Illicit toddy and related products It’s becoming a menace in Western Province

Published : 9:16 am  July 26, 2018 | No comments so far |  | 


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CITY-DM-6-10By Thilanka Kanakarathna   

Sun burnt, bare foot men clad in loincloths have walked the perilous ropes between coconut trees collecting the sap from coconut flowers since time immemorial.   

The milky sap they collect has been ingrained in the local culture from food to alcohol that is consumed prolifically.   

The coastal belt of Sri Lanka, home to a majority of the toddy tappers, can be seen as flag of ropes connecting one coconut tree to another. These men sometimes climb 25 metres to reach the flower buds that they slit with small knives to extract its milky sap.   

The nectar begins to ferment almost immediately under the searing sun and is the master ingredient for local vinegar and arrack manufactured today. Toddy products are supplied to the market in four different ways at present;   


  • Over fermented toddy is sold as vinegar, which is used in local cuisine   
  • It is directly consumed as bottled toddy or tavern toddy   
  • Several companies that manufacture low quality Arrack use this as a mandatory ingredient in their arrack products. (To label a product as “Arrack” it is mandatory to have “Coconut toddy” and most often now artificial toddy is “positioned as coconut toddy and added to Arrack to achieve a minimum of 3% alcoholic content)   
  • Finally the entire moonshine industry uses the product and the fermenting process for distillation   However, the high demand for cheap alcohol have numerous illegal distillers ready to supply the black market with artificial illicit toddy which includes a high density of ammonia which had created severe issues mainly in the Western province.   Excise officials have found that illegal distillers manufacture toddy by fermenting a mixture of sugar, urea and yeast that has come to be known as ‘Ceylon Paste’.   To speed up the fermenting process these illegal distillers based in Colombo and its outskirts use a popular method of barbed wire and old toxic cell phone batteries as a source of Nichol to expedite the fermenting process.   It is learnt that such products has been in the market for at least two years.   



In most instances illegally manufactured liquor is given the limelight when there are mass fatalities due to poisoning, which has been reported on various occasions in the past. 

However, the longer term health effects are rarely explored and it is natural that the level of public awareness on the subject matter is very low.   

Examples that can be taken would be the death of 100 individuals in Indian State of West Bengal in 2011.   In 2008, at least 107 deaths were recorded in Karnataka, with another 41 in Tamil Nadu while another 100 died in Gujarat, where alcohol is prohibited. These incidents forced the Indian government to introduce the death penalty to the suppliers of these drinks.   

Investigation held by the Indian authorities found that the fatal ingredients believed to be methyl alcohol, or methanol, a substance which sweetens it but which has industrial purposes as a solvent and antifreeze was an ingredient along with ammonium nitrate.  Explaining the incidents Aniruddha Mookherjee, who conducted a study on indigenous Indian alcohol identified that the huge unfulfilled demand for booze which drives supply underground into an unregulated industry as a main reason to use such harmful substances to make alcoholic drinks.   

In an interview with the BBC, Mookherjee had explained that peoples’ temptation in the following manner – “They are looking for something that can offer them a cheap kick”.   



Hence it is vital to understand the sources of harmful substances in this illegally produce toddy based products. In the process of producing alcohol, Yeast cell releases alcohol by fermentation and Yeast needs sugar/ carbohydrates and a nitrogen source for cell growth and for fermentation. When the Yeast utilizes the total fermentable sugars in the medium whatever the nitrogen left in the medium will remains as it is. When considering the illicit alcohol industry the leftovers are Ammonia or Urea and all the other chemicals added during the process.   

The leftovers contain whatever the chemicals contained in the urea, mainly ammonia and other heavy metals used for granulization and the chemicals added as batteries, barbed wires etc.   

The danger with illicit alcohol is that the consumer does not know what substances have been used to produce the liquor, or indeed how much alcohol is present.   

Daily Mirror failed to find any local study or research conducted regarding the health hazard of the issue.   

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Ammonia in Drinking Water Report, it says “Ammonia has a toxic effect on healthy humans only if the intake becomes higher than the capacity to detoxify”.   
According to the medical officers, oral consumption in high concentrations, ammonium nitrate may cause headache, dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, heart irregularities, convulsions, collapse, and even death.   
In this context we attempted to find any responsible authority in a bid to assure consumers of both alcohol and vinegar of the Rs. 120 billion industry.   

As such we contacted relevant authorities we feel that should ensure food safety. Following are their comments.   

Food Control Administration Unit, Health Ministry 

When contacted the FCAU said that as this was an alcoholic product principally it does not come under the Food Act and as such they have not received any complaints and therefore they have not investigated such a matter.   
However, if a complaint was lodged it would be investigated, sources at the Food Control Administration Unit promised. “Since this is an alcohol related product it should come under the purview of Excise Department,” the source said.   

Excise Department

The department’s primary objective was to collect tax on alcohol. Hence they send samples to the Government Analyst (GA) to verify the alcoholic content but do not investigate it for substances such as Ammonia or other heavy metals.   

In addition we found that the excise does not have an in house laboratory facility to analyze the products.   

According to the Excise Department the highest number of illicit toddy taverns raided was in the Western Province.   

The trend of illicit harmful today can be mostly seen in Kalutara and Negombo areas, sources said.   

Government Analyst’s Department 

When questioned if the Government Analyst had set up any standard for toddy and whether they provided a report on food safety relating to harmful substances of the alcoholic products consumed, the answer we received was ‘NO’.   
It was learnt that the GA only provided and checked the alcohol quantity of the product but did not provide a detailed report of the products.   

During the discussion we found out that although there was a product specification according to the Excise Act, yet there was no standard defined by the Sri Lanka Standard Institute (SLSI).   

Sri Lanka Standard Institute (SLSI)

Based on the conversation with the Government Analyst the Daily Mirror spoke to the SLSI regarding the standard for toddy and for coconut spirits.   

Further, we inquired whether there is a higher ceiling for ammonia and heavy metals defined for any type of consumable alcohol product.   

As many officials were unable to provide a suitable answer, the Daily Mirror will request for the information under the Right To Information (RTI) Act.   

Consumer Affairs Authority 

The Daily Mirror also spoke to the CAA regarding the regulations for food safety relating to alcoholic products. The Authority like other departments also stated that it did not come under their purview.   
 “As it is an alcoholic product it comes under Excise,” we were told.   

Toddy is a basic ingredient of arrack and vinegar widely used in the country and it is sad to learn that there is no standard or health procedures followed in its manufacturing.