Fake Lancashire: Are you being served up a deadly cocktail?

Counterfeit vodka at Lancashire County Council Scientific Services lab.
Counterfeit vodka at Lancashire County Council Scientific Services lab.
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Revellers could unwittingly be sipping a deadly cocktail this Christmas, thanks to the prevalence of illegal alcohol.

Lancashire Trading Standards officers are warning unscrupulous shopkeepers and landlords they will take action against people trading counterfeit booze, or ripping off customers by using cheaper substitutes.

Since April 1, the service has received more than 40 complaints regarding substitution of alcohol, but a spike of complaints is expected this month as some unscrupulous landlords and traders try to cash in on people drinking over the festive season.

Some bogus booze seized off Lancashire’s streets has been found to contain dangerous levels of chemicals that can cause blindness and could even prove fatal.

It is among a number of challenges the team has to tackle as more new products are released on to the market, and the potential for manufacturers to make false or misleading claims to sell products is “immense”.

Rachel Wilcock, lead officer for food, animal health and agriculture, said: “Coming up to Christmas we are likely to see an increase in complaints where unscrupulous landlords increase their profits by serving customers fake branded drinks.

“This practice is a criminal offence and those involved could face prosecution. Officers investigate allegations by taking samples which are then analysed. Counterfeit spirits and surrogate alcohol frequently contain dangerous levels of methanol, isopropanol and other chemicals which cause toxic hepatitis, blindness and even death.

“Alcohol smuggling and counterfeiting is linked to other illegal activities, including drug smuggling, prostitution, violence, money-laundering and terrorism.”

The Scientific Services lab in Ashton-on-Ribble is a hub of activity, where scientists check consumers at the county’s hundreds of takeaways and eateries are getting what they pay for.

From farm to fork, Trading Standards do all they can to ensure food sold or made in Lancashire is fairly and safely produced, farm animals are kept free of disease, and food and drink is safe and correctly described.

The lab – one of only six such facilities in the country – tests issues with food and drink, including samples seized in last year’s horse meat scandal, and meals that don’t match their descriptions, such as a lamb curry made from beef. At least 140 samples have been taken this year from Lancashire’s eateries. The lab’s food and agriculture manager, Bharathi Reddy, said: “We make sure food in Lancashire is fit for consumption and has come through the proper channels.”

Scientists were shocked to find problems with sweets being sold to children in retail outlets across the county, after a flood of American and imported sweets onto the market.

Tests on 24 kinds of imported candy seized from retail outlets found only six were deemed to be satisfactory. Five had levels of colour breaching EC regulations, and 17 were labelled incorrectly. Others issues have arisen from foreign imports.

Rachel added: “The global and European food market means that some of the food now on sale in Lancashire is unfamiliar to us, and therefore 22 samples were taken to look at the quality of labelling – 12 were found to be unsatisfactory – problems included no English labelling, and inaccurate or missing nutritional information.

“A large proportion of takeaway samples identified outlets weren’t accurately describing pizza toppings, in that they were stating they used mozzarella, when in fact the analysis showed that there was non-dairy sources of fat in the cheese.

“From December 13, all takeaways will be required to declare allergens in their food.”

In tomorrow’s Fake Lancashire series we look into the internet scams conning computer users.