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Enguli lives to old tag of kill-me-quick

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

But is it change from home-made to industrial production that has led to recent 20 deaths?

On September 4, Minister of Health Stephen Mallinga and Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) announced a ban on the sell of alcohol packed in sachets following the death of over 20 people in different parts of the country. At least 27 people are hospitalised. The alcohol related deaths occurred in Kasese, Kampala, Wakiso, with a big number being registered in Kamengo sub-county in Mpigi district. In 2007, forty people died after taking poisonous alcohol.

Following the recent deaths, the minister banned packing of alcohol of less than 250ml. He also decreed that all spirits be bottled.

Observers of the alcohol industry say alcohol has been a social problem and rarely a health one until its production shifted from traditional to industrial brewing. Traditionally, the raw materials for making spirits (enguli) were bananas (musa, kisubi), cassava, millet, and sugarcane through fermentation and later distillation. At a large scale (industrial) level, sugarcane molasses was fermented, distilled, blended and flavoured.

However, the traditional distillation still left some impurities which cumulatively could be harmful to ones health. This is perhaps the reason it was referred to as kill-me-quick. In 1965, The Enguli Act tried to address that by decreeing that distillation would only be possible under licence, and that distillers should sell their product to the government-run Uganda Distilleries Ltd – which would later triple distil it before bottling and distributing, it to the market under the brand Uganda Waragi.

Uganda Waragi is currently produced by Uganda Breweries Ltd but it is not clear whether the factory is still linked to local distillers.

Gyavira Musoke, acting head of UNBS Quality Assurance manager who also heads imports inspection at UNBS, however denies that the shift from home-made local gin to industrial has caused problems but rather has made production better. It is safer to consume refined products, Musoke said; adding that: Whereas there had not been cases of people dying after consuming locally made gin, I think it is appropriate to consume refined ones although there are challenges on controls.

Sam Kuloba Watasa, the director of Uganda Consumer Protection Association agrees that part of the problem is the regulatory framework and the shift to industrial mass production.

riminals have taken advantage of the fad for pre-packaged goods to pack dangerous products, adulterate otherwise quality products, etc to the disadvantage and risk to consumers. In the years gone by when production of local brew was not pre-packaged, every consumer of the same went direct to the supplier, provider or vendor, who was known by all locals making supply of a dangerous product within the community highly risky. Currently, pre-packaging makes the distribution chain longer and much more impersonal making it almost impossible to identify source and allocate responsibility, says Watasa.

He argues that while the state rapidly liberalised from the early ‘90s, there was limited effort, if any to establish, a comprehensive regulatory framework that would enable consumers bring suppliers of such goods to meaningfully account for their malpractices.

“The killer waragi is therefore a micro element in this state of affairs as am sure you remember the case of ‘Cool Cool Bar’ a few years back, where some ‘manufacturer’ in some backyard house on Namugongo Road was literally poisoning school kids with a product made out of water that could not meet the basic standard of drinking water!” he said.

Indeed the recent problem of alcohol poisoning is said to arise from the fact that some spirits producers are mixing too much of the required ingredients of laboratory generated alcohol. For example, the samples of sachet waragi cited in the death of the 20 people in the country, were found to contain more methanol than the recommended ratio.Â

According to the search engine Wikipedia, methanol is toxic and drinking 10ml of it will cause blindness while 100ml will cause death. Because of its toxic properties, methanol is frequently used as a denaturant additive for ethanol manufactured for industrial uses like manufacture of plastics, plywood, paints, and explosives. Methanol is often called wood alcohol because it was once produced chiefly as a by-product of the destructive distillation of wood.

The UNBS standards require that gins be portable flavoured liquors made from neutral spirit distillate or a mix of distillates obtained from sugarcane products, cereals, starch containing roots and tubers and fermented by the action or mixture of yeast. The gin has to have only 50 partial units of methanol for every 100 litres (g/100 litres) and that ethyl alcohol content in the gin should not be less than 37.5% by volume at 20° C among other ingredients. Accordingly, the gin has to be filled or packed in clean glass (liquor) bottles or a suitable container which does not affect their quality.

However, industry experts say, some manufacturers do not meet these standards and have no trained staff to handle the production process which has resulted in mishaps in the spirit produced. There are 23 local gin producers licenced by UNBS.

Dr. Kenya-Mugisha, director of clinical services in the health ministry, was quoted in the local press as saying ethanol is the only alcohol for human consumption. “If alcohol is not properly distilled or if it is adulterated with other chemicals, it becomes poisonous.”

All ethanol used in the brewing industry in Uganda is imported because the country has no production capacity.

The Ministry of Health is, however, yet to establish which spirit brands are adulterated. “We have not yet recommended any brands as being poisonous pending further investigations but we have agreed with distillers that all waragi should be bottled,” said State minister for Primary Health Care, James Kakooza.

Jerry Rajwayi, general manager of Parambot Breweries Limited, says the fact that alcohol related deaths are in particular places in the country points out where the quacks are operating. He argues that banning sachet alcohol is not in itself a solution because people making the adulterated alcohol will also adhere to the recommended bottling of the gins and spirits.

“It does not address the problem we are facing. The problem is people are accessing alcohol which is not food grade.  The unscrupulous people are taking advantage of the shortage of food grade alcohol raw materials to making non-food grade alcohol that is poisoning people. You cannot control that by banning sachet packaging because the problem is not packaging but source of non food grade alcohol, he says.

Be that as it may, there are challenges associated with bottling given that glass bottles are not manufactured in the country. Bottles will have to be imported so the new packaging process will make the packaging  and the alcohol  more expensive.

In the 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Status Report on Alcohol Uganda ranked as the leading consumer of alcohol (per capita), closely followed by Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. In a way outlawing sachets will perhaps put alcohol away from the reach of many, especially the poor and the young people who have found the sachets very cheap and convenient. The question though is: what will they resort to?

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