At least five major market chains pulled Italian wines off their shelves Thursday because of the deaths of nearly 20 people in Italy who drank wine laced with methyl alcohol.
Safeway Stores, Ralphs Grocery Co., Hughes Markets, Vons Grocery Co. and Albertson’s ordered branch managers to remove all Italian wine pending assurances that there is no danger. Officials of all the chains emphasized that it was a precautionary measure and that none of the adulterated bulk and bottled cheap Italian wine is believed to have reached American stores.
Operators of other market and liquor chains said they saw no reason to start packing their inventories of Italian wines away in storerooms because they had indications from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that none of the tainted wine appears to have come to the United States.
In Washington, ATF Director Stephen E. Higgins said that although there was no real evidence the wine containing methyl alcohol--otherwise known as methanol--had reached this country, the Italian government “has not been able to give us any real assurance. . . .”
He said ATF was placing an embargo on imports of all Italian wines lacking certificates to establish that they are not contaminated.
The Italian government itself has ordered Italy’s vintners not to export to the United States or other countries without certificates saying their wine does not exceed Italian legal limits for methyl alcohol.
The ATF ordered all U.S. liquor distributors to send samples of their stocks of Italian wines to commercial laboratories to be tested for the deadly wood alcohol and to forward results of the tests to Washington.
Even in the cases of Italian wine carrying certificates of analysis, Higgins said, the ATF will pull representative samples for testing in ATF laboratories.
He said it is up to distributors or wholesalers to tell retailers how to handle the Italian wine already in the stores.
Even before Higgins announced the embargo and mandatory testing, the Safeway chain, headquartered in Oakland, ordered managers nationwide to pull all Italian wines until--in the words of Southern California division spokeswoman Sharon Brown--"a reliable source can assure us that none of the contaminated wine from Italy was imported.”
She emphasized: “We don’t think it (methanol) is in any wine in the United States. This is just a voluntary, precautionary measure.”
The Safeway order also affected the Liquor Barn chain, owned by Safeway.
Ralphs quickly followed suit, prompted by what Senior Vice President Jan Charles Gray called “an abundance of caution.” Originally, he said, a few of the wines were removed, then all Italian wine was taken from shelves and locked in managers’ offices of the chain’s 127 stores throughout Southern California.
Hughes Does the Same
Hughes Markets did the same in its 42 Los Angeles-area stores. An executive who declined to give his name said it would remain in stockrooms “until we can be assured” that it is safe.
Vons executives decided late in the day to pull the Italian varieties from their 178 supermarkets throughout Southern California. “We have no reason to believe there is any problem,” said spokeswoman Suzanne Dyer. “But it’s just as an extra caution for the consumer’s sake.”
A spokesman for the Idaho-based Albertson’s, which has 444 stores in 17 states, said it would try to have all Italian wine off the shelves by Thursday night.
Web Hanson, vice president of the large Young’s Market wholesale firm, said he thought the removals by the store chains were “very foolish.”
The wine that poisoned at least 18 people in Italy, he pointed out, was cheap bulk wine without any kind of certification, not the bottled brands generally distributed and sold in the United States.
People Will ‘Back Away’
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hanson said, “this is going to knock the hell out of Italian wine sales. People are just going to back away.”
In New York, a spokesman for Riunite wines issued a statement declaring that the product was “not in any way involved” with the methyl alcohol problem in Italy. Riunite, he said, “has tested its wines to ensure that no contaminants are present.” Also, he said, ATF testing had not turned up any methyl alcohol in Riunite wine in the United States.
He said Riunite is the largest seller of imported wine in the United States and has 40% to 45% of the Italian wine market in this country.
Store chains not yet planning to remove Italian wines from the shelves included Lucky Food Centers, whose spokeswoman, Judy Decker, said in San Francisco that conversations with the ATF led company officials to believe there was no problem with wine being sold here.
At Alpha Beta Co., Senior Vice President Bill Wade said, “We’ve checked into it with our suppliers and have been assured that all the Italian wines we sell are bottled to U.S. standards.”
The Trader Joe’s chain of 24 liquor stores throughout Southern California did not remove Italian wines, but purchasing director Bob Berning said that as a precautionary measure, the chain has halted importation of Italian wine until “we can make sure all imports are certified.”
In Italy, meanwhile, the cabinet introduced by decree measures that included new penalties for adulterating wine and strengthened the special police unit that is responsible for combatting contamination of food and drink. Opposition politicians demanded the resignation of the health and agriculture ministers, accusing them of being inefficient and of reacting too slowly to the crisis.