WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration and the manufacturers of distilled beverages have agreed on a limit to the amount of the cancer-causing chemical urethane that will be allowed in whiskey products, the agency said Monday.
The FDA said it accepted a plan from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States Inc. to set the allowed limit for urethane in whiskey products at 125 parts per billion. The limit will go into effect Jan. 1, 1989.
Urethane, or ethyl carbamate, is formed naturally in the production of some alcoholic beverages. Studies have shown it can cause cancer in laboratory animals,'and therefore, from a public health standpoint, it must be considered a potential carcinogen in humans,' the FDA said.
The agency began testing beverages for the chemical in 1986 after learning in November 1985 that the Canadian government had found the contaminent in beverages sold there. The Canadians set a limit of 150 parts per billion urethane in bourbons.
The FDA said at present it cannot make 'reliable estimates of the risk, if any, to humans' from urethane but the commissioner of the agency, Dr. Frank Young, said it is 'prudent' to reduce urethane to the lowest possible levels.
FDA tests, and tests by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have revealed that some fruit brandies have urethane levels of 1,000 to 12,000 parts per billion. Some dessert wines, like cream sherries, have several times the proposed allowed level of urethane. Vodka, gin and domestic beer contains negligible amounts of urethane, while table wines have 25 parts per billion or less.
The industry group that proposed the voluntary agreement includes the makers of 'almost 90 percent of the distilled alcoholic beverages sold in the United States,' the FDA said.
But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has been battling the agency for 18 months over the contamination, called the agreement, 'too little, too late.'
Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the group, said the agreement was 'woefully inadequate' because it did not cover imported products, fortified wine-based products like sherry and brandy, and other cordials, cream liqueurs and after-dinner drinks that often have high levels of urethane.
In addition, Silverglade pointed out, the agreement only covers products manufactured after the beginning of 1989, and ban contaminated products already on store shelves, or those moving to store shelves from warehouses where they are now aging. He said some of the products are aged three to ten years.
'Products being aged now are not covered and will be finding their way to store shelves for years to come,' Silverglade said.
Silverglade added that the voluntary agreement with industry includes no enforcement provisions and 'sets a dangerous precedent' for the regulatory agency.
'The FDA's willingness to settle for a voluntary promise illustrates the Reagan administration's anti-regulatory attitude has gone too far and is now taking its toll on public health policy,' Silverglade said.
Until the contaiminated products are off the market, he said, the consumer group will continue 'doing what should be the agency's work,' by publishing twice a year a list of the urethane contents of beverages.
In its most recent list, obtained from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tests, the consumer group found the following popular whiskeys to contain high levels of urethane:
Albertson's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Colonel Lee Whiskey; Heaven Hill New Bourbon Whiskey; Kentucky Choice Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Kentucky Gentleman Bourbon Whiskey; Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Old Taylor Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey; Virginia Gentleman Bourbon Whiskey; Heaven Hill New Corn Whiskey; Jim Beam Straight Rye Whiskey; Jenkins 4-year-old Blended Whiskey; and Georgia Moon Corn whiskey.