will have trouble selling their tea in future years.
A: (from a Tie Guan Yin farmer) You've got to see what one has to do to spray pesticide. It's not an easy job. One has to carry a huge tank on his back, walking up and down the slopes of many acres under the summer sun. Who would like to do it frequently? Some media reporters wrote about tea farmers using pesticide. But if any of them had seen a tea field and tried to carry a pesticide tank, they wouldn't have imaged that we used large amount of pesticide. (It's true that summer in Fujian is scorching and Tie Guan Yin plantations, as well as many other tea plantations, are very hilly, sometimes even hard for one to hike without anything carried.)
A: (from another Tie Guan Yin manufacturer) Farmers would work out their best to minimize pesticide use, not only because of the regulations, but also because it's costly both in money and in human labor. Most ranches and vegetable fields are flat and can be even installed with automatic spray system. But the natural conditions of tea field doesn't allow such mechanic device at all.
A: (from a Long Jing green tea farmer) To many people, market demands are even more effective than government regulation. Families in my village can easily sell high quality spring new tea for 1500 yuan per jin (This is like $200 per lb. The price quoted is when they sell tea to large company buyers and is much lower than the final market price) and to us, all the focus is on the quality of tea. We can even afford hiring workers to manually remove bugs and weeds. But we can't afford risking our quality and reputation.
5 hours ago