Bootleg alcohol is an insidious international threat, and one expert says it's especially dangerous when it's slipped into a legitimate supply chain
- 25 people in Costa Rica have died after drinking tainted alcohol, according to Food Safety News.
- Bootleg alcohol poses a major risk to the public, especially in regions lacking strong regulatory oversight.
- But, according to Carnegie Mellon professor Sridhar Tayur, counterfeit booze can also be slipped into perfectly legitimate supply chains.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Costa Rica has been hit with a wave of methanol poisoning linked to adulterated alcohol, according to a report from Food Safety News.
The death toll stands at 25 so far, while 59 victims have been hospitalized. Costa Rican authorities have responded to the poisonings by shutting down a number of businesses and rounding up 55,000 containers of potentially tainted alcohol. The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking released a report estimating that illicit alcohol made up 19% of total alcohol in Costa Rica.
Illicit alcohol was recently thrust into the spotlight following speculation that it could be the cause of a number of highly publicized, still-unsolved tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, as well as a spike in reported illnesses among visitors to the country's resorts on the website IWasPoisoned.com. The latest slew of deaths in Costca Rica also mirrors the string of incidents involving alcohol poisoning that occurred in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in 2017.
Illicit alcohol doesn't just refer to moonshine. The term refers to beverages produced in underground home brewing operations, contraband booze that's illegally smuggled into a country, and counterfeit imitations of "legitimate branded products," according to the IARD.
Sridhar Tayur, a professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon who studies counterfeit products and supply chains, told Business Insider that it's relatively rare for a counterfeit operation to insert itself into a legitimate supply chain, but it's also not unheard of. Tayur also noted that it's not clear whether or not bootleg alcohol even played a role in the series of deaths in the Dominican Republic.
Nonetheless, according to Tayur, bootlegged booze can end up in perfectly legitimate establishments, especially in areas that might lack strong monitoring and regulatory systems.
"For us Americans, we are used to safety with respect to food and drinks," Tayur told Business Insider. "When you go to nice places, you expect that those nice places are also careful."
But the appearance of safety can be deceptive.
Businesses often rely on international, national, and local distributors in order to obtain products like alcohol. Tayur said that all it takes is a "bad actor" looking to make "some extra money" along the supply chain to put consumers at risk.
Instead of buying 100 cases of authentic alcohol, for example, someone could buy 95 cases and mix in five cases of bootleg booze that they got for a "sweet deal" in order to obtain a profit, Tayur said.
"You just need to sneak in enough to make a lot of money," Tayur said.
When it comes to counterfeit categories, alcohol is a particularly tempting product because of its good profit margins and increasing demand around the world.
Tayur said that bootleggers have an incentive to avoid serving up a dangerous product. A spate of poisonings will almost certainly lead to the involvement of law enforcement.
Still, Tayur said that many of the illicit supply chains he's studied are "almost more sophisticated" than legal supply chains, given that counterfeiters have the added incentive of avoiding capture.
"These people are quite rational," he said. "They're not clueless people running around. They're actually quite sophisticated and they're making strategic choices; a trading of risk versus profit margins."
Any time a counterfeit bottle of alcohol does hit a restaurant's wine cellar or a hotel minibar, the public is at risk. But, according to Tayur, the truly troubling aspect of the story is that it's so difficult for unsuspecting businesses and consumers alike to root out cleverly disguised counterfeit booze.
"If you go to a nice resort or a hotel or a nice bar, you expect that when somebody opens a Johnny Walker, it is a true Johnny Walker," Tayur said.