EPA delays some wines over chemical

October 07, 1990|By New York Times News Service

For a few days, it looked as if the scare was over.

A large amount of imported wine, mostly French, had been held up by U.S. health authorities because it contained traces of a chemical fungicide not approved for use in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But top U.S. officials had acknowledged publicly that the fungicide, procymidone, was not about to hurt anyone.

Though wine that almost certainly contained the chemical was already in shops, the authorities had not even bothered to recall it.

"People shouldn't worry about this," the EPA administrator, William K. Reilly, told the Wall Street Journal. "I intend myself not to worry about it."

In short, a lot of feathers had been ruffled, but no one expected any serious problems.

That's not the way it worked out.

The EPA denied the European Community's request for a temporary ruling that would release the blocked wine, and said its review of the matter would probably take a year.

"Based on a preliminary assessment of the limited data now available," the agency said in a statement on Sept. 21, "EPA does not believe the levels of procymidone detected in imported wines pose a health risk."

But it added that until "a permissible residue" was established, the Food and Drug Administration would monitor and detain wines with detectable residues of the product.

Procymidone has been found in 75 of 678 samples of imported wine from France and Italy, or about 11 percent.

But the EPA estimates that as much as 20 percent of wine imported to the United States will be blocked, at a cost of about $150 million to the wine trade.

All that wine stacked in warehouses is going to stay there, right through the peak holiday buying season, when nearly half of all the French wine imported to the United States is sold.

One major importer who does not want to be identified estimates that there may be 200,000 cases of wine detained because of the ban.

This does not include wine held back in France and Italy because it might be detained here.

In some cases, it's just an inconvenience.

The 1988 and 1989 vintages of Bordeaux, for example, have yet to be shipped to the United States.

Once these are approved for import -- and no one seriously contends that they won't be -- they will come to market unimpaired.

The 1988s were bottled this year and most have not yet been shipped abroad, and the 1989s won't be bottled until next year. Good Bordeaux should not be drunk for several years after bottling.

But good Bordeaux is only a small part of the wine exported to the United States. What will happen, for example to the blocked 1989 Beaujolais?

Most Beaujolais is at its best in the year after the harvest. It will last for several years, but if the current EPA timetable is maintained, the 1989 wine will be freed just as the 1990 vintage comes on the market.

No procymidone was used on the grapes that went into the 1990 Beaujolais vintage, the first of which, Beaujolais nouveau, will arrive next month.

So who will buy the year-old vintage, the vintage with traces of procymidone in it, when it is allowed on the market?

For importers of Beaujolais and wines like it, from both France and Italy, the economic effects of the extended ban could be serious. The United States market accounts for about 20 percent of France's wine imports.

Procymidone, used to control mold on grapes, has been available for 15 years and is used in 26 countries.

Because the rot caused by mold is not a serious problem in this country, procymidone's manufacturer, Sumitomo Chemical Co. of Osaka, Japan, says it never bothered to register the fungicide with the U.S. government.

It is also a relatively expensive fungicide, likely to be used by the largest and most profitable producers.

Only last April, a month after traces of procymidone were first discovered in imported wine, did Sumitomo first petition the EPA to establish a tolerance level.

Had it done so earlier, the fungicide would probably have been approved by now.

The company says high doses of procymidone can cause cancer in mice and rats, but only at levels far in excess of what a human might be expected to consume.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations did review procymidone in 1989, and said the chemical could be safely consumed at a rate 10 times higher than the highest level found in imported wine in the United States.

The EPA's action drew a predictable response from U.S. importers.

The National Association of Beverage Importers said it was "very disappointed," and warned of retaliation by the wine-producing countries.

"The consequences for European Economic Community wine exports to the United States may be very serious indeed," the importers said in a statement.

"Trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars is being disrupted. Yet we are convinced that with some flexibility on the part of the U.S. administration, this situation might well have been averted."

The wine importers have enlisted some powerful legislative support.

Prompted by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., the Senate Appropriations Committee directed the EPA to work with the Food and Drug Administration to establish a "realistic" enforcement level for procymidone "with deliberate speed." Similar language has been included in a report from the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA.

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