When it comes to regulatory enforcement, agencies are often at a loss to try and spin actions as somehow being positive. Often such seizures are seen as petty and overreaching acts focusing on business protectionism or the shutting down threats to tax revenue (permanently in some cases
) by regular people, meaning that getting public support for them can be an uphill struggle. Alcohol taxes are so unpopular that it's the origin behind one of the most popular sports in the US – NASCAR. Thus it's tempting to try and upsell things by stretching claims beyond all credulity, as the UK's Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) departments did recently.
Facebook followers of the IPO were confronted with this story just recently:
"Campaign cracks down on toxic fake alcohol" screams the headline, with the comment that thousands of liters were seized in Operation OPSON (a name that looks like it was short for "operation poison"). A serious bust of dangerous goods clearly, and clearly the agencies are doing a great job protecting the country, so share it and back to cat pictures.
Or you could actually read the article itself, and find the story isn't quite as portrayed
, and no cyanide-filled bottles cosplaying as spirituous liquors were annihilated by brave officials. For that matter, not only is OPSON not a veiled reference to poison, it's not even a priority. At the head of "notes to editors," Operation OPSON is described quite differently:
"Operation OPSON, jointly run by Interpol and Europol, began in 2011 to tackle the criminal production and sale of counterfeit 'protected food name' products, such as gorgonzola or champagne. It is now an international project that regularly sees the seizure of hundreds of tonnes of fake and substandard food."
That's right, international police agencies are running an operation to seize food not because they are bad, dangerous, or harmful, but because they weren't made in an approved locale. While some are fairly evident and obvious, such as lamb or beef labelled "scotch" or "welsh," others are less-so. A Cornish pasty made in Devon or Derbyshire isn't actually a Cornish pasty, because it wasn't made in Cornwall. Likewise if you were to make Feta cheese, you can't actually call it Feta, unless the sheep/goat milk came from Greece. Even Belgium has wanted in
on the act for its chocolate industry.
The food is fake (and presumed sub-standard) not because it's not that food, but because the place that made it wasn't within a certain circle on a map, even if it's absolutely identical and indistinguishable from the same product made inside that circle. This was never more evident than in 2007, when the protections around "Newcastle Brown Ale" were lifted… because the Scottish & Newcastle brewery wanted to move outside the circle.
But what of the toxic alcohol seized by the gallon? Well, like the goods themselves, it's not what it appears. The 2,421.5 liters grabbed by authorities are in their own words mostly "...for fake or fiscal infringing wines and spirits." Not because they were dangerous, but because of tax evasion, or trademark violations. So where's the "toxic" issue in the headline?
The poison comes from a raid in Derbyshire, where:
"There was little of the finished product or the raw materials (Coolex screenwash) in the unit but a large quantity of bottles, tops and boxes."
Never mind, because:
"A small amount of the finished product was identified, and on examination was found to contain high levels of iso-propanol. Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) causes intense drunkenness, is often used in cleaning chemicals."
The question is, was that actually the finished product, or one that was put aside because it had those high levels? Moreover, it's not exactly the most toxic, as the LD50 (lethal dose) for a rat orally is 5045 mg per kilogram
. Compare with, say, ethanol ("good" alcohol), at 3450 mg per kilogram
of mouse. Probably why even their expert, Visiting Professor at the University of Reading, Tony Hines had to say:
"...even at low levels, a 'couple of doubles' will cause dizziness, low blood pressure, abdominal pain and nausea."
Not exactly "toxic" though, or all that different from regular booze, let's be fair. In fact, the major difference is that isopropyl alcohol is just more potent than ethanol. So, to drive home the seriousness of this, they close with the following paragraph.
"In 2012, methanol poisoning from fake vodka resulted in the deaths of 50 people in the Czech Republic. In 2014, 2 men were sentenced to life imprisonment for their part in this tragedy, and many others sentenced to 14 to 20 years for their part. Eighty survivors were blinded as a result of consuming the poison."
Not to be flippant about it (the incident has killed 51), but this was an incident that happened 30 months ago 1500 km away. It even used a different chemical (methanol), so its inclusion is completely irrelevant to the issues at hand, and is there solely to try and justify tax and trademark-based raids and seizures as being about safety, and pump up the "shareability" factor by giving them a excuse to hang "toxic" in the headline.
Now, don't get me wrong, tainted and unsafe goods are bad, there's no doubt about that. Yet if you're going to try and play up a safety angle, then you really have to have a safety problem to hang your hat on. The vodka made from screenwash might be disturbing to some, but "toxic fake alcohol" is pushing it, when even if every drop of vodka they seized (171.1 liters) that year were high in isopropyl alcohol, it's only 7% of the total seized. And yet we know they didn't grab anywhere near that amount, because more than 240 bottles of the stuff is hardly "little of the finished product," a description which would seem to me to indicate a dozen liters or less. And since they found only empties, it means it's already gone out, so they've not really "cracked down" on it either.
Overall, the only toxic thing seems to be the press release, and then only for any journalist sloppy enough to regurgitate it without bothering to read it. That's probably why, on Twitter, where pushback, feedback and replies are harder to bury, there's absolutely no mention of "toxic" at all
That's because when it comes to poisonous, nothing beats hyperbolic government press releases for leaving good will stone dead.