Summary of Greenpeace Reports on Pesticide Residue in Tea in China and India.  (2012-2014)

Summary of Greenpeace Reports on Pesticide Residue in Tea in China and India. (2012-2014)

Pesticide testing on Lipton tea

Apr 22, 2012

In February 2012, Greenpeace collected random samples of teabags made by the world’s biggest tea brand – Lipton. Investigators randomly selected Lipton-branded green tea, jasmine tea, Iron Buddha tea and black tea from two supermarkets in Beijing.
These four samples were sent to an accredited independent third-party laboratory to test for pesticides. Test results showed that in total 17 different kinds of pesticides were found on all four samples: samples of green tea, jasmine tea and Iron Buddha tea each contained at least nine different kinds of pesticides.
Also found on the samples were traces of seven pesticides on Lipton-branded tea sold in China that have not been approved for use by the EU, while several pesticides on all samples exceeded EU’s maximum residue limit (MRL).  
Furthermore, traces of pesticides that have been banned by China for use on tea plants and have been classified as highly toxic by the World Health Organization (WHO) were found on the green tea, jasmine tea and Iron Buddha tea samples.

Greenpeace finds tainted Lipton tea bags in China

April 24, 2012

“The testing found that all four Lipton samples contained pesticides that exceeded the EU’s maximum levels of residue (MRL), while three samples contained pesticides unapproved by the EU,” the group said.
“Some of the detected pesticides are also banned for use in tea production by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.”
Last November, China’s quality watchdog said one of Unilever’s Lipton tea varieties was found to contain unsafe levels of toxins. Unilever said that all those related tea products had been recalled and  destroyed.

Pesticides: Hidden Ingredients in Chinese Tea

Apr 9, 2012

Greenpeace purchased at random 18 different kinds of medium-grade tea, all popular with consumers. The samples were
sent to an accredited third-party laboratory for pesticide testing. The price of these tea samples ranged from RMB120 to RMB2,000 per kilogram; varieties tested were green tea, oolong tea and jasmine tea. The results showed that every one of the 18 samples from the nine tea manufacturers contained at 1least three different kinds of pesticides; 12 of the samples showed traces of the banned pesticides methomyl, endosulphan, and fenvalerate; 14 samples contained carbendazim, benomyl, myclobutanil, flusilazole or other pesticides that according to the EU’s classification may impair fertility, cause harm to an unborn child, or cause heritable genetic damage

The Beijinger spoke with Wang Jing, Greenpeace China’s food and agriculture campaigner, and wrote The Tea Audit: Is Greenpeace Overreacting?

Critics of your study say that pesticides are common in Chinese products. Is Greenpeace blowing this issue out of proportion?
Pesticides have been found in China’s fruits and vegetables for years.  But many consumers will be surprised to find these chemicals in tea  because it’s more expensive, and it’s considered a healthy drink. We wanted to put the tea companies under pressure so that they’ll find it necessary to change their practices.
What are the specific flaws in those practices?
Small-scale farmers lacking knowledge are spraying all kinds of harmful chemicals. But these corporate tea sellers don’t invest to help the farmers use less pesticide.

Seven Cups, a reputable tea company based in the USA was asked to make a statement - Greenpeace and the Safety of Chinese tea.

First, I want to underline that the teas that were tested were not meant  for export, and there are two completely different standards where pesticides are concerned.

Then he quotes Nigel Melican of TEACRAFT for the main substance of the article,

(i) Pesticides traces are universal in food – no tea in the world can  have absolutely totally zero pesticides – nor can or does an organic  apple or carrot. Consequently Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) are set by  importing countries. Presence of a chemical below the maximum safe level is accepted – but Greenpeace (through ignorance or ingenuousness)  ignores this and rants against “drinking toxic pesticides in their tea”  while naming and shaming some tea companies with well below MRL levels –  no libel laws in China?
(ii) No reference is made in the lengthy Greenpeace China report to MRLs  – particularly the EU MRLs which are internationally accepted. In fact,  if you take the considerable trouble of comparing the Greenpeace data with EU pesticide limits for the 28 chemicals mentioned then 5 of the 18  teas accused actually fall below the MRL limits for all 28 and two more  tea exceed by a trace level of 1 mg/kg on 2 chemicals. This leaves 11  teas non-compliant for one or more pesticides, were they to be sold in  the EU.
(iii) These teas were purchased in the local Chinese market so  Greenpeace China should have been comparing them with Chinese MRL  legislation – they may very well be compliant with this (I do not have  access to Chinese MRLs).
(iv) Nowhere in the report does Greenpeace China suggest that the non  compliant teas are representative of China teas presented for Export –  but commentators in the USA and UK have erroneously and immediately  jumped to this conclusion.”

Austin Hodge adds,

It is also interesting that the two biggest culprits in the Greenpeace expose were not even Chinese companies, they included Lipton and Ten Fu/Ten Ren. Lipton is the leading brand in China, largely because there really aren’t any national Chinese brands, and Ten Fu which Americans know as Ten Ren is a Taiwanese company, and is probably the leading tea retailer in China.

About two years later...

Greenpeace India - Trouble Brewing

August 2014

An investigation carried out by Greenpeace India has found residues of hazardous chemical pesticides in a majority of samples of the main brands of packaged tea produced and consumed in India. Over half of the samples contained pesticides that are ‘unapproved’ for use in tea cultivation or which were present in excess of recommended limits.
Nearly 94% (46 out of 49) of the tea samples contained residues of at least one of 34 pesticide active ingredients, at concentrations above the analytical limit of quantification (LOQ).
Nearly 60% (29 out of 49) of the samples contained residues of more than 10 different pesticides above their respective LOQ, including one sample that contained residues of 20 different active ingredients

Let's look at the most scary item on the list - DDT - an organic pesticide banned all over the world, but still used in India.

The Rat Oral LD50, the dose required to kill 50% of rats, for DDT is 113 mg/kg - compared to the highest value found - 0.044 mg/kg.
So, a rat would have to eat 2,500kg of tea to have a 50% chance of dying. That's 2.75 tons of tea.

Also Note, DDT is "Highly insoluble" in water according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

This said, along with concerns for human health there are also broader ecological concerns and ongoing political narratives which Greenpeace is trying to draw attention to. As of 2018 India still shows no sign of kicking it's DDT habits. The DDT is probably getting onto the tea from Malaria control efforts.

This will be a link to info about Persistent Organic Pesticides.

There is some emerging evidence that pesticide exposure may be associated with reproductive abnormalities, immune suppression, cancer and hormone disruption in humans, presumably as a result of changes in basic metabolic function.
Even in low concentrations, pesticide mixture effects can lead to differing and sometimes lethal impacts on some species of wildlife.
The interactions between the chemicals are very largely unknown since the toxicology of such mixtures has rarely been investigated beyond simple binary mixtures of agents. Assuming that of the 34 pesticides identified in this analysis, groups of 10 were selected for study as mixtures, then this would necessitate the evaluation of over 131 million different possible combinations.

Mixed Responses

Tea Industry Challenges Greenpeace Pesticide Report says,

The Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI) represents the agrochemical industry in India and claims the report was “fabricated” and “pseudo-scientific.”
The legal notice has asked Greenpeace India to furnish all raw data  collected and analyzed for its study and submit an unconditional apology  within seven days. If Greenpeace India does not comply, a defamation  case will be filed against the organization for Rs 50 crore ($11.3  million).
According to the Greenpeace report, a pesticide called monocrotophos was  found in tea samples. However, according to CCFI, monocrotophos is not used in tea at all.


According to C. N. Nataraj, vice president of the Confederation of  Indian Small Tea Growers’ Association, “Many tea growers use  monocrotophos which is a refined form of endosulfan. This chemical is  biodegradable. Estate workers, who inhale this chemical, would suffer  respiratory illness in the long run.”

Greenpeace also reports positive feedback from the tea industry in Greenpeace stands vindicated as tea industry leaders tread Non-Pesticide Management (NPM) path. Tata Global Beverages Ltd commits to phase out pesticides from tea.

Since the launch of the Greenpeace report, major tea companies like  Hindustan Unilever Ltd, Girnar Tea and Wagh Bakri have announced their  commitment to support the phase out of pesticides from tea cultivation.  Now with TGBL’s commitment, it shows the willingness of India’s tea  sector to move away towards ecological agriculture. Greenpeace will  continue to monitor the developments and will support the industry in  moving away from the pesticides treadmill.

May 5th 2015, Greenpeace India Director tells staff: ‘one month left to fight’ before shutdown.

The Home Ministry’s decision to block Greenpeace India’s domestic bank  accounts could lead to not only the loss of 340 employees of the  organization but a sudden death for its campaigns which strived to  represent the voice of the poor on issues of sustainable development,  environmental justice and clean, affordable energy.
The question here is why are 340 people facing the loss of their jobs?  Is it because we talked about pesticide-free tea, air pollution, and a cleaner, fairer future for all Indians?

World Tea News explains in greater detail,

Greenpeace is among 10,117 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cited for violating India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act ( FCRA ). The government initially ordered a temporary suspension and later revoked licenses to operate for failure to account for foreign contributions.
Since 2012 activists, led by Greenpeace, have focused media attention on the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, some of which have been banned for decades. The result is heightened concern in Europe, Japan and North America, top export destinations that routinely turn away tons of tea that exceeds Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs).
The danger handling and ingesting these pesticides is well documented but harm resulting from contact with inactive and largely insoluble residue is less clear.
A similar study published by Greenpeace in April 2012 revealing  pesticide residues in Chinese tea, some from banned chemicals, led to quiet reform.

Nov. 20th 2015,
The authenticity of allegations of fraud against Greenpeace India Society questioned by the Madras High Court.

“We were confident the courts would agree that  Greenpeace is on sound legal footing and has done nothing wrong,  notwithstanding the government’s ridiculous allegations of fraud in this  instance. Our accounts are an open book and on our website for all to  inspect,” said Priya Pillai of Greenpeace India.
"The MHA’s clumsy tactics, to suppress free speech and  dissenting voices, are turning into a major national and international  embarrassment for this government,” she further added.

During my research for this article I noticed that the Crop Care Federation website looks a little funny (2/2020).

Some say, like Snopes in 2018, that "old studies" like these are not relevant as many as four years later.

There have been a lot of efforts in the tea industry to improve supply chain integrity, but I believe that this is an issue that still deservers our attention now - and for the foreseeable future. Not only for our personal consumer safety here in the USA, but also taking into account the valid concerns of less privileged markets.
Moreover, to further our understanding of the effects of our favourite beverage on the health of our environment.

We can do better!

These reports are specific to tea found on the Chinese and Indian markets, and FDA tests tea yearly and has found no cause for urgent alarm with regards tea imported into the USA - but we do believe that knowledge is power - and this is an issue which we should aspire to know more about!