In April, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
requested comments on a wide range of issues concerning
informational labeling of alcoholic beverages. The current
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) appears to be just the first step
toward future rulemakings to provide consumers with more specific
information about alcoholic beverages. Comments are due on September
The ANPRM contains many specific questions related to different labeling
schemes or proposals, among them CSPI and NCL’s 2003 petition on ingredient
and other labeling improvements. Rather than address each of those
questions directly, we would like to provide a framework of principles for
alcohol labeling for your consideration. We hope you will join us in
sharing them (or your version of them) with TTB. For additional
guidance on responding to TTB’s specific inquiries, please see CSPI’s
and NCL’s petition to TTB.
CSPI urges groups and individuals to weigh in on this important matter by
sending feedback on the proposed regulations to the TTB no later than
September 26, 2005. Include your name, mailing address, a legible signature if
you are mailing or faxing your letter, and your e-mail address if you are
submitting your comments via e-mail. All comments should reference
“TTB Notice No. 41.” Please send a copy of your comments to CSPI for
our records: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are four simple
ways to submit your opinion:
1. Mail: Chief, Regulations and Procedures Division, Alcohol and
Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Attn: Notice Number 41, PO Box 14412,
Washington, DC 20044-4412
2. Fax: 202-927-8525 (if no longer than five pages)
that should govern the labeling of alcoholic beverages:
In order for alcoholic-beverage labeling to be informative, helpful, and
effective, and meet basic public health standards, TTB’s proposed labeling
requirements must meet the following criteria:
1. Labeling rules concerning important consumer
information must be mandatory, rather than voluntary.
Consumers should not have to guess about the alcohol content, serving size,
calories, or ingredients of alcoholic beverages. To allow voluntary
labeling rather than require it, would stand TTB’s ANPRM rationale, to
provide more specific information to consumers, on its head. Voluntary
labeling would elevate producer discretion above consumer interest or need.
Consumers should be able to look at any product to learn its ingredients,
and use the information to compare among the myriad of products in the
marketplace; by generating questions about unlabeled products, incomplete or
ad hoc labeling may create even more confusion than currently exists among
consumers. Allowing labeling rules to be voluntary would permit
producers to use labels selectively for marketing purposes, rather than for
the purpose of providing important specific consumer information.
2. Information labeling rules for alcoholic
beverages must be universal and consistent, and apply to all alcoholic
Today, different beverage types and different types of beverages within
those types have different labeling requirements. For example, light
beers must list calories and a statement of average analysis on the label;
but no beer is required to list alcohol content. We get to know that
light beer contains no fat, but not that regular beer is also fat-free.
Strangely, “malternative” products – but only those which derive most of
their alcohol from distilled spirits sources (flavoring agents) – must
provide alcohol-content information. Brewed “malternatives” need not
list alcohol content. Only wines that have an alcohol content of 14%
alcohol or more must label their alcohol content, under current regulations.
Besides that, wines with an alcohol content of less than 7% alcohol by
volume are regulated by FDA, not TTB. They bear a full nutrition facts
label. When it comes to providing consumers information about what
they’re ingesting, there is no justification for such variation, which only
leads to ignorance and massive confusion about alcoholic beverages.
3. Some proposed label information is more
important and meaningful than other proposals.
Requiring all alcoholic beverages, whether beer, wine, distilled
spirits, malternatives, or others, to be labeled for alcohol content is a
no-brainer. Alcohol can be harmful when consumed in excess and even
addictive for a substantial number of consumers. For that reason,
labeling should provide clear information that allows consumers to measure
and moderate their drinking. Providing serving size, number of
servings per container, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines definition of safe
drinking limits would help consumers understand objective – rather than
personal – safe limits and, conceivably, reduce their risk of alcohol
problems. Information about calories per serving would also assist
consumers in better understanding how alcohol consumption fits into their
diets. Such knowledge could help consumers maintain a healthy weight
or reduce weight, if desirable. Ingredient disclosures would help
consumers gauge the quality of products and assist in making choices among
them. More importantly, listing allergens, according to FDA protocol,
would help consumers avoid potentially nasty physical reactions, and could
even save lives.
In contrast, listing protein and fat content, which are absolutely
irrelevant for most alcoholic beverages, provides little of value and may
even do harm. Consumers may come to believe that alcoholic beverages
are a food source of those (and other) nutrients; also, if such labeling
were voluntary, they may be confused into believing that non-labeled
products might contain them. Listing such information could also help
open the door to meaningless “no-fat” claims for alcoholic beverages,
suggesting they are somehow in the category of health foods.
4. Alcoholic-beverage labeling must be clear,
comprehensive, and utilitarian.
Consumers have become familiar with nutrition facts labeling of the foods
they eat. That information is provided in an easy-to-find, clear and
compact, standard format on most foods. In addition to listing what’s in the
food, the nutrition label tells consumers how that information affects their
diet. For example, in addition to listing calories, carbohydrates,
fats, proteins, etc., the label advises what portion of one’s dietary needs
are fulfilled for key nutrients that are found in a particular amount (a
designated serving size) of the food consumed.
Although alcohol labeling might not require such detailed information, the
concept of applying comprehensive information to individual needs (or limits
in the case of alcohol) is transferable. For example, providing
serving size, number of servings per container, and the U.S. Dietary
Guidelines definition of moderate drinking (as proposed in CSPI’s 2003
petition) would help consumers regulate their drinking and avoid dangerous
activities, such as driving after too much drinking.
Labeling requirements should focus on those items that are most important in
educating consumers about the alcohol they consume, without potentially
misleading them about the products. For that reason, labeling
information should include calories per serving, alcohol by volume, serving
size, number of servings per container, U.S. Dietary Guidelines advice on
moderate drinking, and ingredients (especially known allergens). Nutritional
information (“serving facts”) should generally be limited to listing
carbohydrates and calories. Listing fats and proteins should be
permitted only if they meet a certain base threshold amount.
Otherwise, such information is useful primarily as a marketing device for a
producer that wants to tout the low fat and low carbohydrate content of its
products or suggest that the product is a source of nutrition.
Labeling non-existent proteins might give consumers the impression that
other (non-labeled beverages) contained them. And, even if most
beverages proved to contain no protein, it is conceivable that consumers
would begin to consider alcoholic beverages as a source of nutrition.
The labeling format is also important, and TTB should follow FDA precedent
in developing an informational panel that is visible, readable,
understandable, and non-promotional (see CSPI and NCL
petition). Like many basic mandatory labeling requirements already
on the TTB books, the informational panel must generally appear parallel to
the base of the container, be in a box, be readily legible, appear on a
contrasting background (black on white), and be separate and apart from
other information on the label. Similarly, TTB should revise its
requirements for warning label design to ensure that they’re also
prominently noticeable, legible, consistent in size and location on
containers, and understandable.
5. TTB allergen labeling requirements should
emulate FDA policies.
Labels should disclose the presence of any major allergen intentionally
added to the beverage unless the major allergen is a highly refined oil or
the TTB and FDA determine that the amount of the major allergen in the
beverage does not pose a public health risk. Producers that claim an
exemption from labeling potentially allergenic ingredients could petition
TTB, but would bear the burden of proving that the allergen is undetectable
in the beverage and does not present a risk to users with such allergies.
The House of Representatives committee report on the Food Allergen Labeling
and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2003 clearly states that the
committee expects TTB to determine how to apply the Act’s allergen labeling
requirements to alcoholic beverages, and expects TTB to work with FDA to
promulgate those regulations. And with good reason: FALCPA found that
approximately 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of infants and young
children suffer from food allergies and that each year roughly 30,000
individuals require emergency room treatment and 150 individuals die because
of allergic reactions to food. Congress also found that eight major
foods – milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat,
and soybeans – account for 90 percent of food allergies.
6. The consumer benefits of labeling can be
significant and the costs of requiring informational panels is trivial.
Providing information about calories, alcohol content, serving size, number
of servings per container, and ingredients (including allergens) yields
distinct benefits for consumers. Many watch their calorie intake in
order to help maintain a healthy weight. Those who drink are at risk
of driving impaired or consuming unsafe and unhealthy excess quantities of
alcohol. Other consumers may have severe reactions to the ingredients
in alcoholic beverages. “Alcohol Facts” labeling will help consumers
better gauge their alcohol consumption and protect them from some of the
many risks associated with drinking.
Secondarily, improved product information will
help consumers make better choices among alcoholic beverages and
alcoholic-beverage types. Improved safety and health consequences,
though difficult to quantify, could mean lives saved, obesity averted, and
other alcohol problems dodged.
In contrast, the extra costs of changing labels, which could be amortized
over the full life of a label (which is often several years), would be
trivial, likely amounting, on average, to a small fraction of a penny per
label. In past assessments done by the FDA regarding nutrition labels
and trans-fat labels, that agency found that the cost of new labels per
“stock keeping unit” (a specific product sold in a particular size) was
insignificant, given the large number of packages of each. FDA
estimated the cost to range from $1,100 to $2,600 per sku. Applying
that to a winery selling 5 wines would yield a total cost of $5,500 to
Applying that to a brand: the La Terre wine
brand (a Canandaigua Wine product), the 120th largest wine brand in the U.S.
in 2003 (according to Adams Wine Handbook, 2004) produced 320,000 9-liter
cases (3,840,000 750 ml bottles). Each of those bottles would incur a cost
of $0.000677 – less than 7/100ths of a penny if the cost were $2,600 per sku.
Small producers could be exempted temporarily from the requirement – until
they next revise their labels or three years following the requirement,
whichever comes first. Alcoholic beverages in small containers could
be required to provide abbreviated information.
7. TTB should require the disclosure of nutritive
information and comparisons to a company’s “regular” products in labeling
and advertising that include specific nutritive claims (e.g., light,
low-calorie, reduced-calorie, low-carbohydrate, reduced-carbohydrate).
Alcohol producers have exploited today’s increasingly health-conscious
marketplace by developing and promoting low-calorie and low-carbohydrate
products as more healthful alternatives to other beverages. Many
advertisements (not to mention product names or designations) tout those
special qualities, but in the absence of specific standards for those
claims, the proclaimed product attributes have little meaning and can easily
mislead consumers. In order to avoid misleading consumers about the
character of an alcoholic beverage, and provide consistency in the
marketplace, TTB should finalize regulations defining such terms as “low-
and reduced-carbohydrates” and “low- and reduced-calorie” without waiting
for FDA action. In addition, producers should be required to include
statements in their advertising that identify those standards (“contains 7
grams or less of carbohydrates”; “contains 20% fewer calories than our
regular beer”) and offer a statement of “average analysis,” as currently
required (in addition to an “alcohol facts” panel). TTB should
carefully monitor whether claims made in such advertising qualify as
prohibited health claims.
8. If TTB explores the adoption of international
labeling standards for alcoholic beverages sold in the United States, all
attempts must be made to ensure “upward global harmonization.”
Because so many alcoholic-beverage products are imported today, and the
harmonization of labeling and advertising standards is inevitable in a
growing global economy, TTB should work with foreign governments and
international authorities to establish as much consistency in labeling
requirements as possible. Such an endeavor must be guided by several
key principles, including: 1) a focus on adopting standards that represent
best practices (“upward harmonization”) that at least ensure that U.S.
labeling standards are not diluted; 2) a transparent process of deliberation
that includes consumer participation, public comment, and stakeholder
consultations; 3) a priority for public health and safety, consumer, and
quality and purity concerns above pure trade issues; and 4) consumer
recourse to challenge inadequate standards.
9. Alternatives to labeling are inadequate and
would be ineffectual
Providing alcohol and “serving” facts on Internet websites or at a telephone
number indicated on the product label would be an appropriate additional
– but not substitute – means of offering consumers important information
about alcohol products. Few, if any consumers actually take the time
to go on-line or make a call when directed by label information, rendering
this an extremely inefficient means of reaching most consumers.
Furthermore, imposing that extra barrier to learning the information would
mean that most consumers are least likely to be able to get the information
exactly when they most need it – while shopping or about to consume an
alcoholic beverage. People with allergies might be highly motivated to
seek out those sources of information, but other consumers, for whom alcohol
facts – alcohol content, serving size, number of servings per container,
calories, etc. – might also have considerable value, are unlikely to be.
“Alcohol facts” help guide consumer choices of what to drink, but also
(hopefully) inform the decision about how much to drink. That
information has broad public health and safety implications for all drinkers
(and others with whom drinkers come in contact), and should be as accessible
Updated August 31, 2005