West German authorities announced today that they are confiscating thousands of bottles of imported Austrian wine after learning that vast supplies were poisoned by a chemical used as antifreeze in automobiles.
The Health Ministry here issued an urgent warning to the public to avoid high-quality Austrian wines until the scandal is resolved. A ministry spokesman said that while Vienna claims 300,000 liters of the tainted wine were delivered to West Germany, the Bonn government is convinced that perhaps five times that amount has crossed the border.
(An official at the Austrian Embassy in Washington said investigations indicated that the adulterated wine had come from firms and distributors doing business solely with West Germany and that none had been shipped to the United States.)
The revelations have caused a "wine scare" throughout the country, with German supermarket chains removing all Austrian wines from their store shelves and saying they will replace them only when the dangerous brands are isolated.
West Germany is Austria's biggest export market, accounting for three-quarters of its foreign wine sales, and Austrian wine exporters fear that the rash of canceled orders could ruin their business. Contracts covering more than 5 million bottles for West Germany have been dropped in recent days.
Bonn's Health Ministry accused Austria today of failing to convey prompt warning about the poisoned wine after Viennese authorities uncovered the doctoring three months ago. Austrian investigators believe that up to 27 wine-exporting firms might be implicated in lacing cheap wine with antifreeze to make it sweeter and more marketable as expensive dessert wine.
The additive, diethylene glycol, is used as a sweetener. West German health experts say that anything above 0.1 grams per liter poses a serious health hazard and can cause nausea and kidney infections. Some impounded bottles have been found to contain 100 times that much.
The adulterated wine is derived from recent vintages of the Burgenland and Neusiedler See districts in southeastern Austria.
Austria's Agriculture Ministry insisted that it had told the West German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where most of the wine apparently was sent, about the doctoring as soon as it was confirmed in April. Austrian officials blamed the long delay in notifying the public on the lack of coordination between West German state and federal governments.
But Hartwig Moebes, a spokesman for Bonn's Health Ministry, said that a scandal of such magnitude should make it imperative for national governments to cooperate as closely as possible to overcome any serious menace to public health.
He said that Vienna not only failed to tell the Bonn government immediately about the tainted wine, but that when the West German Health Ministry approached Austrian officials in May to ask about possible dangers it also was told that the wine posed no health problems.