Imported Wines:

Identifying and Removing Wines Contaminated With Diethylene Glycol

RCED-86-112: Published: Mar 4, 1986. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 1986.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed federal agency actions in dealing with the contamination of imported wines with the industrial chemical diethylene glycol (DEG), particularly with Austrian wines where the contamination was more significant.

GAO found that both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) may regulate and prohibit the marketing of contaminated or mislabeled imported wines; however, neither BATF nor FDA routinely test imported wines for the presence of toxic substances or contaminates. In an effort to have all Austrian wines currently being marketed in the United States tested for DEG, BATF required that importers and wholesalers have samples of all Austrian wines under their control tested in private laboratories, but the success of the testing is unknown since BATF did not identify which importers and wholesalers sold and distributed Austrian wines, or which Austrian wines were currently being marketed in the United States. BATF tests of wines from 70 countries indicated that DEG was only found in Austrian, West German, and Italian wines and in varying amounts. However, unlike the Austrian wines, BATF did not stop the German and Italian wines at entry ports or properly test them for DEG. Although BATF was authorized to halt any sales of wines containing DEG, it relied on importers and wholesalers to remove contaminated wines from the market, but did not verify that the wines were removed or require reports on removal actions. In addition, it did not seek an FDA assessment to determine what amount of DEG would represent a significant health risk. GAO believes that the government needs to provide an appropriate degree of assurance that wines with DEG in amounts representing a risk will be identified and removed from the market.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 20, 1987, BATF and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding that: (1) clarifies a more efficient system of communication; (2) confirms BATF policy on labelling ingredients in alcoholic beverages that pose a health problem; and (3) clarifies and coordinates the responsibilities of each agency with respect to the identification, testing, and recall of adulterated alcoholic beverages.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Treasury should direct the Director, BATF, to: (1) consult with the Commissioner, FDA, to determine whether the actions taken by BATF in sampling, testing, and having wines contaminated with the industrial chemical DEG removed from the marketplace were adequate to protect public health and safety and take whatever action is warranted as a result of these consultations; and (2) use the results of such consultations to develop appropriate policies and procedures for working with FDA regarding any future contamination of alcoholic beverages.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 17, 1986, BATF notified the committees of the actions it took, or plans to take, in response to this recommendation. BATF has submitted this response to the House Committee on Government Operations and the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. The response only discusses informal meetings held between BATF and FDA, but does not report on the final actions agreed upon.

    Recommendation: The Director, BATF, should report to the appropriate oversight committees, as well as to the House Committee on Government Operations, on the results of these consultations and any actions taken.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms


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