PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech food inspectors seized 7,600 bottles of highly poisonous liquor that could have killed thousands of people, the country's food safety authority said on Tuesday.
Spirits laced with toxic methyl alcohol have killed at least 28 people and blinded several others over the past six weeks in the central European country's biggest health scare in decades.
The 0.42 liter bottles of poisonous rum, 3,300 liters (725 gallons) in total, were found in an illegal warehouse in Zlin, a regional capital 300 km (190 miles) east of Prague.
"It is a highly toxic mixture that the producer packaged and prepared for distribution into the retail network," the Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority said in a statement.
It said half of the alcohol content in the 40 percent rum was methanol.
"This amount of alcohol with this concentration of methyl alcohol could kill people in the order of thousands."
Czech authorities banned all sales and exports of hard liquor in September when the first cases appeared.
But the ban was lifted on Sept 26 for alcohol with proven origin, or newly produced alcohol marked by new tax stamps.
Experts estimate that 10-25 percent of spirits on the Czech market are illegal - produced either by mixing industrial alcohol or in moonshine operations by some official producers to avoid taxes.
The deadly rum was labeled with the brand of a small producer, Likerka Drak. The warehouse was operated by the firm's exclusive distributor, the food authority said.
"I do not understand this, it is total nonsense," news website www.ihned.cz quoted the firm's director Pavel Caniga as saying. He was not immediately available for further comment.
The firm had in the past weeks said that poisonous alcohol was distributed under fake Likerka Drak labels.
Police and customs officials are investigating. The food authority said that in total, it banned 56,360 liters of alcohol with the firm's labels, found in the Zlin warehouse, from distribution, because it lacked proper identification of origin.
Police had earlier seized several thousand liters of methyl alcohol, often used for making windscreen-wiper fluid, in a separate warehouse in northeastern Czech Republic, believing it may have been the main source of the poisonous spirits.
Czechs are among the world's biggest drinkers, gulping down the most beer per head in the world - about 140 liters a year - and spirits are widely popular as well. The capital Prague is also a popular drinking destination for Britons and other Europeans.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Jon Hemming)