Keeping it Cool: How British Columbia’s Wine Distribution System is a Hazard to Your Health

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While drinking a bottle of wine over a nice dinner at home it is easy to regale oneself with thoughts of an idyllic landscape of undulating hills covered in vines where the grapes soak up the sun in preparation of delivering their delicious nectar to your palate.

It is easy to forget that wine must travel through a series of links in a supply chain that extends from the cellar door of the winery, to the truck that carries the wine to the docks, to the shipping container slowly making its way across the ocean, and then into the local distribution warehouse, which then processes orders from and delivers to retailers.

Thus, experiencing a taste of bottled Tuscan sunshine in your home in Vancouver is a far different experience than drinking it at the winery, and each part of the supply chain process can impact both the quality and the healthfulness of the seemingly innocent bottle sitting on your dinner table.

How does the shipping of wine have anything to do with your health? Let’s take a closer look.

Do You Like Carcinogens in Your Wine?: Understanding Ethyl Carbamate

In 2007 and 2008 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific opinion on the impact of ethyl carbamate and hydrocyanic acid in food and beverages.[¹] Ethyl carbamate and its precursor hydrocyanic acid occur naturally in fermented foods and alcoholic beverages including wine, spirits and beer. Previous studies have already established that ethyl carbamate is a carcinogen in animals and is probably carcinogenic in humans.[²]

Ethyl carbamate occurs in wine as a natural by-product of the fermentation process. In particular, the use of certain substances for yeast nutrients and particular strains of yeast impact the concentration of this chemical. However, in all cases, the formation of ethyl carbamate increased exponentially at elevated temperatures, prompting the EFSA to find that controlling the temperature of a liquor or wine bottle is essential to reducing the concentration of the dangerous chemical in the final product ingested by consumers.[³]

The EFSA study found that consumption of alcoholic beverages including wine introduced an increased risk of cancer in humans and concluded that “mitigation measures should be taken to reduce the levels of ethyl carbamate in certain alcoholic beverages.”

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) contributed significant data to the EFSA study based on a concern for the health of the Ontarians to which it sold liquor. Since the findings of the study the LCBO has implemented measures to reduce the concentration of ethyl carbamate in liquor sold to its customers.

There is also federal legislation that sets maximum permissible limits of ethyl carbamate of 30 parts per billion (ppb) for wine, 100ppb for fortified wine, 150ppb for distilled spirits and 400ppb for fruit brandies.

Of Provenance and Parsimony: Temperature in Sea Containers

Wine is a fragile thing. When exposed to temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius the quality of a wine can be altered negatively after only a very short exposure of a few hours. Even at temperatures over 25 degrees Celsius, wine will degrade after longer exposure of days or weeks.

Accordingly, it is essential both for maintaining quality and for avoiding the formation of ethyl carbamate that wine be shipped from the winery to the final customer in a temperature controlled environment. For wines being sent from Europe, this means shipping in temperature controlled containers (also known as “refers”) to ensure optimal quality for the duration of the voyage on truck and over seas.

Shockingly, only 1% of the wine shipped into British Columbia is shipped in a temperature controlled container. This may in some ways be due to the increased costs of shipping in refers, which cost $16,000 versus the $13,000 for regular containers (note that containers hold 12,000 cases of wine so costs per bottle increase if you can’t fill them up).

In 2008, the Wine Supply Chain Council published a summary of various studies that had been conducted measuring the temperature of wine shipped in non-temperature controlled containers. The results were shocking and disturbing.[4]

Wines shipped from Adelaide to the Napa Valley saw wines heat up to 30 degrees Celsius, with the roof of containers reaching levels as high as 50-70 degrees Celsius, especially when in direct sun exposure.[5]

Another experiment found wine shipped from Australia to the UK, Singapore, the USA and Japan fluctuating from 18-30 degrees Celsius. The temperature of the wine changed gradually over a number of days, but the results are clearly well above the appropriate threshold for wine temperature.[6]

Ultimately, the report concluded that exposure to sunlight at some point in the supply chain was inevitable and that as such all wine shipped in non-protected containers would likely be exposed to elevated temperatures. This brings with it the risks of wine flaws and increased levels of ethyl carbamate.[7]

Other studies have shown that wine shipped to cold destinations can reach as low as -15 degrees Celsius in the winter, and wines shipped to and from hot destinations can reach as high as 80 degrees Celsius.[8]

Of Inefficiency and Carelessness: Temperature in Warehouses

Currently there is only a single government bonded warehouse that acts as the distribution hub for all wine shipped into the province: Container World. In addition, all wine sent out for delivery is not shipped directly from the central warehouse, but rather travels through one of several BCLDB distribution warehouses.

Investigation into the warehousing conditions at Container World revealed that they do not use any temperature control in the warehouse. However, the warehouse is of such size that it generally stays at an ambient temperature of 15 degrees Celsius through the year.

However, none of the BCLDB warehouses or the trucks used to ship the wines from Container World to the BCLDB warehouses and then on to the retail customers are temperature controlled. These warehouses are not at all close in size to the Container World warehouse and as such are far more likely to see elevated temperatures.

In addition, while the BCLDB insists that it is their policy to turn wine over in 24 hours, most of my industry sources inform me that this is rarely the case. It is not uncommon for wines to take 1-2 weeks to deliver. This means that some wines will be sitting around in the non-temperature controlled LDB warehouses for enough time to do considerable damage if there is ever a heat spike.

Making the Sale: Temperature and Wine Quality

Cancer isn’t the only hazard posed by poorly shipped and stored wine. As is well known in the wine industry, high temperatures negatively impact the quality of a wine. This reflects negatively both on a winery’s brand and on the retailer and may ultimately turn some consumers off a particular wine forever.

Some of the negative effects of shipping or storing a wine at a high temperature include:

  • Maderisation (baked taste)
  • Oxidised
  • Flat
  • Lack of fruit
  • Decrease in intensity of young wine bouquet
  • Increase in the intensity of the maturation bouquet
  • Decrease in overall wine quality
  • High volatile acidity
  • Re-refermentation
  • Changes in total acid.[9]

Since almost no wine shipped into B.C. has any guarantee that it has not been exposed to elevated temperatures, it is not uncommon to find these faults in wines in the province. While experts may be able to detect these flaws and return bottles, the average consumer is unlikely to recognize a fault and is more likely to simply write off the wine as a ‘bad wine’, never to purchase it again.

It is simply not possible to have a real wine culture in British Columbia when the basic fidelity and provenance of the product cannot be guaranteed.

Conclusion

Since the EFSA study, the LCBO requires that all liquor be shipped in refers and stored in temperature controlled warehouses. It routinely conducts random tests of wine and liquor for the presence ethyl carbamate and hydrocyanic acid. Why has the BCLDB failed to do the same?

Currently, the warehousing and distribution policies of the BCLDB almost guarantee that wines and liquors will see increased exposure to elevated temperatures and it is likely that wines and liquor sold in B.C. contain higher levels of ethyl carbamate than those products sold in jurisdictions where temperature is controlled all the way.

This, of course, does nothing to protect against wines shipped in non-temperature controlled containers, like 99% of the wine and liquor sold in British Columbia.

Even progressively minded private companies who wish to ship in refers cannot remedy the problem since there is only one bonded warehouse (Container World) in the province and this warehouse is not temperature controlled. Further, the BCLDB warehouses through which all wine must be “distributed” (a supply chain step that makes no sense whatsoever), are not temperature controlled at all. Of course, neither are the trucks by which wine and liquor is delivered from the LDB warehouses to retail.

It may even be that a considerable amount of wine and liquor sold in British Columbia exceeds the maximum permissible level of ethyl carbamate set by the federal government since the BCLDB does not test liquor for the presence of these chemicals. When I called the BCLDB to confirm this, they referred me to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency who told me they do not do any routine inspections on wine or liquor imported into British Columbia.

The failure of the distribution system to protect a wine against elevated temperatures both increases the health risk of exposure to ethyl carbamate and is a fundamental disservice to wineries, wine importers, wine retailers and consumers.

One of my clients likes to remind me that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In British Columbia, the wine and liquor distribution system has a plethora of weak links that all need fixing. If these issues are not addressed, then all consumers could very well be exposed to an increased risk of cancer. Is that an acceptable personal and social cost British Columbians are prepared to take? I suspect not.


References

1  The EFSA Journal (2007) 551, 1-44 (“EFSA Study”); also see Michael Waldner and Ockert Augustyn, “Ethyl Carbamate in South African Wine” of ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij, Stellenbosch and Woolworths Foods Laboratory, Cape Town.
2  EFSA Study p. 28-31, 37.
3  EFSA study p. 19-20.
4  Rene Weiskircher, Wine Supply Chain Council, “Summary of Prior Experiments Regarding Temperature in Sea Containers” August 8, 2008 (“WSCC Study”); also see Leorey Marquez, Simon Dunstall, John Bartholdi and Alejandro McCawley, “Keeping Australian wines ‘cool’ for the world”, CSIRO Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics and the Georgia Institute of Technology, 2009.
5  WSCC Study at p. 4.
6  WSCC Study at p. 5.
7  WSCC Study at p. 7.
8  Danie Meyer, “A Study on the Impact of Shipping/Transportation Conditions and Practices on Wine”, Wynboer (December, 2002) p. 2.
9  Ibid.

Comments

  1. David J. Cooper
    August 20, 2011

    Then to top it off the wines stand up for months or in some cases years on the shelves of our “Signature” stores waiting longingly for some one to take them home.

  2. Wilf Krutzmann
    August 26, 2011

    Right on David. Thanks for bringing this deplorable situation to our attention. Had a serious discussion about cancer last night at a friends house where I was invited for dinner along with a few other wine types. I don’t know how serious it can be after consuming 3 or 4 bottles of wine. But I am of the believe that cancer in all ages, especially in younger individuals is on the increase. I have no stats at the moment and so I was challenged to confirm this. Now I wonder in light of your article whether or not we may actually be seeing an increase of cancer in BC due to this serious storage problem?

  3. Shea
    August 26, 2011

    Wilf,

    There is no way of really knowing that right now. The best one could do is create a correlation but there isn’t any data on the historical (or even current) levels of EC. This is data we should at least start collecting.

    Shea

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