The objective of this lesson is to assist you in comprehending the certifications and claims made on the foods you eat, with a particular focus on Organic, Fair Trade, and Kosher teas. We won’t try to persuade you to drink or not drink organic tea. Instead, we’ll provide you with factual information to help you make an informed decision based on your preferences. This lesson aims to provide a deeper understanding of the complexities of these certifications.
Let’s start with Organic certification. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as produced without most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. This means that organic products are grown with fewer chemicals, and the soil they’re grown in is free of the same chemicals. Farmers must let their fields lay fallow until they reach an acceptable level, which can take years, making it difficult for many farmers in tea-growing regions to afford the privilege of not making money off their fields. As a result, most tea worldwide is not certified as “organic.”
While organic certification has environmental value, it primarily focuses on controlling the inputs and process to protect the environment, with no testing or verification after the tea is produced to ensure that the rules were followed. Organic certification also does not guarantee the absence of environmental pollutants or contaminants during processing or packaging, as there are no quality standards for the final product. It’s crucial to buy from trustworthy growers, distributors, and retailers, regardless of their certifications.
Obtaining “certified” organic status is a complicated process involving hundreds of different agencies worldwide, each with different standards. Some certifications are accepted in one country but not in others, making it even more challenging to navigate. It’s natural to be skeptical of a foreign “organic” sticker on tea packaging. However, there is no significant scientific proof that drinking non-organic tea is dangerous. Furthermore, due to the bureaucratic complexity of certifications and the small size of most premium tea producers, many teas that qualify as organic are not formally certified.
Fair Trade is often seen in conjunction with “Organic” labeling for many teas, but it is a separate certification process that is not related to how the product is grown. Fair Trade is based on the belief that the market price paid to tea growers and laborers is not fair and does not support sustainable living environments. Therefore, Fair Trade is to the local economy and the worker what Organic is to the environment and the plants.
In order to gain Fair Trade status, the growers pay a certification fee and charge a Fair Trade premium of between $0.50 and $1.50 per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of tea. These fees go directly to the pockets of the laborers, as well as towards developing programs at the local level, funding the certification process, the Fair Trade operational structure, and marketing the Fair Trade brand internationally. The Fair Trade price for coffee is $1.35 per pound.
Producers must meet certain criteria to apply for certification through one of several Fair Trade Organizations, such as FLO, IFAT, NEWS, and EFTA. These criteria include fair labor conditions, direct trade without middlemen, community development, environmental sustainability, and transparency.
However, many specialty tea producers, who are often small, family-owned businesses without the means to participate in community investment or comply with extensive bureaucratic documentation and auditing rules, are not “Fair Trade” certified. These programs and processes are better suited for the giant tea estates that produce the 97% of global tea supply, which is commodity grade and harvested and processed by machine. Some countries, such as Japan, do not offer Fair Trade teas because the tea workers are already paid far above the poverty level.
Kosher certification is a spiritual issue that affects the tea industry. Fortunately, most teas are naturally kosher due to the absence of additives. However, flavored teas may require additional steps to be certified. Many agencies have their own standards for Kosher certification, adding to the complexity of the process.
While certifications such as Organic, Fair Trade, and Kosher focus on certain aspects of tea quality, they do not necessarily determine taste. Ultimately, the quality of tea depends on many variables. When choosing your next cup of tea, it’s important to consider your beliefs as well as the available information, but don’t forget to trust your taste buds.