Distilling Death

Until the authorities start to monitor and regulate all points where food and beverages are manufactured and sold, senseless deaths such as the more than two dozen who have been killed by arak thinned out with highly poisonous methanol will continue to occur.

It may not be easy to determine where such lethal concoctions are brewed, but the places they are sold, mainly roadside foodstalls, are visibly evident and entirely unregulated. From there, the trail can be followed to the point of origin (if the authorities put in the hard yards). It was at such stalls that the deadly arak was bought and either drank there or brought home for consumption.

In Bali and islands as far-flung as Flores, homemade arak – distilled from rice, the licensed variety is similar in taste to Japanese sake, while homemade, it’s comparable to American “moonshine” whiskey or Irish poteen – is widely available at foodstalls, sometimes stored in large drums, and is cheap.

That at least 25 people, including four foreigners, have died in Bali and Lombok in the past two weeks after drinking methanol-laced arak, and a similar number being treated in hospital, is a concrete indication that there is no oversight whatsoever of the illegal distillation of the drink, or the places where it is purchased.

The police have made some arrests and convictions may follow, but that does not address the root cause: a total lack of inspection and enforcement. The prevailing laws on the illegal manufacture of food and drink products are in place, but they may as well not be. In recent years many other deaths have been caused by roadside-sold items, including formalin, traditionally used for embalming bodies, added to bakso meatballs and tofu, both local dietary staples. As we saw with China’s deadly melamine-tainted baby formula scandal last year, manufacturers will do anything for a profit if they think they can get away with it.

There is a salient aside to these arak deaths. The government in Jakarta has so out-priced imported alcohol stocks that tourists and foreigners in Bali, unwilling to buy wines and spirits with a 300-percent mark-up added, are seeking out far cheaper alternatives such as unlicensed arak, which is killing people. They’re foolish to do so, but government has a responsibility to ensure safety.

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