Ordering tea directly from China: safe?
June 12, 2015 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I've tried a bunch of different loose leaf green teas, and my favorite comes from an online tea store based in China. However, by ordering directly from them, I'm bypassing European and British consumer safety regulations. If you can read Chinese -- or you know something about food safety in China -- you can help me figure out whether this is a risky purchase.

The tea company includes a three-page analysis of the tea (page 1, page 2, page 3) but I don't read Chinese and in any case I don't have any information on the reliability of whoever did the analysis. Can anybody tell me what the analysis says and help me figure out if I should trust it?

More broadly, are the various high profile Chinese food safety incidents symptomatic of an overall problem, or just random incidents that could happen anywhere? How risky is it to purchase something I consume every day directly from China?

Incidentally, the company itself generally seems professional. Items are well-packaged, the customer service is excellent, and their teas are highly rated on Steepster. I don't think they would deliberately ship me a bad product. However, as far as I can tell, they're middlemen, buying from a number of different tea farmers, and if there was a problem somewhere in the food chain, they wouldn't necessarily catch it before the tea reached me.
posted by yankeefog to Food & Drink (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see how you can answer this to any degree of confidence without having it analyzed. I have no idea what that costs, but if it's a lot, I'd write to the seller and ask them to split the cost in exchange for your posting the results to Steepster (get Steepster to agree first). Assuming it's healthy, it would help the seller to have this data.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:05 AM on June 12, 2015

Best answer: Well, I don't know about European and British consumer safety regulations, but they probably don't test every single food import that comes into the country. So, even if you were buying tea that had been imported and went through normal channels, you could get tea that was somehow contaminated. For example, in the U.S., only about 2% of food imports get inspected by the FDA.

You could try to find a lab and get the tea tested for whatever you're most worried about. It would probably be expensive, especially if you're trying to test for a variety of things like mycotoxins, heavy metals, pesticides, bacterias, etc.
posted by Lingasol at 9:29 AM on June 12, 2015

Best answer: Tea from China is probably safer than other food products from China simply because it's less processed. Having said that, the greatest risk is from lead in the leaves absorbed from rain and soil due to industrialization/air pollution. The 2nd page of the analysis you posted states that your tea was measured at 0.4mg of lead per kg of product as compared to a maximum permissible limit (according to that same page) of 5mg per kg. You'll have to judge for yourself whether your find 0.4mg/kg of lead acceptable but I'd make two points. First, a web search indicates that most lead in tea stays in the tea leaves after infusion. Second, here's average lead in some Iranian teas as a comparison (see table 2) as tested by the US Nat'l Institutes of Health, showing Iranian tea averaged above 1mg/kg. So in that light 0.4mg seems pretty good.
Of course, the other problem with China is fake reports. Your analysis looks like an official 3rd-partly lab analysis and I guess there's a reasonable chance it really is. But who knows for sure.
Net net, I'd drink it without worry. But I wouldn't chew the leaves.
posted by mono blanco at 9:32 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There was a NYT piece on this issue: What’s in Your Green Tea?

The article mentions that lead is an issue in tea from China. However, the lead mainly stays in the leaf, so as long as you're not consuming the leaves themselves, you should be good. I also brew my tea (from China) in those little filter bags that you can pick up at stores like Daiso.

I would only be concerned about drinking matcha green tea from China, so I only buy matcha that is sourced from Japan or Taiwan.
posted by extramundane at 10:33 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

My take away from your answers is that I won't be too paranoid about it, but I won't drink Chinese matcha tea, and I'll probably try to drink teas from a variety of countries, so that I won't overdose on anything if there turns out to be a problem from any one place.
posted by yankeefog at 6:34 AM on June 22, 2015

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