And Finally

Choose your poison

Chinese liquor proves dangerous to health

Choose your poison

When broadcaster Dan Rather first tasted baijiu in 1972 he likened it to “liquid razor blades”. Richard Nixon’s aide Alexander Haig seemed to agree. And fearing for his boss Haig ordered that “under no circumstances” should POTUS be given baijiu to drink during his historic trip to China in 1972.

It turns out that both men may have been on to something. Last week the 21CN Business Herald reported that some of the country’s premium baijiu are more poisonous than melamine and endanger health.

President Nixon was offered Moutai, but the booze at the heart of the current scandal is Jiugui (see photo), which sells for Rmb438 ($70.31) a bottle and is made according to an ancient formula in Hunan province. Like Moutai, Jiugui is a grain-based liquor that’s popular at business banquets. But 21CN says that third-party tests have revealed Jiugui’s “unexpected fatal danger” to drinkers. That’s because it contains plasticising agents that far exceed government safety levels. Local standards permit dibutyl phthalate (DBP) levels of 0.3mg per kg but Jiugui samples tested contained 1.08mg per kg, or 260% more than is allowed.

Professor Sun Luxi of the Food Research Institute of National Taiwan University believes such plasticising agents are 20 times more toxic than melamine – the substance that caused China’s worst milk scandal (see WiC6). Excessive consumption of DBP can damage the male reproductive function and even cause liver cancer.

News of the toxic booze saw Jiugui’s shares suspended, and a stockmarket sell-off that wiped Rmb33 billion off the liquor sector in general. The company apologised. According to Shanghai Daily, Jiugui has also suspended production to resolve the problem.

But the fear is that the contamination could be more widespread. The China Alcoholic Drinks Association confirmed to 21CN that other distillers also sell liquor with excessive levels of DBP, some as high as 2.32mg per kg, according to its own tests.

The problem is that – unlike Scotch whisky (which is aged in wood barrels) – Chinese liquor makers use plastic casks (as well as cheap latex tubes for filtering). Over time this can contaminate the end product with high levels of plasticiser agents. The paradox is that the premium baijius – which are aged for longer – contain higher levels of the toxic chemical than the cheaper, low grade varieties.

For netizens this is one scandal that has them in a better mood. That’s because they are delighting in the fact that government officials – who love drinking the premium brands – have unwittingly been supping the more poisonous stuff. One netizen even joked that manufacturers should proudly declare: “We are following the call of the Party Congress to break the corrupt officials’ reproductive system.”

Adding to industry woes, Wuliangye – China’s second-most famed liquor brand – is being investigated for allegedly evading hundreds of millions of yuan in tax. An audit in Yibin is ongoing.

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