ON SEPTEMBER 18 at 17:00 Slovakia halted the import of all spirits made in the Czech Republic containing more than 20 percent alcohol content. The decision came after a hospital in Prešov confirmed that four people had been poisoned with methyl alcohol after drinking Czech homemade liquor during a family party.

“We are protecting citizens from their own irresponsibility,” said Agriculture Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek, as quoted by the Sme daily, when explaining the decision to block the import of Czech alcohol.

He added that the ban would remain in force until the Czech Republic has the situation under control, Sme wrote.

While some organisations, like the Slovak Agricultural and Food Chamber (SPPK) and the Food Chamber of Slovakia (PKS), welcomed the move by the agriculture and health ministries, others said the decision was made too hastily and in a state of panic.

“The ban on the import and sale of alcohol will have a significant impact on retailers,” said Pavol Konštiak, president of the Trade and Tourism Association (ZOCR), as quoted by the TASR newswire.

He added that a large amount of money is tied up in alcohol sales. Moreover, it will be small retailers in particular that run into financial problems due to the government’s measures, Konštiak explained.

The first cases of poisoning by methyl alcohol occurred in the Czech Republic in late August and early September. Since then more than 20 people have died and several others remain in hospital. In response to the situation, the Czech government announced a ban on spirits with an alcohol content higher than 20 percent.

Slovakia’s first recorded methyl alcohol poisoning occurred on Sunday, September 16, after eight people arrived at a hospital in Prešov. Laboratory results later confirmed the poisoning of four men, whom doctors treated with pure medical alcohol. Currently only one of the poisoning victims remains in hospital, but is likely to be sent home at the end of the week, the SITA newswire wrote.

The men were poisoned during a family party in Veľké Kapušany, near Prešov, which took place on Friday, September 14. The family bought the alcohol from the Czech Republic via the internet, said spokesperson for the regional police in Prešov, Daniel Džobanik, as quoted by TASR. An analysis of the homemade plum brandy confirmed the presence of methyl alcohol.

The ban on imports followed an earlier assertion by the ministries that there was no reason to block Czech spirits. One reason for the reversal concerned the statements of Czech politicians who said that they did not have the situation under control, Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Magda Tóth Želeňáková told The Slovak Spectator.

“We have to protect our consumers, it is the most important [priority] for Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek,” she said.

Tests for the presence of methyl alcohol negative

Even though there has been only one reported case of poisoning by methyl alcohol, Slovak inspectors and hygienists have been analysing spirits for several weeks. As of September 17 they had conducted about 2,600 tests and examined approximately 26 types of alcohol.

They have not confirmed the presence of the poisonous methanol in any of the controlled spirits, TASR wrote.

Yet the Health Ministry, as well as the Public Health Authority (ÚVZ), called on citizens not to drink uncertified alcohol or alcohol bought via the internet.

People who are uncertain about alcohol they have purchased can have the spirits examined at regional public health offices in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica and Prešov.

Moreover, the ÚVZ has established special emergency lines at which people can call if necessary, TASR reported.

After imposing the import ban, the ÚVZ together with the Slovak Trade Inspectorate (SOI) started checking stores to ensure that they had withdrawn all affected Czech-made spirits from sale. They found out five shops which were still offering banned spirits, Sme wrote.

However, Sme also reported shopkeepers as saying they did not know what to do since the ministry had not specified what to do with banned alcohol, or whether they were also required to withdraw liquor carrying a barcode with a Czech identifier but which had been produced in another country.