Federal officials are advising consumers to stop drinking imported Italian wines temporarily until they can be tested to ensure that they do not contain dangerous levels of methanol, a substance found in wines that have killed at least 20 persons in Italy.
No contaminated wines have been found in the United States thus far, but all Italian wines are currently subject to the testing procedures, officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said yesterday.
Retailers were not ordered to stop selling Italian wines, which remained on shelves in numerous stores in the Washington area, and some consumers continued to buy them, according to a random survey of area liquor stores.
However, retailers in at least 17 states began pulling Italian wines from their shelves, and Safeway, a nationwide grocery chain with scores of stores in the Washington area, also ordered Italian wines off its shelves.
An ATF spokesman said officials are suggesting that if consumers have Italian wine at home, they hold it until the testing has been completed, take it to a commercial lab on their own or return it to the retailer.
Spokesman Dot Koester added, "This is all precautionary. We have found no high levels of methanol in the Italian wines tested . . . . But we cannot get assurances from the Italian government that none of the contaminated wine was shipped to the U.S. . . . . It is a cliche, but it's true: better to be safe than sorry."
ATF, which does not have the authority to order retailers to remove wines from their shelves, took action on two levels Thursday, according to spokesmen. The bureau ordered that Italian wine imports be held at American ports until they can be tested and that importers and wholesalers freeze their products and have them tested before distribution.
A spokesman said officials will require a certificate of analysis from the Italian government for wines stopped in ports and will test samples at its own labs. Wholesalers and importers must submit samples to commercial labs that can certify to ATF the wines are not tainted by methanol, or wood alcohol.
However, as ATF attempted to get out the word yesterday, many consumers remained unaware of the warning. An employe at the Safeway store at 415 14th St. SE reported that several customers asked why "the shelves were being emptied." At two of the District's largest liquor stores, Calvert Woodley Wine and Liquors and Pearson's Discount Wine and Liquors, both in Northwest, sales of Italian wines were still brisk.
Managers of stores in Montgomery County, which are run by the county Department of Liquor Control, and of independent stores in Prince George's told the same story.
Ed Kohn, wine manager at Pearson's, said he did not believe the wines that Pearson's carries are tainted. Other retailers said much the same. Herb Rothberg, president of Central Liquors, said the tainted wines were cheap brands drunk in areas of Italy where they are made and not wines exported to the United States.
But Kohn and several others said they might have to reexamine their position in light of the federal directive. "We'll do whatever is prudent for the public," said Kohn. "That comes first."
In Virginia, an Alcohol Beverage Control Department spokesman said that ABC stores were phasing out all but Virginia-made wines and that few, if any, Italian wines were available. As a result, he said, the state is taking "no action at this time."
The Italian government yesterday reported a widening of the scandal, saying that nearly 350 wines from all regions of Italy contain more than the legal amount of methanol, according to an Associated Press report. A previous announcement had listed 60 tainted wines.
When consumed in large quantities, methanol can cause coma, blindness and death.
The latest victim died yesterday, and more than 30 persons have been hospitalized with symptoms of methanol poisoning, AP reported.