About 30 makers of low-priced California wines including popular brands Charles Shaw and Sutter Home allow unacceptable levels of arsenic in their products, private attorneys said in a proposed class action filed in Los Angeles on Thursday.
The legal action represents a challenge to a segment of the industry that produces wines that consumers can buy for less than $10 a bottle, or in the case of Charles Shaw the so-called Two-Buck Chuck product that retailer Trader Joe's has popularized at $2.
The attorneys who brought the lawsuit said the majority of wineries in the state's $23 billion wine industry, the nation's largest, produce a safe product. But they said a lack of government regulation puts consumers at risk.
"There is more regulation in the caramel corn industry in the United States than in the wine industry, as surprising as that is," attorney Brian Kabateck told a news conference.
"We are trying to bring the wine industry out into the sunshine," he said.
The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and accuses about 30 California wineries of unjust enrichment, misrepresentation and engaging in unfair competition against wineries that follow safe practices.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the maximum amount of arsenic in water at 10 parts per billion, but the lawsuit says laboratory tests conducted for the litigation have shown levels of inorganic arsenic, the most dangerous form of the substance, which can cause cancer and diabetes, at far higher levels.
The suit did not specify how much was being sought in damages.
Plaintiffs attorneys said they do not know exactly how the arsenic gets into some wines but said it may come from a clarifying agent or from inadequate filtration of pesticides used on grapes.
The Wine Institute, a trade association representing California wineries, said it believes the litigation is misleading.
"We are concerned that the irresponsible publicity campaign by the litigating party could scare the public into thinking that wine is not safe to consume, which is patently untrue," it said in a statement.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris has the power under state law to bring a complaint to protect consumers from what may be unsafe wines, and the attorneys who filed the suit expressed hope she would take such action.
A representative for Harris' office declined immediate comment. Representatives for Sutter Home and Trader Joe's could not immediately be reached for comment.