Six Rice-Wine Makers Arrested, 346 Manufacturers Closed, Over 12 Dead

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Authorities inspect a rice-wine workshop in Kampong Chhnang province on November 29, 2020. (Kampong Chhnang provincial police)

Kampong Chhnang provincial authorities have arrested six rice-wine makers for allegedly lacing their products with a lethal amount of methanol, and closed 346 production sites in the province as more than 12 people have died in the past two weeks.

Over 130 people were hospitalized in the province after a funeral ceremony in Teuk Phos district’s Khlong Popoak commune on November 28. Investigating authorities found several samples of methanol-laced rice wine, and ordered that all manufacturers in the province be closed down.

Provincial police spokesperson Ear Bunthoeun said six people had been arrested as of the weekend. Authorities had closed 346 rice wine production sites and 543 distribution outlets, he added.

Court spokesperson Long Sitha said three of the men were charged with manslaughter under the Criminal Code, and with trading and producing poisoned food. Unintentional homicide carries a jail sentence of up to three years. The three others were still being questioned as of Friday.

Prak Von, director of the provincial health department, said more than a dozen villagers had died in connection with rice-wine drinking in Teuk Phos district since November 26.

Provincial governor Chhour Chandoeun said rice-wine production would be halted until inspections were complete. “The wine is toxic,” he said. “[We’re] waiting for the inspections to finish, and we will meet and decide what to do.”

Heng Kimhong, program officer at the People’s Center for Development and Peace, said legal action against the poisoners was welcome, and added that authorities should also come under scrutiny for allowing the production and distribution of lethal rice wine to happen.

“I also propose the arrest of public officials involved in this matter for negligence, because I think that this production is not [something] that the local authorities did not know about,” Kimhong said.

The Commerce Ministry’s department of consumer protection, competition and fraud prevention earlier said that some rice-wine samples from the province showed methanol levels of 10.5 to 17.25 percent.

The maximum allowable limit is 0.15 percent, the department said.

Methanol is used by small rice-wine manufacturers to speed-up production and increase profits, but is toxic and potentially lethal. A separate rice-wine poisoning case in Banteay Meanchey province in June left seven people dead, and similar cases of methanol-laced wine are seen every year.

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