Wineries to Issue Lead Warnings : Health: Makers settle lawsuit charging that foil used to seal bottles is a potential health hazard.


Responding to a lawsuit brought by the state attorney general, makers of many of the country’s best-selling wines have agreed to post signs throughout the state warning consumers that the lead foil used to seal wine bottles represents a potential health hazard, particularly to fetuses.

Under the terms of the settlement, which is scheduled to be presented for approval in San Diego County Superior Court today, consumers purchasing wine will be greeted by signs with the following warning: “Before pouring wine, wipe bottle tops clean with a damp cloth to avoid residue from lead foil capsules. Lead is a chemical known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Parties to the agreement include 20 winemakers, among them some of the best known in the industry--Gallo, Robert Mondavi and Paul Masson. The vintners have agreed to pay the state a $200,000 fine for failing to have informed consumers in the past of the potential hazard.


Additionally, they must spend up to $700,000 for the warning notices posted where wine is sold and an advertising campaign designed to teach the public how to avoid lead contamination of wine.

The proposed advertisements to appear in magazines and newspapers will instruct wine consumers and servers: “Many fine wine bottles are sealed with corks covered by lead foil capsules. These capsules can leave a deposit of a small amount of lead on the lip of the bottle, where it will mix with the wine when poured. . . . Although the amount of these lead deposits is small, there is no reason to add lead to your diet if it can be avoided.”

The new warnings are in addition to those already required for products containing alcohol, which by itself is known to cause birth defects in fetuses.

The settlement is the result of a suit filed in August by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren charging that a number of winemakers failed to inform consumers of their exposure to lead as required under the 1986 ballot initiative, Proposition 65. Under the initiative, the lead warning is required when exposure is at least one-thousandth of the level believed to cause damage to the developing fetus.

Winemakers, including some foreign vintners also party to the agreement, have agreed to phase out use of the lead-containing foils by the end of the year for domestic wines and by the end of March for foreign products, said Robin Shapiro, a private attorney representing the Wine Institute, whose 500 members produce about 90% of California wines.

Shapiro and Wine Institute President John De Luca pointed out that the amounts of lead found in California wines are generally quite small. On average, he said, the levels are similar to those found in food items such as containers of spaghetti sauce.


“The irony of (the agreement) is that the focus of attention has been the California wine industry when in fact the lead levels of California and domestic wines are orders of magnitude lower than imported wines,” said Shapiro.

However, some tests cited by the attorney general found lead levels in both domestic and imported wines that are not enough to cause acute lead poisoning, but enough to raise concerns about prolonged exposure.

De Luca said the members of the Wine Institute had agreed voluntarily to phase out the use of lead foil even before the settlement in response to legislation by several New England states seeking to keep lead waste products out of landfills.

Lead has become a growing health issue in the United States, prompted by increasing evidence that long-term exposure to even small amounts can damage the brain and nervous system--particularly in fetuses and young children.

Last week, Lungren joined the Environmental Defense Fund in suing 10 top manufacturers of dishware under the Proposition 65 initiative for failing to warn purchasers that lead in ceramic dishes that could leach into foods.

Proposition 65 allows any citizen to file suit against a company for failure to warn the public--and, if successful, to collect fines as high as $2,500 a day per violation under the initiative’s so-called “bounty hunter” provisions.


However, the popular ballot measure also allows local prosecutors or the state attorney general to take over such litigation rather than allow a plethora of private lawsuits.

In August, Wine Institute representatives met with several members of Lungren’s top staff, urging the attorney general to intervene in citizen suits filed in San Diego and, in effect, to take control of the lead-related legal action.

“The idea of tying us up . . . with all this frivolous litigation, led us to conclude that it is really in the best interest of industry and consumers alike to settle,” De Luca explained.

Part of the settlement will include advertising in a variety of publications, showing the consumer, step by step, how to remove foil wraps and wipe the bottle clean of any lead residues before pouring, he said.

Although the finest red wines--many of which are capped in lead foil--are often stored for years in their bottles prior to consumption, most wines with lead caps will be off the market within a year, Shapiro said.