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Lawsuit Claims California Wines Contain Dangerous Arsenic Levels

Wineries deny allegations, insist their products are safe and plaintiffs' research is flawed
Suspects? A lawsuit alleges several California wineries are allowing unsafe arsenic levels in wine.
Photo by: iStock
Suspects? A lawsuit alleges several California wineries are allowing unsafe arsenic levels in wine.

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: March 19, 2015

Are some California wineries "secretly poisoning wine consumers"? That's one of the incendiary charges being leveled in a class-action lawsuit against several of the biggest companies in American wine, filed March 19 in a California state court. At the heart of the suit is that the "defendants produce, manufacture and/or distribute wine in California that contains inorganic arsenic in amounts far in excess of what is allowed in drinking water."

The spokesman for one company named in the suit and others in the industry argue that the lawsuit is spurious and based on misinformation.

The plaintiffs "decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain," said a spokesman for The Wine Group (TWG), one of the defendants.

The lawsuit names several large companies, including TWG, Treasury Wine Estates, Trinchero, Fetzer Vineyards and Bronco, following claims that a Denver laboratory found inorganic arsenic in 83 brands, including Franzia, Sutter Home, Concannon, Wine Cube, Beringer, Flipflop, Fetzer, Korbel, Almaden, Trapiche, Cupcake, Smoking Loon and Charles Shaw.

"Almost all of them are $10 or less, and the vast majority of those are under $5," said lawyer Brian Kabateck, whose firm is one of three bringing the suit, at a press conference today after the complaint was filed in the Superior Court of California's Los Angeles branch. "The consumer may be spending less than $5 for a bottle of wine, but they may be paying with their health in the long run. These are very serious allegations that we're raising against the wine industry."

The goals of the suit, Kabateck said, are, "first and foremost to clean up the wine industry, which is largely unregulated in the state of California. We're asking these winemakers to take these wines off the shelves today, to recall the products. We're also asking that the wine industry come into the sunlight, become more open about what's in their product. And finally we want to refund the consumers who bought these products that we allege are dangerous."

The lawyers declined to estimate a dollar amount, but any Californian who purchased a wine named in the suit between Jan. 1, 2011, and today would be eligible for inclusion in the class.

"The quality of our products and the health and safety of our consumers is our first priority. The Trinchero family, as well as the California Wine Institute, dispute these unfounded claims and are actively pursuing all remedies to defend against these defamatory statements about our company and our products,” said Nora Feeley, public relations director for Trinchero Family Estates. "Trinchero has always employed sustainability practices and quality testing and assurance across the company in our vineyard, winemaking, and production practices."

"Treasury Wine Estates is confident that its products are fully compliant with all relevant federal and state guidelines," said Nicole Carter, vice president of public relations, the Americas. "[TWE] remains confident that our wines are not only safe but enjoyable to drink."

"Fetzer Vineyards does not add arsenic in the making of our wines. We produce all of our wines in a responsible manner and adhere to all state and federal regulations," said Holly Killion, compliance director for Fetzer Vineyards.

"We don't think that this lawsuit has merit, and we think that the publicity campaign is very irresponsible," Wine Institute vice president Nancy Light told Wine Spectator.

The plaintiffs are using the Environmental Protection Agency's safety threshold for arsenic in drinking water as their benchmark for wines they call unsafe—a level of 10 parts per billion. Light contends this is an incorrect standard. "There are no [EPA] limits for other foods and beverages—including wine—because they're not consumed at the same level as water and not deemed to be a risk. There is no research that shows that the amount of arsenic in wine poses any health risks to consumers."

The spokesman for TWG, which is accused of high arsenic levels in 13 brands it sells, said the plaintiffs were "improperly comparing apples to oranges—only in this case, water to wine."

The TWG wine that tested at the highest level at the lab in the suit showed arsenic levels of 50 ppb, meaning that a person could consume a few glasses and still not reach the amount of arsenic a healthy adult would drink daily in water at 10 ppb. Drinking the brands that tested at lower levels of arsenic, someone would have to empty multiple bottles of wine each day to exceed arsenic levels from water consumption.

Light also pointed out that the named California wineries export wines to Canada and Europe; the former has arsenic regulations stating that wine must be below 100 ppb, and the latter's acceptable levels are even higher.

The genesis of the suit is the work of a researcher named Kevin Hicks, whose BeverageGrades laboratory offers beverage testing and certification services. Hicks tested some 1,300 wines. He found that the 83 named in the suit had levels of arsenic above the 10 ppb range.

"Before he came to us, he went to the wine industry," said Michael Burg, whose Denver firm was first contacted by Hicks. "He said, 'I have found these large levels of arsenic in your wines. Will you talk to me about it?' And they all said, 'No, we have no interest in talking to you.'"

The TWG spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. But the same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”

"If there's snow on the ground, you can safely conclude that it snowed, that someone has their own economic self interest involved here," said the TWG spokesman.

Another issue in the suit is "organic" versus "inorganic" arsenic. The element occurs naturally in fruits and fruit juices. The plaintiffs' lawyers speculated that the heightened arsenic levels could be caused by clarifying agents, poor filtration, pesticides or adulterants.

But Prof. Roger Boulton of the University of California at Davis, cautioned, "We do not have reliable data for winegrape juices, water sources or winemaking additives to understand where the higher-than-average levels are coming from."

As for whether wine should be held to water standards, Boulton said, "I do not know enough to comment on the health effects but I think most people would agree that looking at intake rates based on amounts and frequency, not just concentrations, would be a rational approach."

The suit sees it differently. "Defendants' California wine consumers have been made unwitting 'guinea pigs' of arsenic exposure, being involuntarily exposed to toxic levels of inorganic arsenic over and over again by the defendants."

A court date has not been set.

Joel Viger
Cranbrook B.C. —  March 20, 2015 11:45am ET
The goals of the suit, Kabateck said, are, "first and foremost to clean up the wine industry, which is largely unregulated in the state of California."

Haha. That's a good one.
Lisa Feltis-german
Bozeman, Mt., USA —  March 20, 2015 11:10pm ET
will be interesting to see if/how Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon Vineyards) weighs in on this - his siren call for transparency re production methods/additives/labeling has been ignored for years.
Joel Viger
Cranbrook B.C. —  March 20, 2015 11:30pm ET
The goals of the suit, Kabateck said, are, "first and foremost to clean up the wine industry, which is largely unregulated in the state of California."

Haha. That's a good one.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  March 21, 2015 12:03pm ET
California is being California again. No wonder that the state is almost bankrupt if the only thing this California emplpyee (probably has a 6 figure salary) has to do other than worry about arsenic in our wine. There are no creditable studies that show the French are dying of arsenic poisoning despite having many times the level seen in our wines. Lovers of 2 Buck chuck, Sutton and other inexpensive wines, California is telling you to buy a place in your local graveyard. Don't wait!!
Craig Wheeler
Los Angeles CA —  March 21, 2015 1:57pm ET
Hugh Sutherland - your Alabama is showing. Did you even read the article? It has nothing to do with the State of California - it's an independent testing firm who announced the results and law firms trying to make a buck off a class action suit. the state has no position on this. Take your derp over to a Fox News site.
Gregory Popovich
Palos Verdes Estates, CA  —  March 23, 2015 12:36pm ET
Wine Institute Fact Sheet on Arsenic

Mar 20, 2015


Wine Institute is the association of 1,000 California wineries. In recent days, unfounded litigation has raised questions about the safety of California wine. We want to assure you that the health and safety of consumers is of the greatest importance to our wineries and that the wine produced by our members is perfectly safe.

The lawsuit claims that certain wines contain unsafe levels of arsenic based on the limit set by the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 risks from potential exposure to arsenic in wine are lower than the risks the EPA considers safe for drinking water. For perspective, eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day is the recommended daily amount, whereas one to two 5-ounce glasses of wine a day is defined as moderate wine consumption according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Arsenic is prevalent in the natural environment in air, soil and water and food. As an agricultural product, wines from throughout the world contain trace amounts of arsenic as do juices, vegetables, grains and other alcohol beverages and this is nothing new.
The U.S. government, both TTB and FDA as part of its Total Diet Study, regularly tests wines for harmful compounds including arsenic as does Canada and the European Union to ensure that wine is safe to consume.

Contact: Communications@wineinstitute.org

Chris Turner
fresno, ca —  March 24, 2015 12:38pm ET
is arsenic stored in the body, I may only drink 2 glasses of wine a day but,
The uptake and elimination of arsenic depends on its chemical form, particularly at high exposures. For example, ingested organic arsenic compounds are much less extensively metabolized and more rapidly eliminated in urine than inorganic arsenic in both laboratory animals and humans. In the case of inorganic arsenic, the trivalent forms pass more rapidly into the tissues compared with the pentavalent forms
William Reinhart
Manakin Sabot VA —  March 26, 2015 8:53pm ET
I have an idea!...if the wines are filled with arsenic . . . .let's have a wine tasting and invite all the lawyers!

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