CONSUMERISM

An inquiry into tainted Ontario wine

SHERRI AIKENHEAD April 14 1986
CONSUMERISM

An inquiry into tainted Ontario wine

SHERRI AIKENHEAD April 14 1986

An inquiry into tainted Ontario wine

CONSUMERISM

One by one the executives representing the country’s four major wine companies took an oath on the Bible last week swearing to reveal their knowledge of their industry’s very own scandal. But as the managers meticulously recalled telephone conversations, confidential memorandums and secret meetings in evidence before the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Testing and Marketing of Liquor in Ontario, it became clear that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) had not only purposely silenced its own employees after the discovery of ethyl carbamate in Ontario wines in 1980 but also kept the information from most wine makers. But health officials are split over the hazards posed by the possible cancer-causing substances. Said Eric Boles, a quality control supervisor for Jordan & Ste-Michelle Cellars in St. Catharines, Ont., who said he learned of the ethyl carbamate in December, 1983: “I was definitely concerned when I heard the word carcinogen. But we were told it would only harm the wine industry if it was made public.”

For Canadian wine drinkers, 1985 was not a vintage year. Last July a scandal erupted in Austria where producers were doctoring an unknown quantity of the country’s cheap dry white wines with unauthorized amounts of diethylene glycol, a potentially poisonous antifreeze ingredient. Then, in November new LCBO chairman Jack Ackroyd, former Metropolitan Toronto police chief, made public a 1982 lab report citing 56 Brights wines and three imported fruit brandies that contained excessive concentrations of ethyl carbamate. Within 24 hours of receiving the report, Ontario Consumer and

Commercial Relations Minister Monte Kwinter ordered a judicial inquiry into why the information had been kept from the public for five years. He also demanded the testing of all 2,500 brands of alcoholic beverages sold in provincially run liquor stores.

In the first four months of Ontario hearings before inquiry commissioner Mr. Justice John H. Osier, more than 100 revealing LCBO documents have

been entered, some of which raise questions about whether the LCBO tried to protect the province’s $300-milliona-year wine industry. Other evidence and witnesses have focused on two secret files known as “the beta project file” and “code 99”—secret analyses of samples containing ethyl carbamate. According to testimony, LCBO lab tech-

nician Alexander Karumanchiri, a member of the Toronto-based laboratory that tested the samples, had reported the presence of ethyl carbamate in wines to his LCBO superiors in 1980. Brights was the main target of the investigation but others were later implicated. Brights executives told the commission they were not informed until May 12, 1982. The report cited 56 of the 60 tested Brights wines as containing high levels of ethyl carbamate. After consulting a 1930 chemical dictionary the next day, David Nicol, quality control manager at Brights, discovered that high - levels of ethyl carba2 mate were produced in I wine making by heat's; ing ethyl alcohol and

0 urea nitrate, a yeast f which speeds up fer\ mentation. But offi| cials from other win-

1 eries told the inquiry they did not learn about the source of the contamination problems until 1983—twoand-a-half years before Ackroyd alerted the public.

Still, there is debate among toxicologists about the potential dangers of the chemical. Although ethyl carbamate has caused cancer in laboratory test animals, there is no proof that it has the same effect on humans. In fact, the food byg product occurs natural5 ly in safe amounts in both yogurt and olives. 2 Until last December, I when the Ontario hear| ings opened, there were “ not even any official

guidelines on appropriate levels of ethyl carbamate in food. But after the report was made public, the federal department of health and welfare set 100 parts per billion (ppb) for such fortified wines as sherry and vermouth and 30 ppb for wine as safe levels of ethyl carbamate. Some of the Ontario wines that Ottawa tested had levels of up to 12,250 ppb. For his part, Karumanchiri based his con-

cerns on a World Health Organization paper which set 10 ppb as an acceptable amount in soft drinks. Now, wine producers are questioning the federal government’s levels. Some toxicologists say that a person would have to drink a bottle of wine every day for the contamination to pose a health threat. But Dr. Beverly Huston, a chemist at Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch who is concerned about long-term effects, told Maclean's'. “If it is cancerous to animals, one must assume there is a risk to humans and we want to reduce the exposure of any risk of cancer to as close to zero as possible.”

To that end, the federal branch has tested more than 500 samples of liquor

on the market in all provinces. After narrowing the susceptible liquors down to three groups, provincial liquor control boards across the country had to remove all stocks of two American bourbons—Jim Beam and Lionstone International—28 ports and sherries and 18 varieties of fortified wines. But when the ethyl carbamate problem in Ontario became public, only two provinces-Ontario and Quebec—had laboratory facilities to test for the chemical.

Since then, according to John Riou, director of field operations for Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch, the federal health department has twice met with provincial liquor boards to help them set up laboratories for the sophisticated testing. Now the Alberta Liquor Control Board is using a private laboratory in Edmonton. As well, under a new plan devised by the protection branch, federal au-

thorities will confirm liquor board tests of products believed to contain harmful substances. Said Riou: “We can safely say the market is finally cleaned up and in pretty good shape, but we’ll keep a watchful eye.”

Health and Welfare Canada says that none of the wine on sale in Canada is tainted. But Canadian producers, facing an already plummeting market, are still struggling to convince the consumer it is safe to buy their products. More than 60 wineries in Canada, located mostly in Ontario’s rich Niagara region and in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, produce wines with sales of $300 million annually. But Canadian vintners report sagging sales—

mainly because of competition from Europe. The recent publicity about contaminated wine stiffened the marketing challenge. Said Jan Westcott, executive director of the Torontobased Canadian Wine Institute, which represents about 50 wine companies: “There is no question sales are down significantly. Had this cancer scare been an isolated incident, it might not have had such a dramatic effect. But on the heels of the European scandal, it raised serious questions in the public’s mind.”

Indeed, Christmas sales, traditionally the industry’s peak season, were down as much as 30 per cent in some LCBO stores, and Jordan Wines Ltd. of St. Catharines, Ont., laid off 20 employees. Said Westcott: “Layoffs during Christmas are simply unheard of. It will take the industry years to recover.” The European wine industry will likely take just as long to recover from

its current scandal. Last week in the wake of 11 deaths caused by contaminated wine in Italy, authorities introduced new rules requiring exported wine to carry a government certificate of purity. Officials attributed the deaths and about 30 illnesses to the drinking of Odore Barbera, a northern Italian red wine contaminated with more than the .3 per cent methyl alcohol allowed. (Unlike the Italian tragedy, the addition of diethylene glycol to Austrian wines last summer claimed no lives.) According to Health and Welfare Canada, the Italian wine in question is not sold in Canada.

Testifying last month before the Ontario royal commission, David Wilcox,

the LCBO’s product and distribution vice-president, said the discovery of dangerous substances in liquor board products will not be kept secret in the future. But Jack Couillard, 66, assistant general manager of the LCBO at the time of the discovery—it reported to Conservative Consumer and Commercial Relations Minister Frank Drea—testified that he does not regret the way in which he handled the discovery of ethyl carbamate. Said Couillard: “I didn’t see that it was something to be terribly concerned about— nothing to panic over, you might say.” While inquiry commissioner Osier is not expected to report to the Liberal government of Premier David Peterson for several months after the hearings end May 30, it will take years for the industry to recover from—and forget—one of its worst periods.

SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Toronto