Last week Greenpeace India released its controversial report ‘Trouble Brewing’, which tested a variety of well-known tea brands on sale in India to evaluate pesticide residues – what the industry calls ‘plant protection formulas’ (PPFs).
This found that nearly 60% of samples (29/49 tested) contained residues of at least one active ingredient above Maximum Residue Levels set by the EU (EU-MRL), with 37% (18) exceeding these levels by 50%+.
Greenpeace warns of widespread tea contamination
The tests even turned up banned insecticide DDT (which has been linked to cancer and diabetes) in trace quantities, leading India’s Tea Board (a government body) to defend the industry and argue that traces of the banned pesticide were detected due to their presence in tea plantation soil.
“The results from this study demonstrate that branded tea purchased in India is broadly contaminated with a wide variety of pesticides,” the report authors write, warning of ill effects for consumers as well as tea plantation workers.
“A significant proportion of pesticides found are not approved for use in tea cultivation in India and many are no longer approved for use in the EU, a key export market,” they add.
Unilever brand Brooke Bond tops table: 12-20 pesticides found
Unilever brand Brooke Bond topped a Greenpeace table showing the number of pesticides found in each tea – with 12-20 found in seven samples.
Samples of the internationally known Lipton brand were found to contain 1-16 pesticides over seven samples, while TATA Global Beverages brand Tetley also featured (0-14 pesticides; three samples).
Greenpeace claims that pesticide regulation in India is complicated and confusing, with agricultural universities and different government bodies recommending pesticides not approved for use on tea plantations by the nation’s Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC).
Regulatory confusion raises risk of pesticide misuse – Greenpeace
“With such a diversity of bodies making different recommendations on the use and application of pesticides, including pesticide marketing agencies – the potential for confusion and consequent overuse or misuse of pesticides is high,” Greenpeace writes.
“Furthermore, the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations 2011 specifies tolerance limits in tea for only seven of the pesticides registered for use on tea,” they add.
Interestingly, just before the Greenpeace report was published India’s tea industry came out fighting – TATA announced plans for sustainable sourcing by 2020 including a commitment to cut PPF levels.
Ajoy Misra, CEO, Tata Global Beverages, said: “TGB cares deeply about sustainability and recognises the importance of systematically reducing the plant protection products in the tea industry and have been proactively advocating for the same.”
Almost concurrently, on August 4, Unilever also announced it would fund research on the ‘feasibility’ of non-pesticide methods of plant protection for tea.
Tea Board of India hits back at Greenpeace
Both beverage giants left it to statutory body the Tea Board of India (TBI) to rebut Greenpeace’s concerns in more depth.
The TBI said it had reviewed the Greenpeace study but said all samples tested complied with Indian law, blaming trace levels of chemicals such as Monocrotophos, Triazophos and DDT on accidental contamination from outside of plantations and minor residues left over in soil.
Despite their illegality, levels of PPFs Thiamenthoxam, Thiacloprid, Deltamethrin and Dicofol found were well below FFSAI levels and EU MRLs, the TBI added.
The TBI also attacked the Greenpeace suggestion that the presence of more than one PPF in teas (particularly blended varieties subjected to different spraying routines) could compound the danger.
“To imply, by the sensational use of wording, that a mix of PPFs implies there is a synergetic effect of the residues of multiple PPFs…is contrary to the established science,” the TBI said.