Alarming Lead, Arsenic Levels Found in Popular Vinegar Brands

Groups that conducted new round of tests urge the FDA to take action.

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Food System

Citing new test results that show alarming levels of lead and arsenic in vinegar products sold at national chain supermarkets, the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch and Rochester-based Empire State Consumer Project (ESCP) issued a letter to the Food & Drug Administration to take action on the issue. 

ESCP tested 24 major brands of vinegars or vinegar reductions and glazes for contaminants, and found that nearly half (11) were contaminated with arsenic or lead. Seven brands tested positive for both. All but one of the samples testing positive were balsamics, and all were imported from Italy, Greece, or Spain.

The tests found high levels of arsenic and lead in brands like Great Value (Walmart) Balsamic Vinegar, Rachel Ray Balsamic Reduction, Colavita Balsamic Vinegar, Wegmans Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Alessi Balsamic Reduction. All tested products found to be contaminated are sold through retailers like Walmart, Target and Wegmans. 

ESCP’s tests sought to determine if levels of contaminants had changed since they were originally identified in 2002 by the Environmental Law Foundation. The original tests had led to labeling requirements in California, but no other measures were taken to protect consumers. The updated test results clearly show that lead and arsenic levels continue to be unacceptably high, highlighting the need for greater consumer protections at the federal level.  

“It should go without saying that  consumer rights groups should not be the ones doing testing to make sure that our food is safe to eat. This is absolutely the responsibility of government agencies, and they need to take this seriously,” said Food & Water Watch Senior Staff Attorney Zach Corrigan.

“We think it’s time all U.S. consumers were protected with the same product and shelf labeling California requires while we wait for the FDA to set federal limits,” said ESCP President Judy Braiman.

Lead and arsenic both pose distinct and serious health risks, particularly for pregnant women. Exposure to arsenic in utero is associated with DNA damage and micronuclei in newborns, and elevated levels of lead can increase the risk of miscarriage and cause premature birth. Lead exposure poses risks to a baby’s brain and kidneys, and is linked to other learning and behavioral problems. Arsenic is also a cardiotoxin, making it particularly dangerous for the elderly, African Americans and many other people with a range of chronic illnesses.

In 2011, the same groups partnered with Consumer Reports to test arsenic levels in apple juice. As a result of that work, the FDA agreed to set arsenic limits for those products; those rules are still being finalized. The groups hope to spur the same response from the FDA in ensuring limits for arsenic and lead in vinegars.