A recent class action lawsuit filed against several well-known California winemakers over arsenic found in their wine shows once again how easy it is to misuse the American courts to create fear where none is warranted and then attempt to make money off the situation.
Arsenic in wine?! The provocative statement alone is enough to grab the attention of even the most casual wine drinker, but it’s a story that even non-wine enthusiasts need to hear.
In case you missed it, CBS News first reported in March that several winemakers including Sutter Home Winery, Beringer Vineyards, Fetzer Vineyards, Woodbridge Winery and Trader Joe’s are being sued after a laboratory reported that some of their wines were “contaminated with arsenic in levels above regulatory standards.” It led to news reports nationwide and sensationalistic headlines like:
“Alarming levels of arsenic in some popular wines, lawsuit claims” in Florida, and
“Lawsuit claims popular, low-cost wines contain high levels of arsenic” in Colorado.
What wine drinker wouldn’t be a little concerned after reading that? My concern after looking into this lawsuit, however, is that many consumers will hear the headlines and be afraid that retailers in the United States are selling dangerous wines because they don’t know the full story. So, here are the facts.
To begin with, the statement that the wines contain arsenic levels “above regulatory standards” is totally misleading. The truth is that the US government does not regulate arsenic levels in wine. The government has, on the other hand, limited the amount of arsenic in water for many years, but comparing water to wine is like comparing apples to oranges.
After the CBS report was aired, FDA spokeswoman, Lauren Sucher, revealed to CNN that the EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water:
“is of limited use when considering any potential health risks related to arsenic in wine. People drink far more water than they do wine over their lifetimes, and they start drinking water earlier in life. Thus, both the amount and period of exposure are different and would require separate analyses.”
Furthermore, seeing as the USDA recommends drinking about 10 cups of water a day and no more than two alcoholic drinks (about 1 cup of wine) a day, Cornell University’s Gavin Lavi told CNN that “a sensible concentration limit for arsenic in wine should be at least 10-fold higher than for drinking water, and possibly higher, since we also use water for cooking and cleaning.”
While the United States doesn’t regulate the amount of arsenic in wine, Canada and Europe do. In a subsequent story that provided much-needed perspective on this issue, NPR reported that:
“The upper threshold, set by Health Canada, is 100 parts per billion, or ppb. And the limit set by OIV, a European intergovernmental wine organization, is even higher at 200 ppb.“
None of the California wines produced by the wineries named in the class-action lawsuit tested higher than 50 ppb!
So, if these wines are safe by standards set by the top wine-consuming regions in the world, why does a lawsuit like this see the light of day? It’s impossible to rationalize why courts allow such speculative lawsuits, but it IS possible to see how someone could personally benefit from this litigation.
The Wine Business Blog published a news release from the public relations firm representing the laboratory, BeverageGrades, that released the testing results that led to this lawsuit. In the release, the lab cites the CBS story that reported on its test results and then conveniently states that the laboratory also “offers alcoholic beverage retailers a tool for screening their offerings to ensure the quality of their supply chain.”
Would it be too cynical to suppose, as the wine blog suggests, that the laboratory has taken a page from Marketing 101 and created a problem to which it can provide a solution for financial gain? It wouldn’t be the first time our courts have been manipulated like this. The big question is, why is it allowed to continue?