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By John Helmer in Moscow

Gennady Onishchenko, the Russian government’s chief health inspector, has issued a new diktat, claiming that bottles of imported wine have been found to contain dibutyl phthalate. There’s a catch, though. Onishchenko’s spokesman refuses to say if he has also banned pencil erasers, plastic toys, and nail polish, all of which have been found by European Union and US inspectors to contain harmful levels of dibutyl phthalate if sucked; they have been banned from consumer sale in those markets for at least five years.

Erasers and nail polish in Russia originate from all over the world; the wine comes from Moldova. According to Onishchenko he proposes to ban all imports of Moldovan wine. But for the rest, his spokesman, Lyubov Voropayeva, says that Onishchenko does not respond to questions. She refuses to say if the other products are banned, insisting only that “no ban can be introduced for dibutyl phthalate, because a poisonous substance cannot be banned.” If you enjoy dibutyl phthalate, Onishenko’s agency, the Russian Trade and Sanitary Inspection Authority (Rospotrebnadzor, RPN), is content for you to chew on imported rubbers, or on finger-tips painted with the substance, to your heart’s content — so long as you do it in Russia. Go west, and you will find it impossible to buy such products.

Onishchenko issued his latest attack on Moldovan wine on Saturday through Interfax, a Moscow wire service agency. He claimed that half of the Moldovan wine shipments recently tested by RPN were positive for dibutyl phthalate. “If within two weeks the situation does not change,” Onishchenko said, “and of two bottles of imported wine, one bottle will be good and the other will be of poor quality, prohibitive measures will be introduced. If in the nearest future Moldova does not take measures, then we will take restraining actions in order to avoid burdening the Russian customs authorities and Russian laboratories with stating the obvious disgrace. First of all, why [run the] risk?”

According to the inspector, testing up to June 26 had led to the rejection by RPN of “nearly a million litres of Moldovan wine products.” Then during further RPN testing last week, according to Onishchenko, in 14 shipments, amounting to 43,000 bottles of Moldovan wine, an unspecified “excess” of dibutyl phthalate was discovered. “No actual measures are being taken by the Moldovan side. We arrive at just one conclusion: in terms of compliance with the parameters of technological processes, quality control of wine production in the Moldovan wine industry has returned almost to the level of 2006. For the country this means, at least, an economic catastrophe, given that it is a leading industry. The actions of the Moldovan wine industry leaders, which don’t produce any results, but make a lot of noise, cannot but cause increasing anxiety that can develop into stronger prohibitive measures. They should have made all efforts to restore order.”

In his remarks, Onishchenko is reported to describe dibutyl phthalate as a transparent liquid with a faint fruity odor. He claimed that it causes toxic hepatitis. The European and American toxic substance reports describe the stuff as viscous, varying from transparent to yellow; an odour is reported, but not characterized as “fruity” – that’s probably the wine. There is no doubting the toxicity of dibutyl phthalate, but the non-Russian reports focus on carcinogenic effect on liver and reproductive organs’ — they do not mention hepatitis.

Vadim Drobiz, head of the Center for Research on Federal and Regional Markets for Alcohol (TsIFRRA), is a balanced analyst who isn’t known to paint his fingernails, or suck his pencil-tops. He told Fairplay that Onishchenko’s latest attack on Moldovan wine is unlikely to have anything to do with dibutyl phthalate. “I can’t comment on the substance, because I’m not a chemical expert, but I believe there are different reasons for the possible ban. First of all, Moldovan wine is exported into a variety of other countries, among them Belarus, whose quality control methods are a lot more precise than those of Russia, because they stick to the Soviet control models and GOST [state] quality standards, and still Belarus hasn’t found anything in the wine.”

“Another point is that if Onishchenko has found something in the wine he should appeal directly to Moldovan winemakers, instead of holding an Interfax press conference, this is not a professional approach. I believe there will be no ban, not least because it is unreasonable, and because Russia is pursuing the goal of entering the WTO [World Trade Organization], and this organization will request Russia to settle the matter with Moldova. Recently, the deputy head of the US Department of State spoke in Tbilisi [Georgia], saying Russia will have to resume imports of wine and mineral water from Georgia if it wants to enter the WTO.”

“Last Thursday, at one of his meetings Onishchenko dropped a hint that the whole [wine] banning affair was connected with the political disagreement between Russia and Moldova. So if Onishchenko announces explicit reasons for stopping Moldovan wine, they still have to be double-checked. I don’t think that Gennady Grigorievich [Onishchenko] is holier than the Pope to find mixtures in the wine that others can’t find. Rospotrebnadzor has not consulted international wine experts before announcing it can ban Moldovan wine — it shows there are other reasons behind.”

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