Last Thursday, four California residents filed a lawsuit alleging that some of the state's most popular (read: cheap) wines — including Franzia, Korbel, and the infamous two-buck Chuck, Charles Shaw — are laced with arsenic at up to five times the level of what's considered safe.
According to the class-action suit, brought against 28 wine producers, "just a glass or two of these arsenic-contaminated wines a day over time could result in dangerous arsenic toxicity to the consumers." Since California wines make up nearly 90% of the U.S. wine industry, American wine drinkers have become the "unwitting 'guinea pigs' of arsenic exposure," the suit alleges.
But don't dump your boxes of Franzia just yet. These wines do contain tiny amounts of the toxic compound — but so do expensive wines, as well as pretty much everything that we eat and drink.
If you live in the U.S., then your groundwater actually has a surprising amount of arsenic in it.
Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in much of the untreated groundwater in the U.S. and a handful of other countries. Taken in large doses or over long stretches of time, arsenic can cause cancer, brain toxicity, heart problems, or death. (As pointed out in the lawsuit, it led to the ultimate demise of Napoleon and King George III, among others.)
This is why the World Health Organization has labeled groundwater as the "greatest threat to public health from arsenic," and why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is strict about keeping arsenic out of the water supply. Only 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic are allowed in drinking water (meaning 10 parts arsenic for every 1 billion parts water). Assuming people drink roughly two liters of water a day, this amount of arsenic is totally harmless.
Water is also a big part of how arsenic gets into our food supply. Every winery, for example, bears the unique signature of its particular geography. The soil chemistry, water, and climate of a vineyard contributes to the flavors of whatever grapes are grown there. But because of arsenic present in soil and water, a wine's terroir can also determine its level of toxicity.
"Plants will take it up into their tissues, so any plant material will have some arsenic," Susan Ebeler, a professor of wine chemistry at University of California, Davis, told BuzzFeed News. "If animals eat the plant material, they'll have some arsenic too. It's ubiquitous. Everything we eat will probably have some low level of arsenic."
As a result, wine isn't the only product that's been scrutinized for its arsenic content. A 2012 Consumer Reports study showed that fruit juice — which has a high water content — and rice, which is grown in water-flooded conditions and so absorbs more of the toxic compound, had arsenic levels on par with our water supply. In 2013, the FDA proposed a 10 ppb limit for arsenic in apple juice, but nothing has been made official. Water remains the only foodstuff monitored for arsenic — which means there's no legal limit in the U.S. for how much arsenic can be in wine.
The plaintiffs’ claims rest on a chemical analysis by a Denver-based commercial lab named BeverageGrades.
In a press release on March 19, the day the lawsuit was filed, the company said that its "state-of-the-art" lab could be used across the supply chain — for producers, retailers, and consumers — to make sure arsenic levels in the wine were up to scratch. The company sent the press release to many wine retailers the day the lawsuit was filed offering their paid testing services.
BeverageGrades declined to answer questions from BuzzFeed News about the specific findings of its wine report, except to note that the "results were verified by two independent laboratories." The company also declined to answer questions about whether their report helped initiate the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, BeverageGrades tested about 1,300 California wines and found that nearly one-fourth of them had arsenic levels exceeding the EPA's accepted drinking water threshold of 10 ppb. Some, like Charles Shaw white zinfandel, clocked in around three times the limit, while Franzia's white grenache came in at five times that level.
Although U.S. federal agencies have not set a safety threshold for arsenic levels in wine, the International Organization of Vine and Wine, the primary international review board for winemaking, has ruled that anything under 200 ppb is fine. Canadian authorities have decided anything under 100 ppb is safe. When held up to these international standards, all of the California wines pass muster.
Another reason not to worry: Most people drink far less wine than water. "The first principle of toxicology is: The dose makes the poison," Carl Winter, a professor of food toxicology at UC Davis, told BuzzFeed News. "It's the amount of a contaminant, not its presence or absence, that determines the potential for harm."
The arsenic safety levels determined for water are based on drinking roughly two liters of water a day — equivalent to roughly 14 glasses of wine. If you're drinking that much alcohol, arsenic is the least of your worries.
At a typical consumption rate — a few glasses of wine, say — arsenic levels are safe. Using water as the main comparison for how much arsenic we can consume in a glass of wine is "like comparing apples and oranges," Winter said.
BeverageGrades’ analysis found that cheap wines have more arsenic than expensive ones.
There are several possible explanations. It could be that tiny amounts of arsenic leach out of materials used to store and transport the wine, such as metal pipes and containers, Ebeler said. Varying manufacturing procedures could potentially contribute to differences between bottom-shelf, mass-produced brands like two-buck Chuck and more expensive ones.
But the truth is, we don't know. BeverageGrades has not published its full testing results, nor any details about its methodology. (A company representative told BuzzFeed News only that it used methodology published by American Organization of Analytical Chemists.)
In the $23 billion wine industry, some argue that the issue may boil down to money.
"You're talking about some of the most successful wine companies in the country — that's clear," Nancy Light, a representative of the Wine Institute, an industry group representing more than 1,000 wineries in California, told BuzzFeed News. "This lawsuit is baseless and takes facts out of context — that's financially motivated."
The story has been updated to include responses from BeverageGrades.
Azeen Ghorayshi is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her PGP Fingerprint is 672A 7C08 9443 A95F 9D85 78FB 91EB 9C30 B197 5963.
Contact Azeen Ghorayshi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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