Wine Questionary:

Mad cow disease: Is it a danger in wine?

"I just read an article about Mad Cow Disease and French wine," writes reader Chuck R. "It makes me nervous there is a tiny chance I could go mad from my 1991 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Please comment on how safe French wines are."

With my apologies for taking on a rather unappetizing wine-related topic, this is a fair question that deserves a straight answer. The short answer is, "Don't worry: The French wine you'll find on retail shelves around the world is safe."

If you'd like a little more information about the possible connection between French wine and mad cows, stick with me for another 30 seconds or so.

The underlying issue involves a wine-making trick called "fining," in which a protein is mixed into wine in vats or barrels to attract colloidal materials that could make the wine cloudy or hazy. These proteins fall to the bottom of the vats and the wine is siphoned away from them; in theory, at least, none of the fining material remains in the clarified wine. Traditional fining agents include a variety of odd substances, including isinglass (made from fish bladders), egg whites and, in some parts of the Rhone Valley in France, dried oxblood or blood albumen.

These old-fashioned practices are somewhat dying out in any case; most modern wineries, including virtually all larger wineries, now pass wine through bentonite (clay) filters rather than using organic finings.

Because of legitimate concerns about the epedimic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly called "mad cow disease," which became epidemic among cattle in Britain during the 1990s and which has been associated with the human brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the European Economic Community banned the use of oxblood for wine fining in 1997.

That's why a publicity storm arose in 1999 when French authorities "raided" 14 small wineries in the Rhone region near Avignon, seized several hundred pounds of dried oxblood and albumen, and confiscated 100,000 bottles of suspect wine.

The uproar prompted the Chinese government briefly to ban French-wine imports (the ban has since been lifted). Three United States senators also proposed a warning label be required on French wines, a proposal that apparently received no serious attention and promptly died.

In fact, experts offer the following reassurances:

  • The only French wines implicated in the mini-scandal were made by tiny wineries whose products (labeled "VDQS" under the French wine regulations) are sold as generic table wine and rarely exported. None of the "better" wines labeled "appellation controllee" or "vin de pays" are believed to be affected.
  • Even among the "suspect" wineries, no charges have been made that oxblood was actually used to make wine since the 1997 ban. What's more, only sporadic outbreaks of BSE - a reported 60 incidents in all French cattle since 1984 - have made it across the English Channel to the Continent. Quick action has apparently confined the epidemic to the United Kingdom.
  • Finally, as noted above, "finings" don't remain in the finished wine, save perhaps in molecular quantities far below the level of tolerable risk.
  • \r\nUltimately, every consumer must make his own choice about what's safe. But I can't see any imaginable risk.

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