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I regularly reuse my tea bags, sometimes over as much as a five hour span.

I am sure that there are limits to the safe re-use of tea, but I can't find any USDA or other authoritative guidance.

What are reasonable precautions I can take to ensure that I am not putting myself at risk for foodborne illness?

Please provide evidence-based answers, not anecdotal reports. I don't mind if the answers are somewhat speculative based on evidence from analogous food preparations.

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A five-hour span is totally fine. –  Laura Nov 7 '12 at 21:51
    
    
okay well, this is about tea "bags" not about loose tea - should that make a difference in determining the duplicate? –  TheIndependentAquarius Jan 10 '13 at 11:09
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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The issue here is how long do you steep the tea, at what temperature, and under what conditions do you store the used tea bags? The reason "sun tea" has been discouraged has been because of the likelihood that the tea leaves that are in the bags are contaminated with bacteria such that a long soak in luke-warm water such as that of the "sun tea" causes them to multiply to the extent that they become a serious health risk. Tea leaves are not typically pasteurized during their processing, and may carry viable bacteria and/ or bacterial spores.

If you were to soak the tea bad in warm water not hot enough to get a good bacterial kill initially, there may be enough viable bacteria in the tea leaves to grow during that 5 hour interval such that the next cup may be seriously dangerous (some may divide every 15 minutes, for example). However, if you were to adequately kill the bacteria and spores off by a nice hot soak (for this example, you would need to use a pressure cooker since some bacterial spores are not even killed by boiling water at atmospheric pressure), refrigerate the tea bag afterwards, and then reuse it 5 hours later it would likely be perfectly fine.

I think the final answer to your question comes down to your own personal risk tolerance and the conditions above. If you brew in luke-warm water or for a very brief time and then leave the bags out at room temperature you are just asking for trouble and eventually you may hit the loaded chamber in your own personal Russian roulette game.

For empiric answers, take your particular brewing temperature and time and compare it to the USDA tables for pasteurization. Then, look up the growth curves for the major pathogens at your storage temperature and figure out how many would likely be present after 5 hours (20 generations at 15 minutes per generation or 2^20 times more bacteria than viable after the brewing event at the end of the storage interval).

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Great answer; thanks so much. For some reason it didn't occur to me to refrigerate the tea in between brewings. Typically I reuse green tea that is recommended to be brewed at ~160 for around three minutes. And of course that temperature declines as it's brewing. –  Jeff Axelrod Nov 9 '12 at 14:13
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The only "danger" I can think of would be mold growing on the damp bag, which is not really a concern over a period of five hours.

Really, though, (most) tea isn't all that expensive and it will taste better if you use a new bag.

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Tea bag usually packs a very mild tea concoction unlike the regular tea granules. So for a tea bag, even a second reuse will not give you a suitable taste for your taste buds. As for experimenting I have used the teabags a second time after a gap of 10 hours (in tropical Indian climate). So far no molding came for that much time.

But if you are planning to reuse teabags for economy purpose, the best choice will be to shift from tea bag to tea leaf or tea granules or tea dust which comes cheaper as you are not going to pay the cost of the filter bags and strings, and the labour of packing each tea bag.

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It's absolutely not true that reused tea bags will not taste good. It certainly depends on the type of tea, but some green teas (bagged or not) retain their flavor across three or four brewings. –  Jeff Axelrod Nov 8 '12 at 14:53
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If you buy a decent quality tea, the leaves are edible so you should be fine using them a couple of times. Even with cheap tea bags you can stretch a few cups out of a tea bag.

Source: http://www.helium.com/items/1173756-leftover-green-tea-leaves-antibacterial-properties-within-green-tea

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