Updated: While the lawsuit alleging that California wines contain unsafe levels of arsenic was dismissed in 2016 and scientists have regularly said arsenic levels in wine are minimal and perfectly safe, some groups continue to claim there is a threat. This story has been updated. For more on the lawsuit, please read our news story.
Kevin Hicks has pulled off a kind of miracle—he has turned wine into water. More precisely, he has fueled a class-action lawsuit arguing that wine should be judged by safety standards for water.
Hicks is co-founder of a Denver laboratory that analyzes the chemical compositions of wines. For a fee, retailers, distributors and others in the wine business can access BeverageGrades’ nutritional information on the wines—calories, sugars, carbohydrates and more—as well as any compounds like sulfites or even arsenic. The company gives grades on how “healthy” a wine is, though it fails to define healthy.
Hicks is in the news because three law firms, representing a few California consumers and seeking more, have accused some of California’s biggest wine companies of peddling 83 wine labels containing unsafe levels of arsenic. They based their findings on BeverageGrades' tests of 1,300 California wines, corroborated, they claim, by two other laboratories.
As you can imagine, accusing wineries of poisoning their customers sparked a few media reports, with headlines like “Your Favorite Wine Might Contain High Levels Of Deadly Arsenic, According To Lawsuit.”
If you read the whole story, however, you might have found something curious—the suit says the wines are unsafe based on an EPA standard for arsenic levels in drinking water. Should wine be judged by rules for water?
Arsenic is naturally present in water and soil and is found in foods like rice, apple juice and Brussels sprouts. The EPA set its standard for drinking water—under 10 parts per billion (ppb)—by assuming the average adult drinks 2 to 3 liters of water a day. If you are drinking 2 to 3 liters of wine a day, you have some more pressing health concerns than slow poisoning by arsenic.
The U.S. government has never set a standard for arsenic in wine, but Canada requires wines to be under 100 ppb, and acceptable levels in Europe are even higher. With the highest levels found in the wines at 50 ppb, none named in the lawsuit come close to that.
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Hicks is not a party to the suit, but it’s built on his research, and on the day it was filed in a Los Angeles court, BeverageGrades emailed retailers offering to certify that wines on their shelves were safe—for a fee. A year before the lawsuit, Hicks contacted journalists about “a scoop” on how wines contained unsafe levels of arsenic. Curious reporters could pay to see BeverageGrades’ data by check or PayPal.
So far, the wineries named in the suit have vowed to fight. Regardless of how far this battle goes, the industry will be laboring for years to overcome a casual, mistaken perception that wine contains unsafe arsenic levels. For more than 30 years, U.S. consumers have believed that drinking wine in moderation is healthy. That image is now threatened.
Hicks has said that he founded this lab because the government had not done its job and mandated nutritional labels on wines. I’ve followed both sides of the debate over ingredients labeling for years, and I think supporters and opponents both have legitimate arguments.
But employing scare tactics and legal threats sows unfounded fears of wine. How does that advance the cause of labeling, exactly?