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Over the years the processes for the production of alcohol have changed greatly. A recent class action lawsuit filed in Florida’s Eleventh Circuit has revived a 150-year-old law that was enacted because one ingredient was thought to be poisonous at the time. Marrache v. Bacardi USA accuses the maker of Bombay Sapphire Gin of using grains of paradise in their distillation process.
Grains of paradise are a spice made from the seeds of a West African plant in the ginger family. The spice has a citrusy black pepper taste that make it a common ingredient in gin for its warming effect and digestive characteristics. The law arose during a period of time in which gin producers commonly introduced ingredients intended to cover for distilling imperfections and grains of paradise themselves were thought to be poisonous. This has since been found not to be the case and the spice is commonly available and used in cooking in either raw or processed form.
The plaintiff’s attorney points out that the grains are used medicinally in some parts of the world to treat impotence and to terminate unwanted pregnancies. He says that although there are no studies showing a negative impact from consuming grains of paradise consumers should still be informed of ingredients that could have negative effects.
However, Bacardi does list the ingredient on its labels and insists that it complies with all relevant environmental, health and safety laws and regulations. Grains of paradise are included in about 10% of gins produced globally.
Florida statute 562.455 prohibits the adulteration of liquor with grains of paradise, among other ingredients, or any other substance which is poisonous or injurious to the health. A violation is a third-degree felony. Adulteration refers to the introduction of corruption or impurity through the addition of a foreign or inferior substance or element.
The law has only been cited in two published opinions from the early Twentieth Century that involved a single incident of premeditated murder through the intentional poisoning of liquor with cyanide, hardly comparable to Bacardi’s use. In fact, whether Bacardi’s use of grains can be called adulteration at all is untested. Grains of paradise and other herbs are vapor infused into the gin during the distillation process. The herbs never come in physical contact with the liquid spirit, leaving it uncertain whether the spirit can be said to be corrupted through the introduction of an ingredient.
The suit also alleges unfair and deceptive trade practices, a charge leveled against supermarket chain Winn-Dixie in addition to the alcohol producer. The plaintiff seeks the return of the value of the benefit conferred. A dollar value hasn’t been cited, though the plaintiff states that they believe there are hundreds of thousands of potential class members, most of whom are unaware that they may have claims against the company.
The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act requires unconscionability in order to constitute a per se violation. Regardless of the ancient prejudice against grains of paradise it is unclear that their inclusion in a beverage would now be considered unconscionable.
Ultimately the suit against Bacardi may be a fishing expedition in which the fish are quite large, but the hook is old and without much barb. Still, the debate regarding whether such a hoary old law still has a bit of bite left in it will be heard and as the plaintiff attempts to arouse ancient suspicion against an exotic herb introduced for its flavor one can only hope that the defense will quote Winston Churchill in saying that “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishman’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire.”