|Inspectors examine liquor labelled "Ha Noi 29 Sticky Rice Wine" in Quang Ninh Province. The liquor reportedly contained lethal amounts of methanol and ethanol, 2,000 times higher than regulated levels. — Photo Tuoi tre Newspaper
by Thu Trang
HA NOI — Nguyen Van Tinh, 40, looked around with glassy eyes.
He was suffering more than a normal hangover.
Everything around on his bed in the Bach Mai Hospital's Poison Control Centre was opalescent.
Tinh, a resident of Ha Noi's Thuong Tin District, has been addicted to alcohol for the past 15 years. Everyday, he drinks at least half a litre of liquor, and sometimes, this goes up to a litre.
"My favourite drink is home-brewed liquor, because it is cheap and matches my income. It costs just VND15,000 (US$0.7) per litre," he said.
Last Friday, he had drunk around a litre of home-brewed liquor at a year-end party with friends. The next morning, he had difficulty breathing, his blood pressure plunged and his eyesight dimmed. He was rushed to the hospital.
Tests showed that the amount of methanol in his blood was about 20 times higher than regulated levels.
After treatment at the hospital, Tinh is no longer in a critical condition, but his eyesight remains the same, and doctors say he faces a high risk of being blind forever.
Sadly, Tinh's is not an isolated case.
Nguyen Kim Son, deputy director of the centre, said they deal with two or three cases of liquor poisoning every day and the number of patients increases sharply before and during the Tet (Lunar New Year) Festival.
During Tet last year, the number of people suffering liquor poisoning made up more than 30 per cent of the centre's patients.
"Most of the victims were students and people with low incomes who'd drunk home-brewed liquor mixed with methanol," said Son.
Methanol is an alcohol used for industrial purposes, but the possibility of making cheaper liquor faster to earn higher profits prompts some brewers to use the toxic substance in making liquor for human consumption.
Ingestion of high amounts of methanol can affect the central nervous system, and cause both short-term and long term problems including blindness, coma and death.
Between November 29 and December 4 last year, four cases of liquor poisoning happened in quick succession in the northern province of Quang Ninh. Fifteen people were hospitalised, six of whom died. All the victims had drunk "Ha Noi 29 Sticky Rice Wine."
Tests showed that the liquor that the men had consumed showed that the amount of methanol and ethanol were 2000 times regulated levels.
The liquor was made by the 29 Ha Noi Import Export Corporation. Investigations showed the company had used more than 15,000 litres of methanol to mix with the batch of liquor it produced on October 12 last year.
According to the Ministry of Health's Viet Nam Food Administration, between 2007 and 2013, more than 200 cases of liquor poisoning were recorded nationwide, in which nearly 80 people died. Last year, there were six cases that killed more than 20 people.
Although producing toxic liquor can have serious consequences including death, victims like Tinh cannot sue anyone as the origin of the liquor they drink is difficult to trace.
Furthermore, the country's laws do not have provisions on initiating legal proceedings against brewers, said Pham Thi Bich Hao, director of the Ha Noi-based Duc An law firm.
She attributed the lack of such a law to the brewer's motive to earn profit, and there being no intention to kill.
However, if there is clear evidence that the brewer intentionally produced toxic liquor, those found guilty can face 7-15 years of imprisonment for violating the law on food safety and hygiene, she said.
Van Village in northern Bac Giang Province is one of the most famous liquor brewing villages in the northern region with more than 200 households engaged in the trade, according to the Van Ha Commune's People's Committee.
Nguyen Van Ky, chairman of the committee, said that the village's tradition has been dying a slow death after the practice of mixing water with methanol appeared and expanded in the village over the last several years.
"The reason is that some households run after profits," Ky said.
Making liquor by mixing water with methanol brings in big profits as the brewers can save time needed for the rice to ferment and money needed to hire workers.
"I have never caught anyone red-handed in the village producing liquor this way, but many residents in the village reported the formula to me resentfully," said Ky.
They were angry that some households undermining the trade village's prestige in their pursuit of easy profit, he said.
Ky said the commune administration did not have the competence to detect and punish such violations. It could only disseminate information and advise local residents on the importance and advantage of protecting the village's long-standing reputation and its trademark.
"We do not have any scientific tools or technology to prove that the liquor brewers have violated regulations on food safety and hygiene," he said.
Duong Van Dong, brewer in Van Village with 30 years of experience, said the trade was losing out because of low profit, which some enterprises took advantage of.
They would buy liquor with the village's trademark and remix it with "impurities," he said.
It costs a brewer about VND45,000 (US$1.6) for rice, coal and yeast to make a litre of rice wine the traditional way, and it is sold for about VND60,000 ($2.8).
However, the low-quality liquor is sold for just VND15,000-20,000 ($0.7-0.9) per litre, so it attracts more customers and fetches higher incomes.
"We still try to keep our trademark and prestige. However, we cannot compete with the cheap liquor," he said.
Tran Quang Trung, director of the Viet Nam Food Administration, said that the Ministry of Health had set up nine teams of inspectors to check liquor trading and processing in different provinces and cities across the country.
The inspections will begin early next month with the collection of samples from liquor being sold in the market or being made by enterprises, he said.
According to Decree 178 that took effect this month, the administrative fine for violators will be seven times the goods' prices.
This year, the VFA will join hands with the Ministry of Industry and Trade to check all traditional liquor brewery villages in the country and set up a suitable management mechanism to oversee their activities, Trung said.
This will prevent some unscrupulous enterprises from misusing famous trademarks to produce and sell fake products, he added.
He advised that to protect themselves, the public should not use liquor of unclear origins or brewing methods. They should not consume liquor when they are hungry or tired, and should only use products with clear trademarks of prestigious companies, he added.
At the Bach Mai hospital, Tinh, sober and downcast, said:
"I will never drink liquor anymore.
"I regret wasting my money and health on liquor. (Information about) the harmful effects of liquor addiction should be spread widely to prevent others from suffering my condition." — VNS