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Czechs Find Methanol Source After Tainted Drinks Kill 25

A barman covers the menu of hard liquors in a bar early on Sept. 16, 2012 in Prague, two days after the government announced a total ban on the sale of liquor with over 20 percent alcohol following the deaths of at least 25 people. Photographer: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images
A barman covers the menu of hard liquors in a bar early on Sept. 16, 2012 in Prague, two days after the government announced a total ban on the sale of liquor with over 20 percent alcohol following the deaths of at least 25 people. Photographer: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- The Czech government is considering easing a nationwide ban on spirits after police found a source of methyl-alcohol used to taint drinks after contaminated beverages killed at least 25 people.

The worst case of mass alcohol poisoning in 30 years forced the government on Sept. 14 to ban sales of hard liquor as police and customs officers searched for the source of the contaminated beverages. The prohibition locked about 20 million bottles of spirits in warehouses, hurting hospitality businesses and liquor makers such as Paris-based Pernod Ricard SA, which owns the Czech liqueur Becherovka.

The Cabinet will debate tomorrow how to ease the ban and allow some bottles from the stockrooms, Health Minister Leos Heger said today. “If a bottle has an old stamp, has all documentation proving it was bought at a regular market and shows no signs of being tinkered with, it can go on sale,” Heger said in an interview with the public Czech Television.

The Cabinet also banned exports of beverages with more than 20 percent alcohol content last week.

Two Charged

Two men were charged with public endangerment and face as many as 20 years in prison if found guilty, while prosecutors may also demand an “exceptional punishment,” state prosecutor Roman Kafka said at a news briefing in Prague yesterday. The main suspect is a 42-year-old man from the eastern region of Moravskoslezsko, the prosecutor said.

The two suspects intentionally provided the mixture of methyl-alcohol and ethanol in order to enrich themselves, according to Kafka.

The tainted alcohol was contained in bottles under fake labels from at least two Czech liquor makers and the bottles weren’t properly sealed, according to police. The poisonous drink was sold at discounts in bottles labeled as vodka or tuzemak, a local rum-like alcoholic beverage. Several people went blind or fell into coma after consuming it.

Using the substances in production is cheaper and maximizes profits for the distiller, and such spirits are also sold without a government liquor-tax stamp.

Full Confession

“We have a full confession, including the description of the action that took place, including the motivation of this person, including the process of creating the base distribution network,” Kafka said.

The Czech ban is hurting the budget as the state collects about 750 million koruna ($38.9 million) a month in taxes from hard liquor sales, according to Ladislav Mincic, a deputy finance minister. A longer ban would “complicate” efforts to cut the budget gap, he said Sept. 16.

Authorities are still searching for about 15,000 liters of tainted liquor, Police President Martin Cervicek said yesterday, warning against the consumption of any spirits of doubtful origin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lenka Ponikelska in Prague at lponikelska1@bloomberg.net; Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at jagomez@bloomberg.net; Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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