Pesticide Residues Found in European Wines


(Beyond Pesticides, April 3, 2008)

Wines on sale in the European Union (EU), including wines made by world famous vineyards, contain residues of a number of pesticides, according to a new report by Pesticide Action Network Europe. The organization tested 40 bottles of wine purchased inside the EU from Australia, Austria, Chile, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal and South Africa, six of which were organic wines. Every bottle of conventional wine included in the analysis was found to contain pesticides, with one bottle containing 10 different pesticides. On average each wine sample contained over four pesticides.

The analysis revealed 24 different pesticide contaminants, including five classified as being carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic to the reproductive system or endocrine disrupting. The most widespread pesticide contaminant was pyrimethanil, a possible carcinogen, which was detected in 25 bottles of conventional wine almost 75% of all conventional samples analyzed. While the majority of wines tested were selected from low cost affordable brands, three of the bottles are world famous Bordeaux wines and more expensive, according to PAN Europe.

The discovery of pesticides in samples of wine follows the publication of a report by the French Ministry of Agriculture which identified 15 pesticides as being systematically transferred from grapes into wine during the wine-making process. Grapes are among the most contaminated food products on sale in the EU and receive a higher dose of synthetic pesticides than almost any other crop. The contamination of wines is a direct result of over reliance on pesticides in grape production. In the EU, grapes account for 3% of all cropland, while being responsible for 15% synthetic pesticide applications.

“The presence of pesticides in European wines is a growing problem,” said Elliott Cannell of PAN Europe. “Many grape farmers are abandoning traditional methods of pest control in favor of using hazardous synthetic pesticides. This trend has a direct impact on the quality of European wines. In two thirds of cases the pesticide residues identified in this study relate to chemicals only recently adopted into mainstream grape production in the EU. Hazardous pesticides applied to food crops growing in the field can and do end up in food products. Almost half of all fruit and vegetables sold in the EU are contaminated with pesticides, with one item in 20 containing pesticides at concentrations above legal limits.”

Of the six bottles of organic wine tested, five contained no detectable pesticide residues. These results provide a clear proof of principle that pesticide free wine production is possible where no synthetic pesticides are applied to grapes. One sample contained a low concentration of pyrimethanil, a possible carcinogen. The presence of pesticide residues in organic wines is a rare but well documented phenomenon. A 2004 study, suggests that small organic wine producers located in areas of intensive conventional grape production may suffer occasional contamination due to the drift of pesticides from neighboring plots affecting front-line organic vines.

The U.S. is second behind EU for global wine consumption. Europe accounts for two thirds of global wine production and consumption. Italy, France, Spain are major exporters selling around 64% of all wine traded internationally. Germany and UK are the world’s largest wine importers.

According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) reported pesticide use statistics, total pesticide use on wine grapes in the state dropped by about 8.5 million pounds in 2006. DPR analysts note that pesticide use varies from year to year based on many factors, including types of crops, economics, acreage planted, and weather conditions. Even under similar conditions, pest problems may vary. For example, cool wet spring weather often prompts increased use of sulfur and other fungicides, as was the case in 2005. But similar weather conditions in 2006 did not produce as much vineyard disease in most areas, so wine grape growers actually used less sulfur.

Back in 1998, a wine industry group acknowledged that some wines produced in France may have been contaminated with polychlorophenols, specifically pentachlorophenol, for the past decade. The wine industry says the contamination causes “no health hazard,” according to L’Express news magazine, but that it makes the wine taste bad. This bad taste was often blamed on bad corks.

However, pentachlorophenol is a probable human carcinogen that contains dioxin; it is not registered for food uses and has no “safe” level, according to Beyond Pesticides. The chemical is used to treat wood used for the walls of wine storage facilities, and “trace quantities” seeped into such wines as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais and champagnes. Contamination in champagne has been known of since 1982. The industry chose not to inform the public so as not to cause unnecessary alarm. According to L’Express, Sophie Gerard, a spokesperson for the wine industry, says that less than one percent of Bordeaux wine was affected and that the problem has been resolved through replacing the treated wood with solid oak which does not need treatment. She cites a study by the Conseil Interprofessionenel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), also mentioned in Wine Spectator magazine, which found that of 1344 wine samples, only 11 were contaminated with a wood preservative. The scientist, Pascal Chatonnet, who discovered the contamination, says that about 50% of his samples had been contaminated. According to Wine Spectator, vintners believe it is the humid conditions in wine cellars that cause the polychlorophenol molecules from wood ceilings and walls to evolve into 2,4,6, trichloroanisole (TCE), which is commonly cited as the chemical responsible for making wine taste “corky.”

The health impacts of pesticide exposure to vineyard farmworkers is also a concern. According to the PAN-Europe report, “Published scientific analysis suggests that those exposed to pesticides in grape production suffer a higher incidence of allergic rhinitis, respiratory problems, cancers, and chromosomal and nuclear abnormalities, as well as lower neurological capacities.”