Responding to a recent lawsuit alleging high levels of arsenic in its Two Buck Chuck, among other inexpensive white and rose wines produced by 28 California winemakers, Trader Joe’s has written “A Note to Customers About Arsenic in Wine” to “clarify some points.” 

The company begins by stating: “We will not offer any product we feel is unsafe. Ever. We have no reason to believe the wines we offer are unsafe.”

Trader Joe’s says that the plaintiffs have refused to show them the actual test results for the company’s Charles Shaw White Zinfandel, which the lawsuit claims contains nearly three times the allowable amount of arsenic for drinking water. TJ’s admits that “Out of context, this sounds alarming. We would like to provide some context for the claims.”

The company then points out that “There are no U.S. governmental standards for arsenic in wine. The EPA has set the limit for Total Arsenic in drinking water in the US at 10 parts-per-billion. In Canada, the limit for Total Arsenic in wine is 100 parts-per-billion.” The company adds that the limit for a European-based winemaking consortium is 200 parts-per-billion.

“Again, we will not offer any product we feel is unsafe. We have had no reports of adverse reactions to Charles Shaw wines — or other wines — related to the potential presence of arsenic,” TJ’s statement says.

TJ’s then quotes the Wine Institute, which states, “[W]e believe this allegation is false. … Arsenic is prevalent in the natural environment in air, soil and water, and in food. As an agricultural product, wines from California and throughout the world contain trace amounts of arsenic as do juices, vegetables, grains and other alcohol beverages. There is no research that shows that the amounts found in wine pose a health risk to consumers.”

Numerous studies have shown that even small amounts of arsenic have been associated with raising the risk for cancer (particularly bladder and lung), heart disease, diabetes and many other disorders. Chronic arsenic ingestion in the young appears to result in low IQ and “poor intellectual function.”

In a 2012 study about arsenic in rice, Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School researchers point out that there are no U.S. regulatory limits for arsenic in food – and that a lack of standards is not a good thing, stating that there is an “urgent need” for regulatory limits on arsenic in food, including rice and fruit juices (high arsenic levels have also been found in grape and apple juice).

These medical scientists say consumers should limit daily consumption of foods known to contain arsenic.

In 2012, representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Nita Lowey (D-NY) introduced federal legislation to limit the amount of arsenic permitted in rice and rice-based products, on the heels of legislation to limit the amount of arsenic in juice.

“The idea that high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen, are present in rice, cereal and other common, everyday foods is absolutely outrageous,” DeLauro said. “The federal government has an obligation to every American family to ensure that the food they consume is safe and should not make them sick. This is not the first time we have been alerted to the dangers of arsenic, and quite simply we must do more to ensure that our food supply is safe.”

According to a 2014 study by scientists at the Environmental Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Montreal published in BMC Health, even drinking-water arsenic limits are not strict enough. “The target,” the chemists say, “should be zero.”

“The toxicity of arsenic is well known,” the researchers write. “Existing arsenic guidelines are a cost-benefit compromise. … Tighter drinking water quality criteria should be implemented to properly protect people from excessive cancer risks. Food safety regulations must be put in place to prevent higher concentrations of arsenic in various drinks than those allowed in drinking water.”

The Canadian study states that arsenic in our food and water supply is actually the remnant of arsenic-based pesticides that were used heavily on U.S. crops prior to the 1950s: “Though arsenic was gradually phased out and banned across the continent in the 1980s, many orchards and fields are still contaminated,” the researchers write. “The higher concentrations of arsenic in fruit juices are presumed to arise from the arsenic remaining in the soils of orchards where the arsenic pesticides were spread. The residual arsenic from the pesticides in the soil is taken up by the plant roots and partly transferred to the fruit.” 

The Canadian researchers conclude: “The calculations of a cost-benefit threshold relative to one’s cancer risk is an intimately personal decision, and people must be aware that regulatory targets for arsenic should be as close to zero as possible.”

However, “Current data suggest that the water quality guidelines should be systematically enforced for all beverages, without exception.”

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