Monday, July 21, 2014

Suddenly, more wines contain cobalt

Cobalt. Image courtesy
An increasing number of wines have cobalt in them, according to a member of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. And some even contain lead.

The wine buyer made the statement from the audience Friday at a seminar at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Symposium in Niagara, Ontario.

The LCBO tests every wine submitted for sale in Ontario for a variety of faults, including residues of pesticides and herbicides. It does not make its results public, and the buyer told me afterward that it cannot, for fear of being sued. He did not name any of the wines containing cobalt or lead, or their country of origin.

But the public comment is provocative, because if anyone has previously reported cobalt being found in wine, I haven't seen it.

It's worth noting that a low level of cobalt, by itself, is not an immediate health hazard. Cobalt is naturally occurring and is part of vitamin B12. The CDC says, "Exposure to high levels of cobalt can result in lung and heart effects and dermatitis. Liver and kidney effects have also been observed in animals exposed to high levels of cobalt."

The LCBO representative said that the number of wines testing positive for cobalt has increased sharply over the last couple of years. Needless to say, it rejects these wines, but that does not prevent them from being sold elsewhere in the world.

UPDATE: With the speed characteristic of a government organization, three weeks after running this post I got a letter from the LCBO denying it. You can read it in the comments section below.

Last year, a consumer organization in France tested 92 wines and found pesticide residue in every one, including those made from organically grown grapes.

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Unknown said...

Interesting. Do we know which herbicides/pesticides have this? I've been told by a few daring individuals that overuse of organic-approved vineyard treatments have been responsible for elevated levels of heavy metals in the wines. Copper is one of the treatments. I was told, and have not verified, that the source of much of the copper used in the vineyard is from recycles parts. In small does it is not a problem and a great vineyard treatment.

Anonymous said...


I honestly wonder if the person who buys from the LCBO (not a lab person) got cobalt and copper confused. I've looked around a good bit...and the LCBO doesn't show cobalt as an item being tested on their website. And it isn't on the list of tested items we have when we submit wine to them. -- Moreover, I don't see that any local labs have a test for cobalt in wine either.

So I'd guess it was a mistake on the part of a buyer.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: It's a valid question, but I'm sure he didn't mistake cobalt for copper in conversation. We had been talking about copper sulfate as a residue of fungal treatments approved for organic vineyards when the topic came up.

I know this is just the opening fragment of a story, but I am hoping that maybe some of those local labs will pipette in (sorry, couldn't resist that one) on the topic.

W. Blake Gray said...

I got the following email yesterday. In fact, I got two very similar emails; I'm running only the first.

Dear Mr. Gray:

I read with interest your blog of July 21, 2014. Unfortunately, the wine buyer you reference as a source was misinformed. I would like to take this opportunity to correct some of the misinformation contained in your blog and hope that in the interest of accuracy you’ll publish this feedback in a future blog to correct the public record and avoid raising concerns with your readers.

The LCBO’s Quality Assurance Laboratory performs chemical analysis on more than 20,000 wines annually to ensure they are compliant with regulatory requirements set out in the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations. As part of our testing protocols, we analyze all wines for heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper and lead. Wines found to contain concentrations of any of these metals in excess of the established maximum allowable limits are not permitted to be offered for sale within Ontario, by LCBO or through a winery operated retail store.

Cobalt is a naturally occurring metal that can systemically be found in grapes and other plant derived foods, typically in trace amounts, through uptake from the soil by the roots of the plant. Of the more than 20,000 wines we analyze yearly, approximately 15 to 20 (0.075 - 0.1%) contain levels of cobalt above our warning level of 17 parts per billion (ppb). Contrary to the information communicated to you and included in your July 21 blog, over the past ten years there has been no increase in the number of wines that were found to contain cobalt. In fact, the total number of wines analyzed in 2013 that contained cobalt at or above our warning level of 17 ppb was 15 which is the lowest we have observed. Our Quality Assurance Laboratory only started reporting these results to the buyers in 2009 which may be the reason the representative you cite may have incorrectly thought the number of wines containing cobalt is increasing.

The other issue that requires clarification is the statement that the LCBO does not release results for “fear of being sued”. This is not a correct statement. LCBO Quality Assurance operates an ISO 17025 accredited laboratory. Under this accreditation we would require the consent of the supplier to disclose particular analysis results, unless a situation existed where there was a public health risk. LCBO does share analytical data with regulatory agencies such as Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority to assist in development of maximum allowable limits for naturally occurring contaminants. This data excludes disclosure of any supplier or product brand information.

I thank you for the opportunity to provide this clarification on this topic and would be pleased to answer any additional questions you may have.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Cater, Ph.D.
Director, Quality Assurance, LCBO