I am an avid tea drinker. Green tea, to be exact. Ever since I gave up coffee years ago, it’s been my go-to bitter hot cup of comfort in the morning. But recent events have made me think twice about my favorite beverage.
Last year’s Fukushima disaster may have more or less disappeared from the headlines, but its nuclear fallout remains, and people are rightly concerned about the state of affected crops. While food from Japan is not routinely a concern of Americans—foods imported from Japan made up less than 4% of all foods imported by the U.S. in 2010—green tea aficionados like myself have cause to wonder.
Some green tea is grown in Japan, and we already know that post-disaster tests have shown high levels of cesium in some tea crops there. The Japanese government had banned exports of green tea from several prefectures last June because of tests showing high levels of radiation. But according to Bloomberg News, citing a Japanese researcher, checks conducted in Japan have been only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year—25 years after the Chernobyl disaster.
Now, to make matters worse for tea lovers, Greenpeace is reporting that a study it commissioned showed that 12 of 18 samples it obtained from stores in China contained banned pesticides. All 18 tea samples contained at least three pesticides, with 17 pesticides found in the worst sample. 14 samples were found to have pesticides that may affect fertility, harm an unborn child or cause genetic damage. As Greenpeace points out, China is the biggest producer of tea, but it’s also the biggest user of pesticides.
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Some of the firms implicated in the Greenpeace study export their tea products abroad to Japan, the U.S., and Europe. But here in the U.S., don’t rely on the FDA to screen out the offending teas. The agency’s track record for checking imports for banned chemicals (either chemicals banned in the U.S. or in the country of origin) is weak, and the agency inspects less than 2 percent of the food imports it is responsible for.
And, unlike Japan, a large and growing amount of the food we import comes from China. In 2009, 70 percent of the apple juice, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms, 22 percent of the frozen spinach and 78 percent of the tilapia Americans ate came from China, according to our report released last year, A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China.
Sticking to teas with organic labels makes good sense for minimizing your exposure to pesticides, but the label has not caught up to the realities of the nuclear disaster, even though the Japanese organic community says its committed to developing comprehensive post-disaster monitoring (check out this site from documentary filmmakers documenting the plight of Japan’s organic farmers). But whether it’s nuclear fallout or pesticides, one thing is certain: the FDA struggles to keep up with the food safety issues brought about by environmental disasters and the industrialized food system’s reliance on pesticides. My beloved beverage is a daily reminder of this.