24 Mar 11

Rakia Deaths Cause Drinks Scare in Serbia

Fatalities put spotlight on unscrupulous producers of popular fruit-based brandies, who doctor the ingredients to make them stronger.

Bojana Barlovac

Serbia's Ministry of Agriculture has ordered retailers to withdraw a brand of the popular fruit brandy known as "rakia" after two men died from drinking the potion.

Tibor Irsai, 38, from Kula, died on March 21, and Zoran Milkic, 47, from Nis, died on March 14.

The deaths have raised concern in Serbia over the safeguards concerning the sale of alchoholic drinks in the country.

The Institute of Forensic Medicine on Wednesday said it believed a third man may also have died recently as a result of absorbing unacceptably high levels of methanol in the bloodstream, which it also attributed to consumption of "rakia" produced by Scaid, of Subotica.

The agriculture ministry said laboratory results showed that the fatal drinks contained up to ten times the allowed level of methanol, "so the quality and health safety [of the beverage] do not match regulations".

Branko Nesic, head of Serbia's annual "rakia" festival, said producers who wished to turn out a lot of strong drink quickly routinely put more methanol in the drink than was allowed, instead of fruit. “Such rakias are mostly artificial, or as we say in the profession, perfumed,” he said.

Due to the presence of pectin in the fruit from which "rakia" is made, methanol is inevitable in small amounts. But unscrupulous producers add in more, to make it stronger. It makes the process of making the drink cheaper and thus more affordable for consumers.

“Plum rakia should not cost less than 500 to 700 dinars [about 5-7 euro] in the shops,” Nesic said, noting that the toxic Scaid brand was selling for 300 dinars a bottle

The company closed earlier this year owing to growing debts. Since then, production of "rakia" under the company's name has been illegal. if police find out the lethal drink was made since the firm closed, those found responsible can expect from two to 12 years in prison.

This is not the first time that the famous Balkan brandy has taken lives in Serbia. Thirteen years ago, Serbia was rocked by scandal when 43 people died and another 56 were poisoned as a result of methanol levels in a brand of "rakia". The producer, Miroslav Zivadinovic, from Nis, was jailed for 12 years.

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