Brazil: 4 people die after consuming contaminated beer

Four people have died and another at last 20 have presumably been poisoned after they consumed beer from Cervejaria Backer based in Olhos D'Água, Belo Horizonte in the Brazilian State of Minas Gerais.

 For one of the four deaths, presence of diethylene glycol (DEG) in the blood was confirmed as well as in 32 lots of the beer and in the water used by the brewery. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (Mapa) confirmed that the popular brand Belorizontina is affected but to a lesser extend also the brands Capitão Senra, Pele Vermelha, Backer Pilsen, Fargo 46, Capixaba, Brown and Backer D2. The Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa)  and Backer Brewery also issued a recall of those brands from distributors and store shelves and provisionally closed the brewery and banned for the duration of 90 days the sale of all Backer beers across the country with an expiration date from August 2020 onwards.

DEG is a colorless, practically odorless, poisonous, and hygroscopic liquid with a sweetish taste. Because of its adverse effects on humans, DEG is not allowed for use in food and drugs. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations allows no more than 0.2% of DEG in polyethylene glycol when the latter is used as a food additive.

Although the cause of the contamination is still not detected, several lines of enquiry are being followed.

A dilute solution of DEG or more often mono ethylene glycol (MEG) is widely used as antifreeze which is also the case in this specific brewery. It seems plausible that a leakage in one of the cooling systems of the brewery may have caused the poisoning of the beer. MEG can be converted into DEG when brought into an acid environment like in beer.

Another line of investigation is a misuse of DEG. In 1985, DEG was illegally used to sweeten Austrian wines. Millions of wine bottles were recalled and were found to contain up to 1,000 parts per million of DEG. However, sweetening of beer is not very common and is therefore less likely in this case.

Lastly, it cannot be ruled out that the poisoning is an act of sabotage by an employee.

At a news conference on Tuesday marketing director Paula Lebbos asked people not to consume the beer which is subject to the investigation, especially Belorizontina beer and Capixaba beer, which is produced in the same tank and has the same formula as Belorizontina, but with a different label.

Cervejaria Backer (Backer Brewery) was established in 1999 by the two brothers Halim and Munir Lebbos. It was the first craft brewery in Minas Gerais. The brewery did very well and invested in 2014 in its new Pátio Cervejeiro, where you find next to the brewery a distillery, a restaurant and a shop. In 2018, to honor the 120 year jubilee of Belo Horizonte, the brewery introduced its Belorizontina beer which was an instant success and accounts now for 60% of Backer’s production. The brewery has an estimated production capacity of about 120,000 hl and yearly sales of about BRL 84 million (USD 20m). The company employs today 350 people and sells its beers in 16 of the 26 states in Brazil. Next to its various types of beer, the company produces and sells a Whiskey called 3 Lobos and a Gin flavored with hops.

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