Tuesday, May 6, 2008

It’s happened before, it’s happened again and it won’t be the last.

The Queenstown District Court (South Island, New Zealand) was told an all too familiar tale a couple of days ago. Two women had been poisoned and subsequently hospitalized after consuming a contaminated drink. On this occasion, the drink was mulled wine; the contaminant was sodium hydroxide – industrial dishwashing liquid.

At first sight, this would seem to be an impossible occurrence. Closer inspection shows a familiar pattern. I expected that the mulled wine would have been made on the premises from wine, sugar, cinnamon stick etc. However, the drink was apparently dispensed from a bulk container of pre-prepared “mulled wine”. Unfortunately, the container appears to have been used to deliver the cleaning chemical. Presumably, the label was not changed and the person serving the product didn’t detect the substituted liquid. It is not clear to me why the industrial chemical looked to all involved like mulled wine.

This is utterly poor practice of the worst sort. I have been teaching HACCP for the last 30 years and during the whole of that time, the use of food containers for other materials has been proscribed as part of the food safety plan. Proper labelling of containers is also critical. There have been so many cases where this practice has resulted in injury or even death that I have lost count. Some examples include preservative being mistaken for sugar; fire retardant powder being mistaken for cattle feed; cleaning agents being used in food preparation instead of the expected food ingredient. In one admittedly non-commercial case, a person died after drinking from a spirit bottle containing paraquat - a herbicide.

No food container should ever be used to store non-food chemicals; chemicals should not be stored with food ingredients and all containers should be clearly labelled with the identity of the contents.

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