Rice wine brewed with a toxic level of alcohol has killed at least 19 people and left 172 more in hospital in northeast Cambodia, the health ministry said on Sunday.
"Laboratory tests found the deaths were caused by the high methanol level in the wine," Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the health ministry, told AFP.
Local authorities in Kratie province, where residents have been falling ill since November 19 after drinking the tainted alcohol, have ordered all local brewers and rice wine sellers to close temporarily.
Tests carried out by the Ministry of Health have found that some of the wine involved in at least five separate incidents contained up to 12 per cent methanol—the usual level is around 0.15 per cent.
Local media reported that some of the 172 people hospitalised had suffered vomiting and dizziness. Authorities are investigating the incidents, the Ministry of Health said today in a statement, but no arrests have been made so far.
Health Minister Mam Bunheng said in the statement that people should immediately stop drinking rice or herbal wine that had been produced without proper inspection or permits from authorities.
The ministry said it was working with international partners including the World Health Organization to strengthen food safety in the country.
Six of the deaths had been previously announced as being caused by rotten dog meat, but the ministry said further tests had shown that the wine was the cause of the poisoning.
Cambodians often drink locally brewed rice wine, which is relatively inexpensive but can be dangerous if not mixed properly.
Deaths from bad batches of rice wine are reasonably common—although deaths on this scale are rare.
In 2010 at least 17 Cambodians died in the eastern province of Kampong Cham after drinking rice wine out of a bottle previously used for weedkiller.
The year after that, at least nine Cambodians died and 76 were hospitalised after drinking tainted wine at a funeral ceremony.
Impoverished Cambodia is notorious for lax health and safety standards and cases of mass food poisoning are also reasonably common.
Earlier this year more than 600 Cambodian villagers, mostly schoolchildren, fell ill after eating contaminated food provided to a school during an event staged as part of a campaign against child labour.