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Turning Wine Into Water and Creating Fear Out of Nothing

The arsenic-in-wine lawsuit is based on faulty science and imaginary threats. Who profits?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 7, 2015 2:00pm ET

By Mitch Frank

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.

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?

Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California, USA —  April 8, 2015 12:03am ET
What an excellent, INFORMED commentary, Mitch! Unfortunately, most casual wine drinkers have now been scared silly by the hyperbole promoted by the mainstream press. It is time for those with the means (such as the Franzia family and others) to aggressively pursue a malicious prosecution claim. BeverageGrades and the "ambulance-chasing" shakedown artists are no better than Al Sharpton. They will only be stopped when there are countersuits which hurt them financially. I hope that this is the time and setting.
Steve Trachsel
poway, CA —  April 8, 2015 5:42pm ET
I must agree with my friend Colin! Well done Mitch... as usual!

Hope to see both of you soon!
David Williams
Carlsbad CA —  April 9, 2015 12:15pm ET
I am with you about perhaps scaring the public. However the statement, "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" doesn't make sense.

2 liters equals a little more than 8 cups--and 3 would be 12 cups. Now the standard rule for adults (which may also be discredited) is to drink 8 cups a day of water. Now you don't have to live in this country long to note that the average American is not following any published health guides, not for exercise, eating or drinking water.

In addition if the arsenic guideline is based on a consumption amount for its calculation it certainly wouldn't be based on a range (2-3 liters), the resultant would also have to be a range and not a single number (10ppb.)

I also researched on the EPA site, and called one of their hotlines, and could not get what daily consumption rate the arsenic limit is based on. I'm sure it's out there somewhere, but I can't believe it's based on an unrealistic average. The best I could find was the average American drinks 2.5 to 3 cups of water a day.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, California —  April 9, 2015 4:42pm ET
I still don't understand. Where is the Arsenic coming from? Why is it only a problem with inexpensive wines? Assuming these wines don't have rice, apple juice or Brussels sprouts derivatives in them, what is the source of the elevated Arsenic? Why isn't this information front and center in all the articles published about this?
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 9, 2015 8:54pm ET
Mitch, another reason why the arsenic limit is so low for water is because the EPA had to take into account that children drink water and children are much more sensitive to arsenic than adults. Haven't seen many children drinking wine so it makes no sense that wine should have the same arsenic limit as water.

And David, believe it or not, everyone in my family does drink about 2 liters of water a day. All this time I thought we were average.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  April 10, 2015 10:11am ET
This scare is similar to yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire. If we judge wine by the same standards as water (and why stop at Arsenic?) then we will have to eliminate all ingredients in wine except the water!!
Evan Byrne
Serralunga d'Alba, Piemonte, Italy —  April 10, 2015 11:36am ET
You think this is bad, you should research the 1985 Austrian Wine Scandal: it was found that some producers were putting Ethylene Glycol in their wines to make them taste a little sweeter. This is not great, as it is mildly toxic (though less so than alcohol...). However, a reporter made an error and thought they were putting diethylene glycol in the wine, which is much worse. The entire industry in Austria was very badly affected due to health concerns based on a mistake. In reality, though the wines were adulterated illegally, they were not really any less safe than if they had not been tampered with at all.
Still, they should not have put either in, so perhpas they got what they deserved, even if for the wrong reasons.

As regards where the arsenic comes from - I believe that it is present in apple seeds, so I imagine that it appears in apple juice from this source. The same probably applies to wine - and of course, the cheaper the wine, the higher the likelyhood of more press wine being used. The levels are still ridiculously low, and in any case, exposure to low levels of arsenic builds an immunity, much like a vaccination. Sounds like some people want to make a bit of money from analyzing more wines than they currently do...
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  April 10, 2015 2:11pm ET

The amount of arsenic in the wines can't be all bad. I personally have consumed over 10,000 bottles of wine and at age of 83 can't wait to drink the next bottle tonight.
Andrew Watson
Overland Park, KS —  April 13, 2015 11:58am ET
What is so difficult to understand about this? Arsenic is in the soil and ground water. Naturally. Things that grow from the ground, especially food crops that soak up a lot of water, then contain arsenic. The amount of arsenic in rice is generally much higher than the amount found in the wines in this suit, or most other foods for that matter. Rice is the staple food for nearly half of humanity. They seem to be doing fine. BTW, there are a lot of other non-natural chemicals in food agriculture that people should be far more worried about.

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