The Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) passed by the US Congress back in 1990, required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national organic standards for the labeling of organic tea. The National Organic Program (NOP) and OFPA developed regulations requiring products labeled “organic” originate from a farm, or handling facilities, that are certified by either State or private agencies that have been accredited by the USDA. The regulations further state that farms or handling facilities may not use any genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge, yikes!
Further stipulating that organic crops must be grown without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers and again sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The USDA is required by OFPA to review the certification programs under which imported organic products, like tea, are produced. Which means that certified agents in foreign countries must apply for USDA certification. In lieu of USDA certification, foreign governments can assess and accredit certifying agents, under National Organic Program requirements, with USDA approval.
An equivalency agreement negotiated between the US and a country’s government may also be used in lieu of certification. So what are the organic tea brands labeling standard? Organic labeling is the simplest part of the certification process and the aspect that is most confusing for consumers. Where I live the word “organic” on a label simply means you pay more, certification wise what the organic label means is that the tea follows the standards based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product, and by law must be identified with a 100% organic label and must contain only organically produced ingredients.
Produce labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and display the USDA Organic Seal. Processed produce that contains at least 70% organic ingredients can only use the phrase “made with organic ingredients”. Processed products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic” accept to identify the specific ingredients, on the ingredients list that is organically produced.
So what does all this mean to US tea consumers? Since tea is grown outside of the US certification is almost always done by foreign agents. It has become more and more important for consumers concerned about how their tea is grown to be comfortable with their tea supplier. Bio-terrorism laws have impacted tea importation by looking more closely overall at what and who are importing products into this country, particularly food products. While these laws can sometimes impede the smooth flow of tea to us from overseas it may be beneficial overall to consumers due to the “closer scrutiny” by the FDA.
Converting gardens and estates to organic farming is a costly and lengthy process and sometimes not even a consideration for small farmers. In some cases, farmers are already doing a lot right, but they lack the knowledge or funding necessary to become certified. There is an effort by the US tea industry to educate growers on the benefit both economically and ecologically for growing tea organically.
Reliable quality taste has been an issue with organic teas. Gardens converting to organic farming to produce the different organic tea brands or organic tea India have challenges that will require short and long term solutions to producing tea with consistently good taste. Over the years the organic tea growing process continues to improve, the tea farmers gain more experience and with each passing season, the quality and taste of organically grown tea keep improving.
As an importer and supplier of premium teas, the major responsibility is to know the production standards and philosophies of the gardens they work with. Securing quality organic tea with outstanding taste characteristics can be challenging but more flavorful varieties of tea become available each season.