Friday Rant: Arsenic and Wine

As a researcher, before you claim anything to be “true” you try your darndest to prove it to be false. Sure, you hold out hope that your groundbreaking hypothesis turns out to be true, people consider it to be revolutionary in your field, and you become famous. This then leads to incredible wealth, there are books written and movies made about you, soon, you start dating super-models and drive a Tesla.

I just made that up—no one really thinks stuff like that, particularly me.

Promise.

Swear.

Any way, the point is that any good research starts with a hypothesis, which you then try to disprove.

At least that is the way it is supposed to go.

Many of you have no doubt heard the “news” this week concerning the levels of arsenic in wine. For those of you that have not, basically, Kevin Hicks, the founder of a lab called BeverageGrades filled a class-action lawsuit against several wineries stating that some of their lower priced wines had dangerously high levels of arsenic. Arsenic, of course, can do some rather nasty things to your body.

Hard to find a picture of Arsenic that looks like anything menacing...

Hard to find a picture of Arsenic that looks like anything menacing….

Like kill it.

Dead.

My first reaction to the story?

“Well, that’s not good.”

My immediate second thought?

“Wine snobs like me always say ‘Life’s too short to drink bad wine.’ I guess we should change that to ‘Life becomes short if you drink bad wine.’”

Yeah. I really thought that…

Then I but the snarkiness aside and started to think a bit more about it and right from the beginning, it just did not “sound” right. I wondered if there was something nefarious afoot, but given the number of producers and labels involved (83 wines from 28 wineries), some sort of “plot” is highly unlikely.

Second, arsenic is a tasteless, odorless metalloid (has some metal and non-metal properties), which would not add anything to a wine, so it is doubtful that it was added deliberately.

rantThird, all of the wines cited were inexpensive–in fact the “study” (which was not released–another red flag) stated that the levels of arsenic in the wines were inversely related to the cost of the wine (as the cost of the wine went down, the arsenic levels went up). This seemed rather odd to me since these wines are usually produced in great volume and therefore need to be sourced from numerous sites so the chances for a common thread are greatly diminished. Even further diminishing the common thread is the fact that the wineries are not all even on the same continent.

Fourth. And this is a big one as a researcher. Apparently, the people at CBS (the news outlet that “broke” the “story”) tried to replicate the findings and tested four of the wines that were cited by BeverageGrades. They found much lower amounts of arsenic than did those who are filing the lawsuit.

Hmmmm.

cbs2[Why CBS still felt compelled to run the story is evidence of mass-media at its absolute worst–even though they had reason to question the veracity of the claims, they ran the story regardless, since they no doubt knew that it would spread very quickly. Shame on CBS.]

So I dug a little deeper (which did not take all that much effort, honestly) and found that while the U.S. has no standard for the amount of arsenic allowed in wine, Canada and Europe do. Canada’s limit is 100 parts per billion (ppb) and Europe’s is twice that (200 ppb). The highest level, apparently, in BeverageGrades test (I say “apparently” since, as I mentioned above, the report has not been released for scrutiny) was 50 ppb. Instead, for some reason, BeverageGrades based their lawsuit on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation for drinking water, which is 10 ppb.

So does the amount of arsenic that is allowable in water have any thing to do with the amount of arsenic in wine? Perhaps. If one was consuming equal amounts of both. Most of the sites that I have seen suggest that we all should consume around two liters of water a day. Now, I do not know about you, but I do not drink anywhere close to two liters of wine–almost three 750ml bottles–every day (if you don’t count the weekend, that is).

The last bit of “evidence” that I present? BeverageGrades is an “Independent Third Party Lab Testing Facility of Wine, Beer and Spirits” according to their website. What does that mean? That means it “tests wines, beers and spirits for such chemical compounds as heavy metals (e.g. lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.), pesticides and sulfites…” (emphasis added).

For a fee.

On the same day they filed the lawsuit and caused this huge s*itstorm, they issued a press release stating that they were there to offer “alcoholic beverage retailers a tool for screening their offerings to ensure the quality of their supply chain.”

In other words, the company that just scared the crap out of the entire wine drinking world by inventing a problem that really does not exist, would happily test your product (for a fee) to ensure that your wine is safe from this problem (that really does not exist).

How magnanimous of them.