The latest issue to roil the wine industry and consumers alike was recently aired on CBS News and involves the arsenic content in cheap wines. Briefly, the story goes like this: Denver-based lab Beverage Grades tested 1,308 wines and found arsenic levels in 83 of them, made by 11 California wineries. Those wines were found to contain three to five times more arsenic than is permitted by the EPA in drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion. Two California couples subsequently filed a class action lawsuit against the 11 wineries.
Immediately after the filing, all eyes in the business turned to Wine Institute, the trade group that represents 1000 California wineries and lobbies for their interests. Apparently, 23of the 83 wines in the lawsuit are certified by Wine Institute’s Sustainable Wine growing Alliance,a self-monitoring program, whose large manual instructs users in sustainable practices for making wines and farming vineyards. While 57% of California wine companies have the wine-making certification, only 25% of vineyards have it, an important distinction that would certainly confuse consumers. In any case, the program does not seem to prohibit practices that might lead to residues of arsenic in wines, such as the use of inorganic fertilizers or pesticides, on which industrial wineries heavily depend.
So the Wine Institute defense goes like this:1) Applying drinking water standards for arsenic to wine is inappropriate because people drink much more water than wine. 2) Arsenic is everywhere in soil, water, and air and in food,juices, vegetables, and grains, so of course it’si n wine. 3) The FDA has no standards for arsenici n wine but trading partners who do, allow much higher levels than were found in tested wines, Canada at 100 parts per billion and the EU at 200 parts per billion.
My viewpoint is this: 1) All arsenic is not equal. The EPA standard of 10 ppb includes both organic and inorganic arsenic. The arsenic that Beverage Grades found in the 83 wines is predominantly inorganic so more toxic. 2) But is 10 ppb a safe guideline? Maybe not.
Various studies have recently weighed in with results that were similar to the one conducted in 2014 at the Environmental Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Montreal,where scientists concluded that drinking water arsenic limits were not strict enough “The target should be zero…. Tighter drinking waterquality criteria should be implemented to properly protect people from excessive cancer risks. Food safety regulations must be put in place to prevent higher concentrations of arsenic in various drinks than those allowed in drinking water.”
3) Probably by design, a lot of things are conflated in this issue, not just organic and in organic arsenic but also cheap industrial wine with wines from well-farmed sustainable vineyards, not to mention wines from organic and bio-dynamic vineyards.All wine is not equal. I see the case as awake-up call. Pay as much attention to the wine you drink as the food you eat. Arsenic is just one contaminant that might be in cheap wine. A host of others are possible in wines from poorly farmed vineyards. The studies are just beginning.