‘Dangerously high’ levels of arsenic in California wine, alleges lawsuit: but industry slams the science

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Lawsuit alleges drinking wine could result in 'dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumer'
Lawsuit alleges drinking wine could result in 'dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumer'

Related tags United states environmental protection agency

California wine is ‘perfectly safe,’ says the industry body Wine Institute, after a lawsuit alleged some low-cost products contain ‘dangerously high’ levels of inorganic arsenic.  

Filed last week with the Superior Court of the State of California, the class action lists 28 Californian wineries as defendants.

But the Wine Institute, an association of 1,000 California wineries, slams the lawsuit as ‘unfounded litigation​.’

The lawsuit uses the US Environmental Protection Agency’s arsenic limit for drinking water. But the Wine Institute says there is ‘no scientific basis’ to apply this to wine, particularly given that daily intake levels of water are far higher than wine.  

Plaintiffs: ‘5 times the daily intake limit of arsenic in wine’

Arsenic is found naturally in air, soil, water and food.  As an agricultural product, wine contains trace amounts of arsenic (as do juices, vegetables, grains and other alcoholic beverages).

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs link inorganic arsenic with multiple cancers, as well as nausea, vomiting, disturbances of the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and death.

The action says it wants to ensure wine consumers are warned if a wine contains a high level of inorganic arsenic.

It continues to claim that no government agency is regularly testing wine for toxic ingredients such as inorganic arsenic, leaving wineries to police their own wines.

The majority of responsible California wineries, through choice of the proper grapes/juice, proper filtering processes and the use of proper equipment, limit the amount of inorganic arsenic present in their wines to “trace” levels considered acceptable (if not completely safe) for human consumption,” ​the plaintiffs say in the class action.

“However, three separate testing laboratories skilled in arsenic testing have now independently confirmed that several California wineries (including those named as Defendants in this action) instead produce and market wines that contain dangerously high levels of inorganic arsenic, in some cases up to 500% or more than what is considered the maximum acceptable safe daily intake limit.

“Put differently, just a glass or two of these arsenic-contaminated wines a day over time could result in dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumer.”

The lawsuit says that responsible wineries, which do make efforts to reduce inorganic arsenic levels, are unable to compete at the same price point with wineries who do not incur the costs of arsenic reduction.

“Defendants have knowingly and recklessly engaged in a consistent pattern and practice of selling arsenic-contaminated wine to California consumers, without disclosing either the existence of the toxin in their product, or the health risks it posed, thereby secretly poisoning wine consumers,” ​the action alleges.

“Defendants’ sale of arsenic-contaminated wine violates California laws and standards, poses a risk to the public, and unfairly undercuts those wine makers and sellers who do not make or sell arsenic tainted wines.”

Wine Institute: ‘Wine is perfectly safe’

The Wine Institute says products from its members are “perfectly safe.”

“The lawsuit claims that certain wines contain unsafe levels of arsenic based on the limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water: 10 parts per billion (ppb). However, there is no scientific basis for applying the EPA drinking water standard to wine.

“The US government has not published a limit for arsenic in wine but several countries including Canada, the EU, and Japan have set limits ranging from 100ppb up to 1000ppb – 10 to 100 times the level the EPA determined to be safe for drinking water.

“When the US government considers limits for arsenic in food and beverages, they take into account how much of that food or beverage an average person may consume in a day and the age of people who likely consume that food/beverage. Daily intake levels for water are significantly higher than for wine.

“The US government, TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regularly test wine for harmful compounds including arsenic - as does Canada and the European Union - to ensure wine is safe to consume.”

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