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Extraction of vanilla from store shelves raises some concerns

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pure vanilla extract, one of the most popular flavorings in the world for cooking, is also being used by middle school students and others who like it for more than its sweet aroma.

Because the pure extract is at least 35 percent alcohol by volume, it is the equivalent of 70-proof alcohol, with its potency somewhere between peppermint schnapps and ouzo.

Earlier this fall, groceries in Columbia County, Pa., pulled the extract from their shelves after one store manager continually found empty vanilla bottles and boxes in his store's parking lot.

At least one store in Western Pennsylvania, the Interstate Foodland in Washington County, is discussing the same move.

Joseph Pastorok, 49, of Washington, Pa., was arrested Sunday at the store for allegedly stealing bottles of pure vanilla extract. He is being held in the Washington County Jail on $250 bond. No preliminary hearing date has been set.

Interstate Foodland's manager, Greg, who declined to give his full name, said the store's stock of pure vanilla extract was moving too fast for it to be attributed to early baking for Thanksgiving.

"We know it's not," he said. "I would assume that [drinking] would be part of [the reason]."

A spokesman for Supervalu Inc., the nation's 11th largest food retailer and parent company of about 150 Foodland and Shop 'n Save stores in Western Pennsylvania, said there had been no appreciable increase in overall stock of vanilla extract.

Drug and alcohol counselors said vanilla extract has long been on their radar. More than a half-century ago, the Saturday Evening Post, in an article about Alcoholics Anonymous, included a glimpse at a Maine farmer who went on a "vanilla-extract bender."

"If the Easter cookies don't taste good, it's because someone's been eating the vanilla extract," said Tim Grealish, director of community services at Greenbriar Treatment Centers. "I've seen this for about 14 years.

"I get phone calls all the time [from parents] wondering where their vanilla extract is going."

Grealish said the use of vanilla extract by adolescents increased once teens' access to liquid corrective fluid -- which they "huffed," or deeply inhaled -- was curtailed.

Becky Chambers, clinical supervisor for outpatient services at Mercy Behavioral Health, called vanilla extract "a starting point" for adolescent drinking.

"There's obviously more [alcohol] in that little bottle of vanilla extract than there is in a bottle of beer or two," she said.

Billy Jones, manager of Boyer's Food Market in Berwick, Columbia County, said he noticed empty vanilla extract bottles and boxes in his store parking lot over a three- to six-month period.

"I figured they had to be drinking it," Jones said. His store moved its supply of vanilla extract to behind the customer service counter.

"I think I'm going to leave it there for a while," he said.

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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