THE GREAT BEER SCARE

Gerald Taaffe August 20 1966

THE GREAT BEER SCARE

Gerald Taaffe August 20 1966

THE GREAT BEER SCARE

In Quebec city, 50 people were suddenly stricken with a strange illness. Twenty died. Most, it was found, drank Dow beer. No proven link between this beer and the deaths was found, yet the brewery reacted dramatically: it poured a fortune down the drain. Here for the first time is the inside story of

Gerald Taaffe

MACLEAN'S, CANADA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE

"A MYSTEKY STORY with the last two pages missing...” That is how the authoritative Journal of the American Medical Association describes the great beer scare in Quebec City.

The main facts are well known — probably no incident in recent years received a greater combination of news coverage and widespread discussion. gossip and rumor:

□ Twenty persons, all of them heavy beer drinkers and most of them patrons of 14 taverns in Quebec's Lower Town, died of degeneration of heart tissue; at least another 30 were stricken with the disease, which many doctors believe is unbeatable and incurable. Tw'o of the victims were women.

□ Dow's Quebec City brewery, whose beer had been mentioned openly in connection with the deaths, decided to pour a million gallons of its product down the drain. The Dow officials explained that this action did not mean they accepted blame for the “beer disease,” but was taken to “facilitate investigation.”

□ An investigating committee consisting of representatives of the federal government’s Food and Drug Directorate, Quebec City physicians, and research laboratories in Montreal, Ottawa and even the United States, after a thorough examination of the brewery equipment, and analyses of samples of beer brewed before and after the outbreak of the disease, could find nothing in Dow beer, or any other beer, that could account for the deaths.

□ Within a few weeks Dow had lost

sales across Canada that one company official said might total three million dollars. On June 27, 12

weeks after dumping began, Dow resumed brewing in its Quebec City plant, and bought advertisements in English and French newspapers proclaiming that “Dow has come through the toughest tests of any beer in the entire history of brewing.” In Quebec City, Dow sales, which had dropped by 85 percent, were two thirds of the way back to normal.

All this does / continued overleaf

BEER SCARE

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not mean necessarily that “the last two missing pages” have been found. At least a couple of sentences remain to be added. For example, the possible role of additives to beer was discussed by the symposium at which the investigating committee announced its findings absolving Dow. One of these was cobalt, minute amounts of which have been added to some Canadian beers during the past year to improve the head of foam. Excessive amounts of cobalt are known to damage the heart, but the cobalt content of the beer tested was below the legally permissible limit, and far below the levels normally accepted as toxic.

Another mystery that has only now been made public was the simultaneous outbreak of an apparently identical epidemic in Omaha, Nebraska. Five members of the Quebec investigating committee went to Omaha to see for themselves, and reported back that the symptoms were identical. An almost incredible coincidence was that Omaha too had 50 persons stricken, two of them women. All belonged to a working-class area similar to Quebec's Lower Town; all had been drinking about the same large amounts of beer — from 100 to 200 ounces a day — for over five years.

The Omaha epidemic was hushed up for weeks after Quebec's story broke. Dow officials are aware of the Omaha cases, but so far have declined to discuss them. They did, however, break a long silence and revealed to Maclean’s an almost minute-by-minute account of what went on behind corporate doors during their agonizing weeks.

The ordeal for Dow officials started on the morning of March 16 when J. Armand Desrochers, Chairman of the Board of Dow Brewery in Montreal, spoke on his intercom; “Jacques, could you come over to my office for a moment?”

When Jacques Larivière. Dow’s public-relations director, arrived, Desrochers told him he had heard a disturbing rumor. It was being said in Quebec City that 14 people were in hospital and one had died, apparently as a result of drinking Dow beer. The news had come from a Dow employee, who. in turn, had heard it from a friend who worked in a Quebec City hospital. Would Larivière look into it?

“At the time, I didn’t think much would come of it,” says Larivière, a dark-haired six-footer of 32, who covered Quebec’s legislature for the CBC English network before moving into public relations. “It sounded like some people had gone to a party and got ptomaine poisoning. Still, I couldn’t afford to overlook anything that might affect the company. I called Bob Poirier, our promotion and PR man in Quebec City.”

“It’s news to me,” said Poirier. “The salesmen would have reported it if any rumors were going around.”

At that time, Dow’s image in Que-

bec City was almost ideal. Hardly anyone in town was a stranger to the parties the brewery held for various groups in the historic Jean Talon vaults. Dow had obtained an American League franchise for Quebec’s beloved hockey Aces; it catered to culture addicts by sponsoring a local opera company. Dow’s acquisition of the site of the first brewery in Canada, built by Jean Talon during the French Regime, added a soupçon of historical patriotism to the corporate image.

The people of Quebec City reciprocated by drinking Dow. Fifty percent of the beer consumed in metropolitan Quebec was Dow. In some areas, the figure was closer to 70 percent. In most taverns if you just asked for a beer, you’d get Dow. The working man who came in and asked for a “union beer” would get Dow, too. (Dow is unionized, while its chief competitor. Molson’s, isn’t.)

Now, as he spoke to Larivière, Bob Poirier suddenly remembered an incident that had occurred the previous October; “It was between periods at a Quebec Aces hockey game. 1 was sitting with a friend, a doctor from the Enfant Jésus Hospital. I remember exactly what he said: ‘We’ve found a funny sickness. We don’t know what it is, but we think it might be caused by beer. The only thing the patients have in common is that they’re heavy beer drinkers.’ ” Poirier adds that it was a casual remark. He didn't think anything of it at the time.

There was a long silence on the line after Poirier spoke. “Look.” said Larivière, “if there’s anything to the stories, the coroner would have had an inquest. Talk to him and call me back.”

The man who was coroner of Quebec City at the time well remembers the call from Dow. “I was surprised to hear from them,” says Dr. Paul des Ruisseaux. “I had just decided that an official investigation was called for.” Dr. des Ruisseaux is a big. lean, barrel-chested man, who looks more like the long-distance swimmer he used to be than a city coroner. Among Quebec doctors he has the reputation of being a canny, cool investigator.

What the coroner told Bob Poirier was that he had performed autopsies on four victims of a strange disease. All of them were of the laboring class and lived in Quebec’s Lower Town.

All were also beer drinkers. “One thing that troubled me was that most of the victims drank Dow,” recalls Dr. des Ruisseaux. The autopsies showed that the victims suffered from a radical degeneration of heart muscle tissue, or myocardiopathy. Unlike cases of alcoholism, there was no destruction of the liver or other organs. “My first guess was that it was cardiac beriberi,” adds Dr. des Ruisseaux, “and I went to see the patients.” At the same time he asked the cardiologists and pathologists to check their records for deaths they might not have considered coroner cases at the time. “Some doctors had as many as six cases, and the symptoms always were the same.”

The severity of the symptoms is indicated by the reaction of a lab

technician who phoned back the coroners office indignantly after getting a sample of a victim’s heart tissue. “What’s the idea of sending me something from someone who’s heen dead six weeks?” the technician asked. In fact, the victim had been dead only six hours.

A general practitioner in Quebec who handled one of the first cases, in the early fall of 1965. still remembers his puzzlement and horror. “I didn’t know what the hell it was 1 was looking at,” he says. The patients complained of the symptoms of heart disease — shortness of breath, with leg and chest pains. “What was awful was that the patient was going to die, and there was nothing you could do about it. You'd use the standard treatments, but all you could do was alleviate things a little.”

While Larivière was receiving this grim report from his Quebec City man, the chairman of Dow had advised the company’s top executives of the rumor. Later that day, March 16, an informal meeting was held in the office of Dow’s president, Dr. Pierre Gendron.

Like his public-relations director, Pierre Gendron thought the illnesses might prove to be cases of ptomaine poisoning. (Gendron is a PhD in chemistry.)

A more explosive reaction came from the third man at the informal meeting of March 16. “I remember that day well,” says Mike Keene, a rugged man in his early 40s, who has been associated with Dow for nearly 20 years. As vice-president of operations for Dow, he is directly responsible for the manufacture of the beer. “To me it sounded absolutely absurd.”

But all three Dow executives realized that the story of deaths connected with beer drinking might spread. “I decided we needed technical advice,” Gendron recalls. “I engaged Dr. Clifford Chappel of Bio-Research Limited, an independent research firm and one of the best of the type in Canada.”

The next day, March 17, Jacques Larivière, the national PR director, phoned Dr. des Ruisseaux direct in Quebec City. The coroner told him substantially the same thing he had told Bob Poirier. During that conversation, says Larivière, “I offered to put him in touch with our head brewer, who could tell him just exactly what wc put in our beer.”

According to Dow, the doctors and health authorities never contacted them at all during the early stages of the crisis. All their information came through rumors picked up by Dow employees. “They knew beer was involved,” says Bob Poirier, with some bitterness, “why didn’t they call us?” To Pierre Gendron and Jacques Larivière, there was evidence of hostility toward Dow on the part of some of the doctors involved in the case. “Talk was spreading through the hospitals,” says Pierre Gendron. “Some of the doctors were in a panic about being sued. But I wasn’t going to sue anyone. All 1 wanted was to find out what was happening.”

So did Dr. Yves Morin, a cardiologist at Quebec City’s Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, who had seen many of the cases.

He asked the federal government’s Food and Drug Directorate to investigate. This was on Saturday. March 19, and the following Monday, Pierre Gendron was advised by an official of Quebec’s Department of Health that the federal authority would soon step in. At the same time an investigation committee was being set up. including many prominent Quebec City doctors, representatives of the provincial Health Department and the Food and Drug Directorate. Dr. Jacques Gélinas, Quebec’s Deputy Minister of Health, agreed to take BioResearch Ltd. into the investigating committee, as the consultant to the Brewing industry of Quebec.”

On the Monday of that week, March 21, Bob Poirier in Quebec City received another anxious call from Jacques Larivière. Was there any talk around town about beer deaths? No, Poirier assured him. Dow’s Quebec City sales staff had also made discreet inquiries — and they too heard nothing disturbing. For the moment, Dow sales were still normal.

Later that morning Larivière got more unpleasant information from Dr. des Ruisseaux, the coroner. Up to that time 39 cases of the disease had been discovered in Quebec, and there were 14 dead. At the coroner’s request, the Provincial Police had investigated 32 cases, and found that all but one of them had been a Dow drinker. “But the coroner told me he still didn't think there was a link between our beer and the disease,” says Jacques Larivière. “That’s because Dow’s Quebec City brew is distributed all over eastern Quebec, while all the cases were confined to Quebec City.”

The next day, Tuesday. Mike Keene and John Joubert, Dow’s Quebec City plant manager, met two representatives from the federal Food and Drug Directorate in Dow's Lower Town plant. Joubert took the inspectors through the plant, explaining every phase of the brewing process. They were given samples of all the ingredients, and of every batch of beer brewed in the plant since November 1965.

When Jacques Larivière got back to his office in Montreal, he found a message from Ray Chaisson of CBCTV waiting for him. “Chaisson told me that CBC in Toronto had queried him about a rumor connecting some deaths in Quebec City with Dow Ale,” says Larivière. “I told him it was news to me, but I’d check and call him back.” Larivière called Pierre Gendron and suggested that he (Larivière) prepare a statement to be used in case of a query. “Go ahead.” said Gendron. Larivière checked with the company’s lawyers and then drafted a disclaimer of any connection between Dow and the deaths.

“I called the CBC and asked the deskman on duty if they were going to use the story, including the rumor associating our company with the deaths. He said yes, so I read him the statement.”

That night’s TV was a bitter experience for all of the Dow people. “They read the story without mentioning our name, then they read the statement,” / continued on page 28

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THE GREAT BEER SCARE continued from page 9

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Rumors spread, sick jokes made the rounds, sales sank

says Larivière, with a shrug that is close to being philosophical. In Quebec City, Bob Poirier’s experience was even more embarrassing. He was in the Winter Club with a group of lawyers, after a party in Dow’s vaults, when the news flashed on the TV screen.

From that point on, the headlines began to appear, growing consistently more aggressive. By Tuesday, a daily tabloid, Montréal-Matin, was talking about La Bière Qui Tue, The Beer That Kills. Dow’s sales took an immediate nosedive.

Strangely enough, there was less panic in the taverns than in the groceries. “One day a guy comes in waving a newspaper,” says Leopold Clermont, a waiter at the Clarendon Tavern, in the upper town. “He waves it in front of this other guy who’s got two big bottles of Dow in front of him. ‘Look, you’re drinking the beer that kills.’ The guy kept on drinking without batting an eyelash.”

“Right off the bat, my sales of Dow went down 85 percent,” says Bill Noonan, co-owner and operator of the Chien d’Or. In one Lower Town tavern, the picture was even gloomier. “Look at this place,” said Paul Julien, owner of a dim tavern in the Lower Town. “It used to be full every night.” There were four dispirited customers in the place. Dow’s sales suffered worst, but all brands were down.

At the same time, sick jokes about Dow began to make the rounds. There was a new form of Russian roulette — four Molsons and one Dow. Another was that Dow was giving away a casket with every 12 cases of beer. In beer halls you’d hear: “I’m in the mood for suicide; send over a Dow,” or, “Dow, the beer that’s good to your last breath.” By the next Tuesday, Dow’s sales throughout Quebec City were now practically zero, and the slump was spreading throughout the province.

That afternoon, March 29. the first

meeting of the investigation committee was held in Quebec City, and Dow’s top executives waited anxiously for a report from their representative on the committee. Dr. Chappel of BioResearch Ltd.

What Dr. Chappel learned at the meeting was no more pleasant than what the coroner had told Larivière earlier: disease of epidemic proportions was killing beer-drinkers in Que-

bee. Perhaps because Dow was by far the most popular brand in the epidemic area, Dow was obviously suspect.

Dr. Chappel flew to Montreal to attend the gloomiest meeting ever held by Dow’s executive. At seven that evening, long after dark in Montreal in late March, Pierre Gendron led a tense group of Dow executives into a suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

THE GREAT BEER SCARE continued

Then the crucial question: should the beer be dumped?

With him and Dr. Chappel were Jacques Larivière, Mike Keene, along with Dow’s vice-presidents of sales and marketing, their legal adviser, and Fred Hovey, the Toronto-based vicepresident of Operations for Dow’s parent company, Canadian Breweries Limited.

Gendron posed the crucial question: “Should we withdraw our Quebec City beer from the market?”

“We continued to have complete faith in our product,” recalls Gendron. “but panic was spreading through the beer-drinking public. We had to do something to reassure them.” He called up Dr. Jacques Gélinas, of the province's Health Department. “Would it help the investigation if we withdrew our product?” asked Gendron. He was told it would.

There was, moreover, an economic reason for closing down the plant. Sales had come to a standstill. “You can't produce beer and not sell it.” said Pierre Gendron later. Mike Keene added that beer begins to lose flavor soon after it leaves the brewery. “If our stocks aren’t sold within three months we begin to pick them up and destroy them, anyway.”

$625,000 gurgle

The next day, March 30. the employees of Dow’s Quebec City plant came to work as usual. But it was no usual day. When the bottling conveyor started, it ran backward. The whole normal bottling process was reversed. In the warehouse Dow employees with king-size bottle openers knocked off caps four at a time. Cartons went up to the bottling area from the warehouse. The bottles were lifted out of the cartons automatically, and then, when they reached the washer, they were mechanically turned upside down, while the beer gurgled out. Occasionally an employee would pick up a bottle and lift it to his lips. “Better to die on the job,” one quipped. At the same time, Dow’s big delivery trucks were bringing home the beer from all over eastern Quebec, and the 8,000-gallon brewing vats were being emptied into the drain. (“We had to do it slowly,” says a Dow executive, “we couldn’t have the sewers foaming up.”)

The process of disposal took nearly four weeks. It was only on April 25 that replacement stocks were shipped out to Quebec City from Dow’s main plant in Montreal. All in all, nearly a million gallons of Dow beer were destroyed, and the operation cost about $625,000. “But that was just the beginning of our losses,” says Jacques Larivière. “Sales were down to zero in eastern Quebec, of course. God knows when they’ll get back to normal. But once we dumped it, it made headlines all over the country. Our national sales figure went down by 50 percent. And once a man gives up a brand, who knows when or if he’ll ever come back? I could say the losses are a million dollars, or I could say three million dollars.” He adds that if the Quebec City operation had been independent of Dow's main plant in Montreal, it could have gone bankrupt. Of course, Dow

itself was strong enough to withstand the shock; it is owned by Canadian Breweries Limited, which has breweries all over Canada.

By June 27. Dow felt secure enough to reopen its Quebec plant. Through sales of Montreal-brewed beer, Dow had already recovered nearly two thirds of its previous market.

There was one slight difference in the new Dow beer: foam - making cobalt was left out of the recipe. Not, a Dow official said, because the brewers thought cobalt might be dangerous, but because it had been mentioned at the symposium of investigators.

The story isn't ended, of course. Dozens of people, in two widely sepa-

rated cities, have died of a nameless and terrible disease. And although Dow beer — just as the ads say — has come through the most exhaustive quality-control tests in the history of brewing, the investigations haven’t ended. If beer, or even a particular brand of beer didn’t cause the deaths, what did? The doctors still don’t know, and they still intend to find out. It may be years before the final chapter is written to the AMA’s mystery story. ★