Anheuser-Busch's "Spykes" Labels Illegal, Group Says

UPDATE: TTB Agrees; A-B Halts Production to Fix Labels


UPDATE: TTB responded on April 30, stating, “We agree with your finding,” and concluded that labels for all eight flavors of the two-ounce Spykes drinks were out of compliance with regulatory requirements. As a result, Anheuser-Busch has stopped production and shipment of Spykes products and is planning to replace product labels currently at wholesalers and AB warehouses. For more information on Anheuser-Busch and TTB corrective actions see TTB's letter to CSPI.

WASHINGTON—The government-required health warning labels on Spykes, the controversial shot-sized malt liquor drinks produced by Anheuser-Busch, are unreadable, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling on the federal government to seek civil penalties against the brewer. CSPI had previously called on Anheuser-Busch to cease marketing the drinks, which it says are clearly designed to appeal to underage drinkers, and had called on state attorneys general to investigate.

In a letter to John J. Manfreda, the administrator of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that regulates alcohol labeling, CSPI said that the warning label on Spykes doesn’t meet the government’s clear-cut standards for readability, which include minimum font sizes, a maximum number of characters per inch, and a contrasting background. The text on Spykes’ “Spicy Lime” warning label is in “nearly invisible silver lettering on a non-contrasting, light lime-green background,” according to CSPI, and has too many characters per inch. TTB documents obtained by CSPI show that the agency actually approved the proposed label for Spykes in 2005, despite its obvious shortcomings.

“The illegal labeling of Spykes is actually the least of our concerns about this drink, since it is such an obvious attempt to attract underage kids to alcohol,” said George A. Hacker, director of alcohol policies at CSPI. “But since its labeling is in plain violation of the law, we hope that TTB orders Anheuser-Busch to pull this non-compliant product off the market.”

Violations of the Alcohol Beverage Labeling Act and TTB regulations are punishable by civil penalties of up to $10,000 a day. Since four versions of the product are all in violation, and have been on the market since January, Anheuser-Busch should be assessed more than $3 million if future labeling violations are to be deterred, according to CSPI. And, since TTB inspectors missed the violations when reviewing the label, the agency should either discipline or retrain the individuals who signed off on the Spykes label.

Spykes come in nail-polish-sized two-ounce bottles, and in kid-friendly flavors like mango, lime, melon, and chocolate. They are 12 percent alcohol by volume, and also contain caffeine, ginseng, and guarana, which CSPI says may give teens the impression that they can drink more without becoming intoxicated. Spykes’ web site says the shots can either be consumed on their own or in combination with beer and hard liquor.

Grassroots opposition to Spykes has been mounting since the product’s introduction. Local anti-drunk driving advocates and various police departments have criticized Spykes, and selectmen in the town of West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, have moved to prohibit its sale within city limits.

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