South Africa: beware illicit liquor after bottlecap theft

South Africa’s alcohol industry has wanted the public to beware of illicit liquor products after a company had thousands of bottle caps stolen in a break-in.

The theft took place on December 30 at a warehouse owned by the unnamed company – a member of the South Africa Liquor Brandowners Association (SALBA) – and the organisation is now concerned that criminals may use them to inveigle counterfeit drinks into the supply chain.

“One of the illicit alcohol practices is to refill used, branded bottles with illegal alcohol, reseal them and sell that to consumers,” said SALBA chairman Sibani Mngadi. “This practice poses a major health risk to consumers.”

It's not yet clear if the theft was carried out to order by counterfeiters, although there is unlikely to be any other market or use for the closures.

South Africa is currently in the midst of a lockdown due to COVID-19, which includes a ban on alcohol sales, a curfew between 9pm and 6am, and a sweeping restrictions on social interactions.

The government said last month that drinking had resulted in “reckless behaviour” that was encouraging the spread of the coronavirus. A new, faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus has also been detected in the country.

There are fears however that demand for alcohol will lead some of the public to purchase liquor from illicit sources, which raises the risk of exposure to contaminated products with high levels of methanol, which can be fatal and cause serious symptoms such as blindness.

SALBA welcomed the new restrictions, which are in place for 14 days to curb the rise in infections, hospital admissions and mortality as a result of the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, but urged law enforcement agencies to be rigorous in dealing with illegal alcohol sales and the production of counterfeit products.

“Total prohibition of all formal sales poses the risk of growing the network of alcohol smugglers who respond to the current environment of unmet consumer demand for alcoholic products,” it said in a statement.

“These illegal activities include concealed, illegal movement of products, as well as industrial-scale production of counterfeit alcohol.”

South Africans should only drink legally bought alcohol at home before the ban, and certainly not in public, according to the trade body.

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