By now you have no doubt read or heard news reports about
the class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Thursday alleging unsafe levels
of arsenic in some California wines. The lawsuit calls for a recall of the
wines in question and testing to ensure purity. On the surface this sounds
Arsenic, a toxic metal found in the ground, has been called
the “king of poisons and the poison of kings.” It can kill. It can cause
cancer. Yet there is more to the story, and the lawsuit, than meets the eye.
It is common for trace elements of arsenic to be present in
food products. There is arsenic in your water, the vegetables you eat (whether
organically farmed or not) and the fruits and fruit juices you consume. And,
yes, there are traces of arsenic in wine.
“Virtually anything that has to be watered to grow has some
level of arsenic,” said winemaker David Stevens, a winemaking consultant with
Napa-based Davon International.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is well aware
of the presence of arsenic in food products and the risks involved, but issues
guidelines on just a few, including water. The limit on trace elements of
arsenic in water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). There is no guideline for wine.
The lawsuit bases its allegations on the EPA standard used
for water. Therein lies the rub. Water is not wine. The recommended water
intake for an adult is 3 liters daily.
The lawsuit alleges researcher Kevin Hicks, who owns a
laboratory called BeverageGrades, tested about 1300 wines and that 80-plus had
as much as five times the legal limit of arsenic permitted in water. Wine
industry experts challenge that comparison on a number of levels, not least of
which is the unlikely possibility anyone consumes 3 liters of wine daily.
What’s more, the alleged dangerously high levels of arsenic
found in the wines named in the lawsuit are far below the international norms.
Canada, the European Union and Japan have regulations that permit the presence
of arsenic at 100 to 1000 ppb.
If those levels were deemed dangerous, you would never eat
another serving of mussels. A typical bowl of mussels has an arsenic level of
1000 ppb. Apple and pear juice also have significantly higher levels of arsenic
measured as ppb than wine.
So that begs the question, why was this lawsuit filed in the
It turns out BeverageGrades sells a service to test wines
for purity. The Wine Spectator, a consumer publication, reports that the day
the lawsuit was filed BeverageGrades sent a press release to a number of wine
retailers offering “a screening and certification model that allows them to
assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”
Now that could be a coincidence, or not. Adding to the
intrigue as to why, the wines targeted in the lawsuit tend to be lower-priced but
high-volume wines owned by big companies – Bronco, Trinchero, The Wine Group,
Treasury Wine Estates – with deep pockets. Now that could be a coincidence, or
Taking everything into account, including the international
norms, it seems as though the allegation of dangerously higher levels (ppb) of
arsenic in these wines is greatly exaggerated. The whole thing has the whiff of
It makes me think about the millions of Americans who enjoy
a glass or two of inexpensive wine as they relax at home after a hard day at
work, and how many of them are now uncomfortable with that guilty pleasure
(judging by the comments on I’ve seen on social media) and not sure their wine
habit is safe.
If it turns out the legal action is a scare tactic being
used to gin up revenue for BeverageGrades and the complicit law firm, tar and
feathers would be too good.
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Robert Whitley is @WineGuru.