Litres of beer to go down the drain

MORE than 120,000 bottles of Heineken export beer destined to slake Hong Kong's thirst will have to be poured away because of a design fault which could leave glass splinters in the bottles.

Yesterday, sales agents were rushing round Hong Kong collecting the suspect 33cl bottles from 1,000 bars, restaurants and shops.

Advertisements are being placed in newspapers today warning anyone who has bought bottles not to drink from them, but to take them to be exchanged.

Possible problems, caused by defective glass which could lead to splinters dropping into the bottles when they are opened or transported, were likely to affect only 1,200 of the 120,000 33cl bottles in Hong Kong, said Eric Nelissen, export manager of Heineken Hong Kong.

He emphasised that the problems were only in the packaging, not the beer itself.

''So far nothing has happened, but there is just no reason to take any chances so we are recalling all the 33cl bottles immediately,'' he said.

''We are very sad about what has happened as it has a negative effect on our brand, though the supply can be replaced with cans and 64cl bottles, which are completely unaffected.'' It is anticipated that the bottles will be destroyed in Hong Kong and the beer will also have to be thrown out.

Medical advice sought by Heineken in the Netherlands, where the beer is brewed and bottled, suggested that someone drinking the beer containing the tiny pieces of glass could suffer stomach discomfort, but nothing more serious.

Compensation would be considered if it was proved anyone suffered ill effects from drinking contaminated beer, but Mr Nelissen said he hoped that would be prevented. He added that he was confident that sales would not suffer in the long term.

''This is bad timing as we sell a lot of beer in the summer but I think we have established a framework of loyal consumers who will stay with us.

''This could happen to anyone and our biggest problem is not worrying about a loss of sales but making sure that any possible risk is minimised.'' A company spokesman added: ''It is clear that the product has to be destroyed in order to make sure any dangerous bottles are completely out of circulation.

''The focus now is getting the bottles out of the marketplace. Only later will Heineken work out how much the operation has cost.'' Potentially dangerous bottles were also shipped to the United Kingdom, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Hungary and Israel, while millions more, waiting to be sent overseas, have been taken back by the brewers.

A total of 17 million bottles are to be destroyed.

New packaging will be designed so consumers will know they have safe bottles when stocks of the 33cl bottles return to Hong Kong, probably at the end of next month.

The Department of Health has been informed of the recall operation and is monitoring the situation.