Methanol poisoning not a hiccup

  • The Star Says
  • Sunday, 23 Sep 2018


CONSIDERING how quickly and how often outrage, including the manufactured variety, surges through society, Malaysians’ response to the dozens of methanol poisoning cases this week has been muted.

There are no reports of somebody starting an online petition to demand government action. WhatsApp groups that are normally ablaze with chatter when there is a major political development or social injustice have been relatively quiet too.

An organisation called the Malay­sian Anti-Cheap Liquor Movement has been using #BanCheapLiquor as a clarion call since 2015 but that hashtag barely registers when you search for it online.

In contrast, the Trends24 website, which keeps track of Twitter trends over the past 24 hours, noted that the more popular topics among Twitter users in Malaysia on Friday and yesterday morning were about Korean pop idols.

We do not yet know if there will be new cases of suspected methanol poisoning in the coming days, but there are already chilling numbers that should have been at the forefront of public discourse.

Between Monday and Friday, 76 people in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Perak were rushed to hospitals with symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, blurred vision and breathing problems.

Some fell unconscious. Several did not get better; 29 deaths were recorded in those five days. As at Friday, 19 others are in critical condition.

The cause of some of these cases have not been confirmed but it appears that the authorities are working on only one theory – that these unfortunate souls have all drunk cheap whiskey and beer that were contaminated with the highly toxic methanol.

So many people in Malaysia died or fell seriously ill from the same thing in such a short time and still no outcry?

It is an unpleasant truth that the lack of widespread strong reaction is partly because the victims are mostly foreigners, and because many regard alcohol consumption as a vice.

However, this apathy threatens to obscure the fact that we are looking at a food safety crisis.

We are waiting to find out how a deadly substance ended up in bottles and cans of drinks that anybody, anywhere, could have consumed.

Sure, most of us can say we abstain from drinking alcohol, or that if we do drink, we do not go for the low-end stuff. Therefore, we have no reason to fear methanol poisoning.

But that comes from a false sense of security.

Not all the liquor brands named by the authorities in connection with the poisoning are those of small-time businesses.

There are a few established international brands in the list but there is suspicion that the victims drank counterfeit liquor, sold at lower prices than the genuine ones.

The crooks have successfully copied the packaging of the well-known products but it is anybody’s guess whether the content is entirely safe to consume.

To add to the veneer of authenticity, these fake goods have stickers (presumably fake as well) to confirm that Customs duties have been paid.

Yes, such goods are normally sold in places where customers are mainly those seeking a buzz on a tight budget, but their lives are not any less significant.

Also, we cannot dismiss the possibility of counterfeit booze somehow being sold at respectable outlets.

Ultimately, we have to examine the regulation of our food and beverage industry.

How is it that local manufacturers can continue operating despite ignoring laws on licensing, hygiene, intellectual property and labelling?

Whose job is it to make sure that retailers do not sell illegally produced food and drinks?

How well coordinated are the various agencies at state and federal levels in monitoring the industry and enforcing food regulations?

When store shelves are stocked with poisonous drinks, we know that it is time for concrete answers to these questions.

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