japanese tea after the disaster

No one seems to know the parameters of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan that continues to play out in northern Honshu, about 150 miles north of Tokyo.  Recently given the  the highest rating for a nuclear crisis–a Level 7– experts suggest that it will take decades to understand what has taken place and how it will effect the health of the planet–including human health–in Japan and elsewhere.

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For those of us who are avid tea imbibers, there is an obvious question lurking: Should we buy or drink Japanese  teas in the coming months and years?  How about teas from neighboring parts of Asia like China and Taiwan? I don’t think anyone yet has an answer, but what are the issues we can consider in order to make sense of it?

To offer some confidence, food safety monitoring agencies around the world are on high alert for possible radiation contaminants in Japanese exports. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for testing food products entering the United States from abroad.  They report the following reassuring news: “As part of our investigation, FDA is collecting information on all FDA regulated food products exported to the U.S. from Japan, including where they are grown, harvested, or manufactured, so the Agency can further evaluate whether, in the future, they may pose a risk to consumers in the U.S..”

If we were to rely only on one agency, like the FDA, we might be concerned about the veracity of information supplied.  But because there are so many food regulatory agencies around the world, and news is so quickly and easily available regardless of borders, it is most likely that we will be able to carefully monitor whether new tea harvests pose any risk in regards to radiation levels. The challenge we face is in distinguishing the accurate from the inaccurate.

Water and food supplies from around Japan will be carefully monitored by domestic and international food safety agencies. Since tea is just one of many food crops grown in Japan, listening for news of other crops and the water supply will help us to understand whether or not teas are safe to drink, as they seem to be right now.

One thing to keep in mind is that tea growing regions in Japan are several hundred miles south of the disaster, and at present, only neighboring prefectures (counties) to the disaster seem to be effected by levels of radiation that exceed normal standards.

Taking a look at the above map, kindly provided by tea purveyor Ito En, we see that many tea farms in Japan are at least several hundred miles south of the disaster, and as luck would have it for the tea fields, the winds are blowing east, not south.

According to the Wall Street Journal “Immediate contamination could occur from particles from the air settling on plants or feed, or in the longer run radioactive elements could get washed to the soil where plants grow. The radioactive material, once incorporated, can continue to emit powerful radiation for some amount of time–the exact duration depends on how much and what type of the radioactive material was ingested–and can be passed on if a human then eats the plant or animal.”

Because the cocktail of radioactive materials released has never before been emitted simultaneously nor tested, even nuclear experts are uncertain as to the possible outcomes of such occurrences. We can only wait, hope, and keep our eyes and ears open for qualified, careful and honest reporting from sources we trust.

Large, reputable tea purveyors like Ito En will also be testing their teas as they are harvested, according to Rona Tison of Ito En. Because their reputations are on the line, and testing will be done by many agencies who will be cross-checking each other’s results, it behooves these large companies to carefully monitor the teas that go into their products.  If these teas are safe, it gives us a signal that small batch connoisseur teas grown organically or in the same areas are more than likely safe also.

Tea farmers who grow their teas organically will also be very interested to test their teas and to share the results, as they base their reputations on the integrity of their products.  Bon Teavant will be interviewing several tea purveyors and farmers over time on exactly this issue, so stay tuned here for more news as it arrives.

In the meantime, relax and enjoy your tea. If you are very worried about Japanese tea, Bon Teavant sells some very nice green teas from China and India, including a Chinese-grown Genmaicha.