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Tea Quality and Standards


Rishi Tea Organic and Food Safety Standards

What does “organic” mean?

The aim of the organic agriculture movement is to promote environmental sustainability by encouraging biodiversity, enhancing soil fertility, and protecting the health of farm workers and consumers. In the US, organic agriculture and product labeling standards are regulated by a USDA certification program called the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP certification prohibits the use of banned pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth hormones, GMOs, irradiation, sewage sludge, and artificial preservatives, flavors and dyes in crops, livestock, and foods. Third-party certifying agencies make annual inspections to verify that an organic farmer, manufacturer, or product satisfies these standards. Compliant businesses are awarded the right to use the USDA Organic logo 
We believe organic agriculture is so important for leading healthy, natural lifestyles and for restoring ecological balance to world in an age of global environmental degradation. One of Rishi’s founding principles was to help create and expand the demand for organic tea internationally. We have specialized in sourcing organically grown tea since we were founded in 1997 – five years before the NOP standards were developed for tea in 2002. Today, over 95% of Rishi’s teas and botanicals are certified organic.

Who certifies your teas as organic?

Our organic certifying agent is Quality Assurance International (QAI). Based in San Diego, CA and established in 1989, QAI is one of the world’s largest organic certifiers. QAI is active in accrediting businesses worldwide according to the USDA standards, as well as the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS), the European Union (EU), and the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS). 

What further steps do you take to ensure the purity of your organic teas?

We are proud to be the largest branded importer of organic tea in North America; more than 95% of our products and ingredients are certified organic. In order for Rishi teas to bear the USDA Organic logo, not only must the ingredients be certified organic at the farm level, but our own facility—and all blending, packing and product handling—must be certified annually as well. 

We go beyond those requirements with a robust quality control program that begins in the field; our buyers spend months traveling to the tea farms each year to taste and evaluate quality during the peak crop seasons. This also allows us to experience our organic tea cultivation firsthand. Throughout the year, our Compliance team performs additional spot-testing on select teas to ensure our organic teas are indeed free of pesticides and other contaminants. 

Are your teas free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?

All Rishi teas are free of GMOs. Fortunately, GMOs are not as significant an issue in the tea industry as they are in grain or produce markets. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is grown without genetic modification. Instead, hundreds of tea plant strains known as cultivars (“cultivated varieties”) are bred and planted through traditional botanical methods like crossing. GMOs are explicitly forbidden under the USDA’s organic program, so any Rishi tea bearing the USDA Organic logo is free of GMOs.

What about your conventional (not organic certified) teas?

We celebrate the fact that organic tea is gaining popularity in tea markets worldwide, and farms across many growing regions are converting to organic cultivation to meet that demand. There are several classical tea growing regions, however, where organic tea farms simply do not exist yet today. The major oolong tea regions—Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan—are notable examples. Many oolong tea farms in those areas produce exclusive micro-lots of top shelf conventional teas for premium markets worldwide. Phoenix Dancong oolong from Guangdong and High Mountain oolongs from Taiwan are some of the most expensive teas in the world. With such strong demand and high-end marketing, those farms have little incentive to seek organic certification. The same can be said for several of the tea regions in Japan that specialize in growing gyokuro or tencha for making matcha green tea powder. 

The good news is that many of the farms in those areas—including our suppliers there—practice a range of “Integrated Pest Management” techniques to minimize their use of pesticides. The install solar-powered insect zappers, pheromone sticky paper traps, and plant buffer zones to that effect. Since these are some of the most treasured and sought-after styles of tea in the world, we import these as specialty items for tea connoisseurs. These are some of the favorite teas enjoyed by our staff; we would never sell a tea we would not drink ourselves. 

Are your teas gluten/dairy/allergen free?

All Rishi Tea products are free from ingredients containing gluten or dairy. Additionally, we do not work with ingredients containing or exposed to eggs, wheat, corn, soy, shellfish or peanuts. We do use coconut and ramon nut in several blends, but follow a strict allergen control procedure to separate these ingredients from our allergen-free ingredients. 

What are ‘natural flavors’?

Natural flavors are concentrated liquid extracts made from real food ingredients. We use natural flavors to complement dried fruits, herbs, and other botanicals in some blends to create a complex depth of flavor that infuses deeply into the tea leaves. We use our natural flavors in compliance with USDA NOP organic standards and we are one of few tea companies who do not use any artificial flavors in our teas. 

Are your teas gluten/dairy/allergen free?

All Rishi Tea products are free from ingredients containing gluten or dairy. Additionally, we do not work with ingredients containing or exposed to eggs, wheat, corn, soy, shellfish or peanuts. We do use coconut and ramon nut in several blends, but follow a strict allergen control procedure to separate these ingredients from our allergen-free ingredients.

Are you testing your Japanese teas for radiation?

On March 11, 2011 the Tohoku tsunami and earthquake off of the northeast coast of Japan caused the devastating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, releasing radioactivity into the environment. 

Since then and to this day, Rishi Tea has maintained a stringent program to verify the safety of the teas we source from Japan by conducting radioactivity tests at an independent third-party laboratory in the USA. The lab uses a testing method called gamma ray spectrometry to measure radioactive isotopes Cesium-134, Cesium-137, and Iodine-131 in units of becquerel per kilogram. We continue to test samples of our Japanese teas for these isotopes prior to import. 

Our test results continually confirm that Rishi’s Japanese teas are completely safe. Our latest test results are as follows: 

Isotope Unit Result US FDA Maximum Allowable Limits for Tea
Cesium-134 Bq/kg Non-detect 1,200
Cesium-137 Bq/kg Non-detect 1,200
Iodine-131 Bq/kg Non-detect 170

Most of the teas we source in Japan are grown in the tea regions of Kagoshima and Miyazaki, located on the southern island of Kyushu at a distance of about 700 miles from Fukushima. Of all the Japanese tea regions, Kagoshima and Miyazaki are situated at the farthest distance from the Fukushima area, and so pose the lowest risk for radiation contamination. 

What are your tea bags made of? Are they BPA free?

Rishi tea bags are made from a plant-based material called polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is an inert, DNA and GMO free material that is produced by breaking down starches found in plant sources such as corn. These starches are broken down into pure lactic acid, and then polymerized through enzymatic activity into long chains of PLA fiber. 

Rishi has two forms of PLA tea bags: standard knit and special knit. Both of these types of tea bags are made by forming PLA fibers into a mesh fabric. Rishi receives rolls of PLA mesh fabric, and transforms them into pyramid-shaped, whole leaf tea sachets in our tea factory. The difference between standard knit and special knit is the fineness of the PLA mesh. Our standard knit PLA tea bags are made of thin PLA strands with a tight knit pattern that create a super fine mesh filter. The mesh appears silky and translucent because each PLA strand is so thin. Conversely, our special knit PLA tea bags are made of thicker PLA strands that create a looser knit pattern. The looser knit pattern has more open area and a wider mesh that is similar to a teapot so the flavor and aroma of tea flows more thoroughly and rapidly into the cup. Our special knit PLA is not as translucent as the standard, finer mesh tea bags, because the thicker, stronger strands create a more opaque and dense appearance. Depending on the type of tea and the market application, we use standard knit PLA for some products, and special knit PLA for others. 

PLA is used in a wide variety of food products because it is derived from renewable plant sources and is biodegradable in the long term. The conditions under which PLA biodegrades depend on the form that the PLA takes. Our PLA tea bags are designed to biodegrade in commercial quality composting systems, when conditions achieve at least 120°F, and 80% relative humidity. When these conditions are met and held constant, our PLA tea bags will biodegrade over a period of about two months. 

Most Rishi tea bags have a cotton string and printed-paper tag, which is attached to the PLA mesh using ultrasonic vibrational energy. This process instantly fuses the string to the mesh. The same technique is used when the rolled PLA mesh is spun into a pyramid shape, filled with whole leaf tea, and sealed during production on our equipment at Rishi. 

We are sometimes asked about the food safety concerns regarding our PLA tea bags: If they are biodegradable, does that mean that they break down when brewed in hot water? Furthermore, many organic food advocates, bloggers, rival tea companies, Dr. Oz and have made statements based on ideas and assumptions that silky tea bags contain plastic and are unsafe. None of these statements were made with any scientific test or analytical backing. We felt it was time to take responsibility and set the record straight for the tea industry with scientific data and authentic testing results for actual PLA mesh material used for silky tea bags. 

We are confident that our PLA tea bags are safe when enjoyed according to our brewing recommendations. We worked with an independent lab in Houston, one of the leading labs that tests for plastics in food products, to test both our PLA standard knit and special knit tea bag materials. We tested for BPA and commonly found plasticizers and phthalates that contaminate the global food supply. 

Our PLA mesh was tested using Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS), a technique that allowed the lab to analyze the chemical composition of PLA in its entirety. This testing method has a detectable limit of 2 ppm for most of the phthalates we looked for, and of 3 ppm for two of the phthalates. 

Both PLA special knit and standard knit materials passed with flying colors. None of the phthalates we tested for were detected, even in trace amounts. This indicates that the PLA mesh used in our tea bags is completely BPA-free and phthalate-free. The United States Consumer Products Safety Commission (USCPSC) specifies that food products are deemed safe when they test below 1,000 ppm for the plasticizers we checked. With results of no detection, PLA goes well beyond the conditions required to comply with USCPSC standards. 

Contact us if you would like a copy of our test report. 

It should be noted that there are several data reports showing that the common petroleum-based nylon and polyester silky tea bags on the market leach plastics, but our PLA material for tea bags is a different material and is not plastic, nor petroleum based. PLA based tea bags should not be linked to reports or tests of unrelated materials.