Calcutta, June 26: After Coke and Pepsi, trouble is brewing for Indian tea. Last year, the cola giants were embroiled in a huge controversy at home over pesticide residue levels in their beverages. Now, it’s the turn of home-grown tea.
The first sign of trouble has appeared with the German Tea Council asking the Tea Board of India — the Calcutta-based entity that oversees the country’s tea industry — to furnish details about the maximum pesticide residue limits in the tea produced here.
“This is the first time that we have received such a questionnaire from the Germans,” said T. C. Chowdhury, director (research and development) at the Tea Board.
But he played down the significance of the request and denied any anxiety in Germany about pesticide residue in the tea they buy from India. “The maximum residue limits of our pesticides are not at all hazardous to health,” Chowdhury said.
The Indian tea industry uses three kinds of pesticides: dicofol, ethion, and quinolphos. According to the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, the maximum pesticide residue limit in tea grown using dicofol and ethion is 5 parts per million (ppm) each. In the case of quinolphos, the limit is 0.01 ppm.
The German questionnaire comes at a time when the European Union is preparing to tighten its food standards to address the concerns of its health-conscious citizens. The EU wants the Indian tea industry to bring down the ethion level to 2 ppm from 5 ppm.
The EU imports 40 million kgs of tea from India annually — most of which goes to the UK, Germany, Ireland and a little bit to Poland (which joined the Union this year).
Sunita Narayan, director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), who led the battle last year against the cola giants over pesticide residue levels, said she saw no reason to blackball Indian tea producers.
“The tea industry has understood the problems about pesticide residue,” she told The Telegraph. “But our own regulations are weak. I blame the government as well as the National Insecticide Board for not working out a proper guideline on pesticides for the tea industry. The EU is a very sensitive market and they have reacted accordingly.”
C. K. Dhanuka, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, denied any trouble over pesticides. “There is no such problem. Exports are taking place to Germany in a smooth fashion,” he said.
The industry, however, accepts that if tea is to be projected as a health drink, it has to be produced without chemical agents. Consumers in advanced countries are increasingly clamouring for tough food standards and proper labelling and gradually gravitating towards organically grown farm products.
A complete switchover to organic farming in tea will be tough to achieve. P. Das Biswas of Inhana Biotech, which recently provided organic farming techniques to Calcutta-based tea company K. Manibhai & Co, said: “Initially, with the introduction of organic farming, the tea company will face a reduction in crop yield and an escalation in input costs. But if this tea is backed by a certification system, then the producer can fetch better prices in the international market.”
At present, only 0.5 per cent tea in India is grown organically and most producers choose not to get them certified because of the expense involved. But now the Tea Board has decided to step in and offer financial help for the certification.