Food fraud: The adulterated alcohol trend

Although there isn’t an accurate number for the death toll from adulterated alcohol poisoning — this figure likely increases every day.

Over the last two months, at least 20 people have died from alcohol poisoning in Costa Rica, ABC News reported.

The victims were between 32 and 72 years old, and the events took place in different cities across the country.

More than 30,000 bottles of alcohol have been seized by the authorities, and there are ongoing investigations on the matter.

Like Costa Rica, countries such as India, Mexico and Czech Republic, and many others, have appeared in international headlines about multiple deaths tracing back to adulterated alcohol.

The magnitude of this issue is unfortunately huge considering that 25% of the alcohol consumed around the world is counterfeit.

And it’s even more unfortunate that the intention behind these practices is to make and save a few dollars.

“Adulterated alcohol is alcohol that has been distilled using all kinds of shortcuts and adding cheap substances to save money, increase profits easily, and avoid tax,” said Neogen’s expert, Alec Leece. “Individuals tend to use chemicals that are toxic to humans, so hence the tragedies.”

One of the most common substances to distill spirits is methanol, a chemical used to make industrial and household products like antifreeze or varnish.

Due to its low price and its fast fermentation capabilities, the substance is widely used to make counterfeit alcohol.

“Methanol is a chemical commonly used as industrial solvent, fuel source, or even pesticide,” Leece said. “This substance, without a doubt, is highly toxic for human consumption.”

After drinking alcohol contaminated with methanol, the human body slowly metabolizes it in the form of formic acid. Accumulations of the acid start forming in the organism afflicting the body.

A person can experience neurological, gastrointestinal, or even ophthalmologic problems since the acid is capable of destroying the optic nerve, but the outcome is based on a couple of factors.

“The outcome merely depends on the person’s weight and drinking habits, and the quantity of methanol consumed,” Leece said. “It’s is estimated that one third of an ounce is enough to make someone blind, and two to eight ounces could kill a person.”

Methanol contamination puts the counterfeiting game at a very high level of risk. World authorities like Interpol have been taking actions in the matter, but at the end of the day, some of these drinks make it easily into shelves where people can access them without knowing what’s in them. Perhaps the fact that nobody really knows what’s in those drinks is the biggest hazard.

Forensic drug testing products and other adulteration screening methods are ways governments and companies can ensure the safety of consumers. For adulterated alcohol, there are rapid screening tests available for methanol contamination in spirits, beers and wine within 10 minutes.

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