Pesticides: Are Chinese and Indian teas safe to drink?

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doomslayer
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 3:31 pm

There is something that has been bothering me about Chinese, and to lesser extent Indian, teas for a while and I would be curious to hear opinions and thoughts.

First some context though. I grew up in a 3rd world country. When I was a child, I saw this old farmer applying something to berries. When I came closer, I saw that she was generously applying a very illegal insecticide and when I inquired about this, she brushed it off and explained the berries are for sale anyway. This memory has stuck with me for the rest of life. Later on it was complimented by many other experiences that basically can be summed up with “for the right price, you can pass any safety check” (in fact in places like that, you are expected to pass them with bribes rather than compliance).

Anyway, I could go on about this for a while but you can probably see where this is going. I keep thinking about this every time I brew tea from China or India and I don’t know whether it’s a valid concern, or am I being paranoid; and more importantly - if something can be done about it?

Like, sure, there are reputable tea sources out there but it’s not like they babysit and watch farmers every minute. Or is contaminated tea usually obviously off? Or maybe it’s an easy crop and there is no reason to shower it in poisons? Are some regions or farms known to be better? Is there anything to ease my mind? I’ve been actively thinking about calling it a day and switching to teas from Taiwan - they seem to be much better based on corruption index but frankly I am not really that familiar with how things are in Taiwan either.
Last edited by Victoria on Tue Feb 18, 2020 4:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Mod edit: added Pesticides to title for easy future searching
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Baisao
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 4:17 pm

The topic was discussed in part in this thread: viewtopic.php?p=14485#p14485

I think there's some magical thinking involved with those who deny it happens or question that it happens. Personal experience demonstrates that this does indeed happen and that it takes more than a "rough feeling in the throat" to identify that a tea has been adulterated.

A friend of mine, a tea seller, died of stomach cancer a couple years ago and it prompted me to wonder again about the safety of teas. This person would have been drinking much more tea than the average person, some of it sprayed with pesticides in regions with low/no pesticide application compliance.

Despite the active ingredient (beta-Cyfluthrin) in Tempo being odorless, the carrier agent isn't odorless. I've twice smelled the carrier agent on Taiwanese teas and refuse to drink them.

You seem to have a clear idea of what real world compliance is like, but for those who don't, here is an example.

Chlordane, was banned in the US in 1988 but was still sold in China until 1997. Stocks of it are still around and used furtively, just as I witnessed in the US after the ban in '88: it was free post ban, it worked, and it's assumed we'll never see any harm from it. (Disclaimer: I never applied it or worked for anyone who did. I just witnessed its use post ban.)

I had my applicator's license and played it safe while I was in the business.

I watched a coworker who did not play it safe die from throat cancer after just ten years in the business. He mistakenly thought that "organic" meant "safe", and could not distinguish in his mind the difference between an organic product and organic chemistry! I can't say that it was the pesticides, smoking, genetics, or bad luck that caused his terminal throat cancer. I'm not going to make assumptions. But I will forever wonder.

What about other adulterants?

I've smelled some really off things in Chinese teas, things that shouldn't be there. Some, like allspice and artificial jackfruit scent, are likely safe to consume because allspice and jackfruit extract are food additives. Others that smelled of artificial rose scent, soaps, or Febreze are likely not safe to consume as they are not food safe.

Not all harvests are great and there is an incentive to sell bad tea. People have bills to pay and farming is not an easy way to make a living. Obviously, some of teas that make it to our tables are artificially scented and some of these scenting agents are toxic.

I am not being an alarmist, but I think it is smart to be aware that this is happening. If it seems off, it probably is.
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Bok
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 6:48 pm

For sure Taiwanese tea farmers also has pesticides, if not then why do some insist on organic labels? I got friends who only search for organic, or semi-wild teas for these reasons. Suffice to say there’s not much of it out there and even less of it will make it to the Western market. We are talking about a few bushes harvested in random spot off the road... sometimes less than a jin available.
Vanenbw
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 8:13 pm

It's an interesting subject to me, because I've been eating organic fruits and vegetables for years now, and I drink organic teas (in teabags) from companies like Choice, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods 365, and Allegro. I have been phasing them out, however, since I learned about the bleaching techniques used to make teabags, as well as polypropylene, wood chips (yeah, can you believe that one?), and resins used in the production of the teabags. Aside from these organic teas, I was exclusively drinking only conventional Japanese loose leaf teas from local Asian grocery stores. In the last several months, after purchasing a kyusu pot, I have shifted to drinking organic green tea from Japan (with the exception of a Daily Sencha tea I just purchased from O-cha (and another conventional tea I purchased from Thes Du Japon). I also purchased a gaiwan a couple of months ago, and that is when I first tried some Chinese teas. So far I have only sampled some teas from Red Blossom, Hojo, and Verdant. The latter does not offer any organic teas on their website. I was a little bummed out about this because I sampled a couple of their black teas and oolongs and I really liked it. So I ended up purchasing about $40 worth of teas on their website. I wasn't happy about having to buy all conventional tea, but I wanted to try some of these, so I just went with it. But yeah, it bothers me a little bit. After reading these posts, it bothers me even more.

I will admit I am not doing any extensive research on any of these companies. I am purchasing blindly, or on faith if you will. I do care very much about pesticides used in the production of tea, or any other food for that matter. I'm not saying organic is 100% perfect, but I think it's a step in the right direction. These teas I purchased from Verdant, for example, I have no idea what kinds of pesticides are used to grow these teas, and here I am happily sipping a potentially toxic substance all for the pleasure of drinking tea. The thought of it alone sours the whole experience for me. In fact, before I even read this post, I had decided I probably would not order from Verdant again. I was considering trying some of the organic offerings from Yunnan.

I thought I read somewhere that even conventional Japanese green tea has pretty high standards, and the pesticides used not as damaging as those in some other countries. I don't know if this is factual information. I really have not researched it.

I mostly purchase organic tea, but I'm not super strict about this decision. Still, I would say at least 95% of the teas I'm purchasing from Japan now is organic.
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Bok
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 8:56 pm

Vanenbw wrote:
Tue Feb 18, 2020 8:13 pm

I thought I read somewhere that even conventional Japanese green tea has pretty high standards, and the pesticides used not as damaging as those in some other countries. I don't know if this is factual information. I really have not researched it.
Not sure if that is true... in general Japan is quite lax with regulations (pharmaceuticals, food, etc.). Taiwan next to it is much stricter and does not allow a lot of Japanese tea to be imported due to these.
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doomslayer
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 9:11 pm

Thanks for your input everyone! Quite a depressing picture really. When writing this originally I was kind of hoping that worst case I'll just have to fallback to Taiwanese or maybe Japanese teas (although Japanese teas are not my thing really) but yeah, it sounds like it's similar thing everywhere.

Do you know if there are any specific teas that are better off maybe? I guess something I can't fully wrap my head around is why would they even spray something like first flush greens; isn't it literally the first leaf that pops out of the plant? Or some high altitude winter oolongs from Taiwan - is the environment that ferocious there that even in winter the plants would be eaten by insects?

As for the "organic" - maybe it works better in countries like US or Japan, I do often eat organic produce myself here in the US. But for places like China, again, having witnessed a lot of things firsthand in my home country, "organic" is just an empty word for me.
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Bok
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 9:28 pm

doomslayer wrote:
Tue Feb 18, 2020 9:11 pm
Or some high altitude winter oolongs from Taiwan - is the environment that ferocious there that even in winter the plants would be eaten by insects?
High mountain has more fertilizers, not enough nutrition at high altitude. Basically, you can't grow there without it.
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doomslayer
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 9:35 pm

Are fertilizers bad though? I know they can be bad for environment and water if abused, but that aside, it's just regular "food" the plant consumes, isn't it?
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nasalfrog
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 10:50 pm

Something to maybe settle or ignite more fear is that driving a fossil fuel car is way more dangerous risk-wise for your health, maybe only slightly for the emissions, but mainly for the risk of bodily injury & death. Yet I still drive my car. Yet I still drink my tea.

I mean you aren’t actually eating the leaves I guess? A salad is way bigger and you only know how it was grown for sure if you do it yourself.

It may be a good idea to vary your tea & sources. Keep going back to the ones you like. Spread out the possible risk like eating a varied diet.
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doomslayer
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 11:35 pm

nasalfrog wrote:
Tue Feb 18, 2020 10:50 pm
Something to maybe settle or ignite more fear is that driving a fossil fuel car is way more dangerous risk-wise for your health, maybe only slightly for the emissions, but mainly for the risk of bodily injury & death. Yet I still drive my car. Yet I still drink my tea.
Yeah, I absolutely agree; don't get me wrong - I don't mean to be alarmist, I am merely trying to understand the subject for now and gather opinions. I understand your car example too. I've been for years involved into sports and hobbies that actively involve juggling risks of death or serious injury so managing risks is not an unfamiliar territory for me (and hey, it's not like I'll live forever anyway) :D

I've never been to tea producing areas so I quite literally don't know how things look like there and how tea producing cultures differ by counties. For now my day involves drinking red tea all day at work and maybe something fancy over the weekend - like a new crop of green, darjeeling, etc. If things don't look too good, I could adjust it to something like herbals (linden, etc) at work and high altitude Taiwanese oolongs over weekend or something like that. If that even makes a difference; I was quite surprised to find out that they are not shy about pesticides in Taiwan and Japan as well.

Or to go back to the car example - every time I drive, I know I may die, especially considering the iced over mountain pass roads I usually travel. Yet, I try to minimize it by keeping my car well maintained, driving only when I slept well, and staying home if conditions get too crazy.
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Baisao
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Tue Feb 18, 2020 11:54 pm

nasalfrog wrote:
Tue Feb 18, 2020 10:50 pm
Something to maybe settle or ignite more fear...
It does neither because it’s irrelevant to the discussion about tea and distracts from the discussion about adulterated tea.

Sure, I am more likely to die in a car crash commuting home than drinking tea, but we’re not discussing the hazards of driving.
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aet
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Wed Feb 19, 2020 12:14 am

Same all over the world I guess. As China, India also had some scandal in import to EU few years ago. Normally local authorities don't scan tea for all 480 residues as required by regulations. Yet , all those year of successful "green" organic import was because no body would expect , therefore test , for residues banned back in 80's. As it happened recetnly , somebody did and found out.

I admit , I have never done blind test on same tea ( origin, harvest, type, year, grade, processing ) with and without the pests being used in order to give the truth feedback ( claim I can taste the pests in brewed tea ) . It is possible if you personally visit the farm where they have same tea with and without pests, and ask for samples of each to compare . ( I wouldn't trust to any internet or tea market claims )
If anybody has different reliable technique how to spot it please share!

I did get few times confused ( thought I taste the pests ) when occurred situation of drinking some very cheap tea, which would give very strange taste ( not usual for the tea ) randomly in any parts of your mouth ..... front , in back ( tail ) , throat , tonsils, back on tongue , front tongue ( stingy, spicy , sour..etc. ) ....
Later, when I started to be involved in actual production my self , I found out / started to understand that that particular taste is connected to the season of harvest, way of processing or even post processing ( drying leafs after kill green for example ).
For example: summer harvest, is the cheapest one, also rainy one....so with all that , the usage of pests is more than likely to happen, yet the odd taste doesn't come from the chemicals, but from actual tea.
Somebody might argue I'm wrong, yes , there are some people on tea market running tea master classes where claim can teach you to taste out the chemicals. So I asked them what is the difference in taste between acetamiprid and tolfenpyrad like ;-D
Of course they had no clue what I'm talking about.
In their classes they offer 1 tea some gushu ( more likely to be clean ) and some summer harvest of cheap tai di cha ( more likely be chem. treated ) ...of course there is the difference in taste ;-)
What more than likely to happen is that if there is too much chem on leafs applied, your body would react after. My wife got very sick ( stomach , blood pressure all over the shop ) after testing few teas in certain area. The alcohol made on CTM ( looks like red rum ) in combination of Coca Cola brought her back.
Some people claim to have itchy feeling on skin when drinking pest.treated teas , or some uncomfortable feeling in throat ...etc. But again , all those situations occurred not in fair tasting ( comparing as mentioned above ) .
To minimalise to chance of drinking "chem.tea" , avoid of buying the cheap one in it's category ( takes time to learn real prices ) or source from reliable sources ( takes time to find one ).
In both cases , organic is not cheap, unless old and discounted. In my experience, people don't bother with organic stuff much. We sourced 2 years ago I couldn't sell it much coz price was double of the non organic. It's a shelf sitter , which with green tea is a bummer.
I now it's trendy to live "healthy" but numbers show different , I feel like it's trendy to talk about the healthy rather than paying for it. Therefore more fake claims are emerging along the regular tea marketing stuff.

anyway, my thoughts. sorry couldn't help ;-(
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Baisao
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Wed Feb 19, 2020 12:43 am

aet wrote:
Wed Feb 19, 2020 12:14 am
...yes , there are some people on tea market running tea master classes where claim can teach you to taste out the chemicals. So I asked them what is the difference in taste between acetamiprid and tolfenpyrad like ;-D
Hilarious!

There’s no way I could taste or smell for every pesticide used on tea, even though I applied pesticides for a living, because there are simply too many of them. Also, many are odorless. As I mentioned above, I recognize the aromas of some carrier agents but that’s just a few. I doubt I would ever be able to taste systemic pesticides in tea, like Phyton 35 or Orthene, after they had washed off the leaves weeks before harvest yet was still in the plant tissues.

I don’t believe there are any bulletproof ways to identify pesticides in teas by taste or mouthfeel alone. You can get (un)lucky sometimes but it’s never 100%.
swordofmytriumph
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Wed Feb 19, 2020 2:02 am

@Baisao, how do you choose your teas then, with all of this in mind?

You know on the one hand I feel like I want to be careful and drink organic/healthy blah blah.. but then I have no way of knowing what is safe beyond what the vendor tells me. I try not to worry about it too much because there's nothing I can do about it.

That said, most if not all of the teas I drink are teas recommended by others here. Sure it may have pesticides but I'm not likely to get tea with Febreze in it.
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lUKAV28
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Wed Feb 19, 2020 2:17 am

Vanenbw wrote:
Tue Feb 18, 2020 8:13 pm
So far I have only sampled some teas from Red Blossom, Hojo, and Verdant. The latter does not offer any organic teas on their website. I was a little bummed out about this because I sampled a couple of their black teas and oolongs and I really liked it.
Not having the label “organic” doesn’t mean it’s not produced in an organic way. The label organic is usually very expensive to purchase and for quality producers not even necessary as the quality product sells itself. That is why I do not always trust the label “organic”. Organic can be also a marketing strategy for selling lower quality products (tea, wine...) for a bigger markup as the label sells the items itself. We are a winery country and organic is often miss used in that way.
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