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Wine Poisonings Leave Some Worried About Food, Drink Safety

September 17, 1993

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Cheap wine mixed with methanol killed 24 people this month, the latest in a scourge of tainted products that has some Argentinians doubting the safety of their food and drink.

At least 74 people have died in the past 13 months from contaminated wine and medicine. Dozens also fell ill from eating spoiled mozzarella cheese. A batch of contaminated milk was banned just before it was given to infants.

″Controls here are very weak, and so are the punishments,″ said Ana Maria Luro, director of the Consumer Action League, an independent group that studies product safety. ″People can get away with crimes like these.″

The Buenos Aires city government said earlier this year that 20 percent of food in the capital was unfit to eat. Of the samples tested by the Consumer Action League, 6 percent ″can be harmful,″ Luro said.

The latest victims died after drinking wine in five-quart jugs that had been mixed with methanol, which is used to increase the volume as well as the alcohol content. It made 12 people sick. One man went blind.

Whoever tainted the wine should be ″put against the wall and liquidated,″ President Carlos Menem said. Though Argentina has no death penalty, Menem has stated his support for it.

Six men, owners and employees of a Buenos Aires wine wholesaler, have been charged with poisoning and manslaughter. They face up to 25 years in prison.

Health officials have vowed to toughen controls on food, drink and medicine, but acknowledge they are restricted by a tight federal budget. Even with funding, there might not be a solution.

″In richer countries like the United States, you sometimes have problems,″ Luro said. ″Here, with weak agencies in charge, the risk is much higher.″

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