Arbor Teas is deeply committed to organic agriculture. In fact, every tea and herb we sell is certified organic. Our warehouse and tea-packing facility is also certified organic by Global Organic Alliance, so our customers can rest assured that the organic integrity of our tea and herbs are preserved from crop to cup.
We believe organic tea production is safer for the environment, safer for the grower, and safer for the consumer (you!) because:
Organic tea production encourages:
- Improvement of soil and water quality
- Conservation of wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife
- Cycling of on-farm resources
- Ecological balance
Organic tea production prohibits:
- GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)
- Sewage sludge
- Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
But that is not all! Did you know that organic farming methods sequester large amounts of carbon? Did you know that organic farming also lowers greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the production and use of synthetic nitrate fertilizer? This can all help stop climate change! Some estimate that if the world’s conventional agriculture transitions to organic regenerative farming methods, it would begin to reverse the effects of climate change. Now, that is worth supporting!
We urge our customers to become a part of the organic and regenerative farming movement. Start by being a part of the conversation. Get involved! Sign up for the free USDA newsletter to get an insider perspective www.usda.gov/organic, or attend a meeting. Public input, written and in-person, is welcome and all meetings are free and open to the public.
What is Organic Certification?
Organic certification is a voluntary verification label applied to an agricultural product that indicates the product has been grown and processed through methods that meet the standards of a specific organic program.
There are multiple organic programs throughout the world. Most are associated with a governmental body such as the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA - NOP), Canadian Organic Standards (COS), European Union Organic Standards (EU), or Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS), to name a few. In many cases, these governmental bodies have created reciprocity between one another’s organic certification systems to promote trade. These bodies seek to approve methods of agricultural production that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
The United States’ organic program is the National Organic Program (NOP). Born from the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act sought to develop a set of national standards that would replace the myriad organic standards which existed throughout the United States at that time. By October 2002, NOP was fully in place and all organic farmers, processors, handlers, and certifiers were required to be in full compliance with the national regulation.
At Arbor Teas, we source teas and herbs certified to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).
How Does Organic Certification Work?
To understand how organic certification works, first recall that organic certification is a production and processing verification seal. This means that organic certification does not only apply to the way our teas and herbs are grown on the farm, but also applies to how they are handled during the manufacturing process, how they are processed during blending and packaging, and even the method by which they are transported. In other words, every step along the route from the product’s source to you (the customer) must be organic certified or approved to the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA NOP) standards. This means that our own warehouse at Arbor Teas is also certified organic, even though we do not personally grow the tea in our warehouse.
There are two main players in maintaining organic integrity across all organic standards: the policy makers/enforcers and the certifiers/inspectors. The USDA NOP is a policy maker/enforcer. The USDA develops the policies that regulate the creation, production, handling, labeling, trade, and enforcement of all USDA organic products – in other words, it develops the rules. Then the USDA NOP hands over those policies to third-party certifiers who verify organic integrity by reviewing applications, performing annual on-site inspections and chain of custody audits, and collecting samples for testing. These certifying agents are accredited by the USDA NOP. If a problem is identified by a certifier, their findings are presented to the USDA for further investigation and enforcement. Certifiers may NOT act as enforcers.
On the Arbor Teas packaging, you may notice a line of text printed directly under the USDA organic seal that states “Certified Organic by Global Organic Alliance.” This is our third-party certifier. Oregon Tilth or QAI (Quality Assurance International) are other USDA approved certifying bodies other companies use. It is required by the USDA that the certifying body’s name is listed on all packaging of USDA organic certified products.
How Does a Company Become Certified Organic?
To become organic certified, a farm or processor/handler must first make sure that it is abiding by the rules set forth by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Then it must select a USDA-accredited certifying agent and submit an application with an Organic System Plan (OSP). The certifying agent reviews the application to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations. Then an inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation. The certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations. If approved, the certifying agent issues an organic certificate! Sometimes this requires a transition period. For example, any land used to grow raw organic products must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three (3) years.
After an organic certificate is granted, every year thereafter, the organic certified farm and/or processing facility is required to undergo an annual inspection and review. The annual inspection is conducted by inspectors employed by the USDA-accredited certifying agents and includes two main parts: an onsite review and audit. The onsite review is a visual inspection of the farm and/or facility to observe, report and verify organic practices and potential problems, which can include gathering samples. The NOP requires that samples are collected from a minimum of 5% of organic operations. Certifiers tend to focus on areas of concern when they select samples. However, every inspector has the authority to collect samples of organic certified product at any point along the chain of custody. For our tea and herb products, random sampling/testing can occur at the source where the tea is grown, at the port where it is imported, and at our own facility (which, don’t forget, is also organic certified).
The audit portion of the annual review is sometimes referred to as the “organic chain of custody” and tracks the organic tea or herb from origin to customer. If the chain of custody is broken at any point along the way, the product can no longer bear the organic seal. It requires a paper trail from the source (where our teas and herbs are grown), all the way to our facility, and then on to you. The chain of custody is yet another assurance to the consumer (and processor) that the product is grown in the place it says it is. You will notice a lot number stamped on each of our products. This lot number is part of the audit trail!
While most US consumers place greatest importance on the onsite inspections, we believe both parts of the review are equally important.
Who Decides the Standards?
In the United States, the USDA is the ultimate decision maker for the National Organic Program. A Federal Advisory Committee called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and makes recommendations to the USDA. The NOSB advises USDA on which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic farming and processing, based on criteria under the Organic Foods Production Act. In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed (e.g. vaccines) and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited (e.g. arsenic). The NOSB must also review each substance on the National List every five years to confirm that it continues to meet all required criteria. Recommendations made by the NOSB are not official policy until they are approved and adopted by USDA. The NOSB is comprised of the following members of the organic community:
- Four farmers/growers
- Three environmentalists/resource conservationists
- Three consumer/public interest advocates
- Two handlers/processors
- One retailer
- One scientist (toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry)
- One USDA accredited certifying agent
Does USDA Certification Mean a Product is Grown in the USA?
No. USDA Organic Certification can be applied to a product grown anywhere in the world. The USDA organic seal is not an indicator of the origin of the product (ie USA). The USDA organic seal indicates that the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) regulations have been applied to the production and processing of the agricultural product regardless of its origin, and that the producer/processor has passed all audits and inspections. This means that tea grown in the US and tea grown anywhere else in the world can both bear the same organic logo. This is good news for Arbor Teas because the US does not grow much tea. It is hard to imagine running a tea company without offering tea grown outside the US.
To accomplish this global reach, third party USDA-approved certifying agents conduct application reviews and annual inspections worldwide. There are approximately 90 NOP-accredited certifiers, 42 of which are based outside the USA. This explains how a farmer in any part of the world can be included in the USDA organic system. Further, it is argued that an inspector who resides in the farmer’s country of origin is better able to review the farmer (compared to an inspector from abroad) because s/he knows the culture, language, and customs of the producer.
Does Arbor Teas Sell Products That Are Organically Grown, But Not Certified?
No. Arbor Teas only sells teas and herbs that have been certified organic to the USDA NOP standards. This is a difficult decision because there are many farmers who grow amazing teas and herbs and abide by organic practices (or say that they are “better than organic”), but have chosen not to pursue organic certification for one reason or another. Our decision to source only from organic certified tea and herb growers is driven by the desire to provide assurance to our customers that all our teas and herbs are grown and processed to a consistent, ecologically-driven standard. Additionally, this ensures the standard is audited by a third party who is independent from the producer (farmer) and the purchaser (Arbor Teas). Despite its criticisms, we believe that an audit-based system such as the USDA National Organic Program is the best assurance (at the moment) of a product that is safer for the environment, safer for the grower, and safer for the consumer.
Can I Trust Organic Tea from China?
It is hard to imagine running a tea company without importing tea from China. China has been growing and producing tea for thousands of years and it is the only origin that manufactures all five types of tea. However, recently food safety in China has been a hot topic. So much so, in 2015 after numerous public outcries the Chinese government cracked down on food contaminants and passed a Food Safety Law that is even more strict than some of FDA's code.
Tea in particular, has been in the press due to concerns over high levels of pollution, pesticides, and heavy metals. Much of the research surrounding these issues has focused on conventionally grown tea, not organic tea (Arbor Teas only sources organic tea). However, we understand our customers’ concerns and want to address them as best we can.
We believe the two most important ways to guarantee a safer tea from China (or anywhere in the world) is to:
- “Know your source” and purchase from trusted growers and suppliers; and
- Prioritize organic certified teas.
This criteria is central to our decision making when sourcing a tea or herb.
However, despite abiding by both of these practices, it is true that any agricultural product (organic and conventional) has the potential to contain contaminants which can be soaked up from the soil and/or absorbed from the air and rainfall. No company (let alone a tea company) can promise that its products are 100% free of contaminants. Our world is too integrated and too polluted to make that claim. So, at the end of the day, it comes down to limiting contaminants as much as possible.
In certified organic farming, initial soil screenings must be conducted and approved at the time of a tea farm’s first organic review and inspection. Thereafter, contaminants are monitored and controlled through inputs to ensure prohibited substances are not added to the soil or water. Additionally, follow up soil, water and product testing is conducted as a part of the organic certification process and monitored (which is one of the many reasons Arbor Teas participates in the organic certification program).
However, this does not mean that ALL tea is tested and it does not mean that the exact tea leaf in your hand was tested. Still, we believe that certified organic tea is a better option to limit contaminants. It often receives a higher level of scrutiny than conventionally grown tea and requires "buffer" zones between organic tea fields and possible outside contaminants -- which can reduce the potential quantity of such contaminants compared to conventional agriculture.
Finally, much of the organic tea we sell from China is grown in remote locations by tea growers who have great respect for their ancient profession. We are saddened by some of the press surrounding this issue that implies a blanket mistrust of all Chinese farmers. As with all our interactions, we believe mutual respect is paramount and intentional subterfuge should not be an automatic assumption.
Lead in China
Lead in China is of concern because tea plants are normally grown in highly acidic soils, where lead is potentially more bioavailable for root uptake (as compared to other crops grown in more alkaline soil). One peer-reviewed study drew international attention to this topic, “Scale and causes of lead contamination in Chinese tea” (W.-Y. Han et al. / Environmental Pollution 139 (2006), 125-132) and resulted in a flurry of alarming articles. This study tested conventionally grown tea leaves collected in China from 1989-2001. It concluded that the rapid industrialization and increased consumption of leaded gasoline in China caused an increased level of lead in Chinese tea (particularly in older tea leaves gathered close to a highway). However, the study also concluded that the increased level of lead found in the tea leaves posed more of a trade concern than a human health concern. Additionally, leaded gasoline was banned in China in 2000. The study found a small decline in lead concentration in tea leaves from 2000 to 2001. This is perhaps the first indication of a decreasing trend of lead emissions and deposition since the ban of leaded gasoline, and some good news! Hopefully, the downward shift has continued in the decades that followed. Also, an organic certified tea farm would have required a buffer between it and the highway (unlike conventionally grown tea).
For customers who still prefer to avoid tea sourced from China, we recommend trying teas sourced from other origins. We have worked hard to offer many wonderful options from all over the world!
Does Organic Certification Protect Against Radiation in Japan?
Yes and No. Organic certification does monitor and control for heavy metals through inputs. However, many heavy metals are naturally occurring elements in soil and thus particularly tricky to regulate in organic standards. So, to reassure our customers and ourselves from the ongoing radiation concerns of Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi disaster in 2011, our Japanese teas are tested by an independent third party. Samples from each crop are tested for I-131, Cs-134, and Cs-137.
Wanna Read More on Organic Certification?
Here are some of our go-to reads:
“Organic Revolutionary: A Memoir of the Movement for Real Food, Planetary Healing, and Human Liberation” by Grace Gershuny; 2016.
“Organic vs. “Organic”: How Much Does Certification Matter?” by Hannah Wallace; Civil Eats; Aug 18, 2014.
United States Department of Agriculture: https://www.usda.gov/organic
“Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming”; White Paper by Rodale Institute; (2014).