In 2012, we discovered through our work that threats to our food safety had grown ever wider: we looked at pesticides and tea, and how agricultural chemicals in the Pearl River Delta were ending up in our food markets here in Hong Kong. We also officially launched our food safety campaign in Taiwan.
A Seven Step Program to Getting Pesticides out of our Tea
Step One Sample different grades of tea
At the beginning of last year, we sampled 18 different kinds of tea from Beijing, Chengdu and Haikou sold at a range of price brackets from 60 yuan a pound to 1,000 yuan a pound and under nine different brands. The types of tea included green, oolong and jasmine. We bought all tea samples from the brand’s own stores, then we sent the samples off to an independent lab for testing.
Step Two Take a trip to a tea plantation
While we were waiting for test results to come back from the lab, we visited tea plantations in two of China’s major tea-producing provinces – Zhejiang and Fujian. We saw many used pesticide bags, including several kinds that are banned in China. Agricultural supply stores nearby were also selling banned varieties of pesticides.
Step Three Talk to tea growers
We visited eight tea plantations and discovered that most of them weren’t aware that the pesticides they were using were banned. Some tea grower said that they thought if the shops were selling the pesticide then it was OK to use.
State regulations say that no pesticide must be sprayed seven days before tea leaves are harvested. However, we found out that some tea growers were spraying as little as three days before harvesting because it gave the tea leaves an improved appearance.
Step Four Tell the public about the pesticides
That April we published our test results: of the entire 18 samples, all of them contained as least three different kinds of pesticide residues. The most serious was an Iron Buddha sample which had 17 different kinds of pesticide residues. The most serious was an Iron Buddha sample which had 17 different kinds of pesticide residues. What I really found incredible was that two thirds of the samples all contained at least one type of banned pesticide, such as methomyl, a pesticide that has been classified by the WHO as a hazardous substance, and which is known to harm the human endocrine system.
Step Five Get the whole world’s attention
We made it a global issue by testing several varieties of teabags made by internationally-famous tea brand, Lipton’s. We tested their black tea, green tea, jasmine, and iron Buddha tea bags. In two weeks we had the results: we found 17 different kinds of pesticides on the four types of tea, including seven that did not have EU approval and were known to potentially affect male fertility and fetal health.
These two reports caused a global uproar. In just one month, thousands of media in China and overseas were reporting on our campaign, and this became a key force in getting the tea companies to promise to make changes.
Step Six Lobby the tea companies
Because we had your support, we managed to successfully lobby three well-known tea companies:
- Hong Kong-listed tea brand, Tenfu
- International tea brand LIPTON’s parent company Unilever
- Anxi Tieguanyin Group, the mainland’s longest-running Oolong tea producer
They have all agreed to set up a traceability system on their suppliers and take measures to reduce pesticide use. Now we have to get the other tea companies to follow suit.
Step Seven Lobby the whole tea industry to change
We are now pushing for change on all levels: for tea associations to change their focus, public support for implementing tea traceability systems, and China’s main tea producing region Anxi in Fujian province to reduce pesticide use.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture has ordered that the whole country reduce pesticide use by 20% by 2015. We will work hard to make sure this measure is enforced in China’s major agricultural provinces. We all want to enjoy a pesticide-free brew again!
What does the Pearl River have to do with you?
Many of vegetables we buy here in Hong Kong are grown in Guangdong province. But did you know that the Pearl River Delta region where many of our vegetables come from is famous for heavy pesticide use?
Last February, we published the results of pesticide residue testing on produce in three cities in the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong. We found that supermarket vegetables were seriously contaminated with pesticide residues. Several samples showed traces of pesticides that had been banned on the mainland for more than 10 years! This marked the start of our Pearl River Delta campaign.
Our tests proved that supervision was seriously lacking and there were no effective controls in place.
How we got the Hong Kong government to listen
Last May, we went to investigate the source for ourselves. Horrifyingly, the farmers spraying pesticides weren’t wearing any kind of protective gear. We took samples of the vegetables in the fields, soil samples and also water samples from nearby streams and rivers for testing.
It was only after meeting with us and understanding the seriousness of the problem, that Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department agreed to collect data on Hong Kong’s food markets, release the information to the public and make the supervision process more transparent.
Food Safety Campaign Comes to Taiwan
Last February, we launched Taiwan Food Safety and Agriculture campaign. Our first action was to test fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets. In three months, we had exposed how six 'big' Taiwanese supermarkets were selling produce that contained many kinds of pesticide residues, capturing the attention of both local media and the public on the issue of pesticides.
After half a year of lobbying, our food safety campaign achieved its first success: RT-MART finally formally announced its promise to ban all highly toxic pesticides on its produce.
Expansion to the mainland
We also lobbied supermarkets on the mainland to promise to safeguard their customers’ food safety. Last year we were successful at getting RT-MART and Jingkelong on the mainland to reject GE foods and banned toxic pesticides and also to promise to set up a strict supervisory system on their suppliers. Following these two, now convinced 14 supermarkets to get on board with similar commitments.
A peek at the challenges ahead in 2013
We are casting the net wider over the food producing area that supplies Hong Kong and testing more samples. We will push more food brands to promise to strengthen their suppliers to use less pesticide and lobby the Chinese government to focus on reducing pesticide use.