Authorities in Kratie province have ordered an emergency ban on the production of rice wine as the death toll from methanol poisoning in the province over the past five days rose to 17 with the deaths on Sunday of five people in Chet Borei district.
Provincial officials on Friday issued the decree ordering production of the wine temporarily ceased in order to give authorities time to determine the origin of the tainted alcohol, deputy provincial governor Pen Lynat said on Sunday.
“Our authorities have issued a letter guiding the district and commune authorities to do inspections and immediately halt the production,” Mr. Lynat said, adding that he believed the ban would be lifted quickly.
“We have to go and clearly inspect their [production] places because recently there have been a lot of new cases of people dying from rice wine,” he explained.
Sreng Sopheap, the provincial head of administration, said a total of 20 people have died of methanol poisoning from alcohol since late last month, with 17 of the deaths occurring since Wednesday. All of the fatalities have occurred in just three of the province’s six districts, he said.
Mr. Sopheap said three died in Sambor district on November 19, eight in Snuol district on Wednesday, four more in Snuol over Thursday and Friday, and five in Chet Borei district on Sunday. Dozens more have been left ill from the wine, he added.
“This is a temporary ban. We will let the experts inspect the places in order to find out whether they have poisonous substances or not. If we find it, we will confiscate it and open a case,” Mr. Sopheap said.
A further five people also died after consuming apparently tainted dog meat early last week in Snuol district. Officials there say they believe those deaths were unrelated to tainted rice wine, as some people who ate the dog meat but did not drink alcohol also fell ill.
Snuol district governor Kong Kimny said on Sunday that samples of the dog meat have been sent to the Health Ministry in Phnom Penh to determine what type of poison, if any, was in the meat.
“I still believe it is partly because of the dog meat, because children and some others who did not drink rice wine were also poisoned,” he said.
Health Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said that besides the ban on production of rice wine, people in Kratie should throw out any wine they have on hand.
“If they do not stop it…this will happen again, because the [tainted] wine that has been distributed is in their community already,” he said.
Deputy provincial police chief Oum Phy said authorities already have one lead in determining the source of tainted wine, having arrested winemaker Sa Reth, 60, on Wednesday in Snuol after finding he had instructed his children to pour out all his product.
“He has been placed in pretrial detention on charges of destroying evidence, as he destroyed all evidence related to the case,” Mr. Phy said, explaining that police independently obtained a sample of his wine.
Mr. Phy said that the wine allegedly produced by Mr. Reth, and obtained in relation to the deaths of the eight people in Snuol on Wednesday, had 9.5 percent methanol content—a level much higher than the 0.15 percent deemed to be safe by the law.
He said that the rice wine was sent to the Industry Ministry in Phnom Penh for testing by chemical experts, and that the results would help to determine if the same wine was responsible for the other deaths.