The face of the beer bottle may soon change under a petition filed by several consumer advocacy groups with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). In response to the petition, known as Notice No. 41, the TTB is considering some controversial changes to the labels on beverage alcohol containers sold in the United States. Offered by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the National Consumers League (NCL), the petition covers issues ranging from ingredient lists, alcohol information, and a new government caution. Far from presenting the typical united front against the proposed changes, the beverage alcohol industry is divided in their approach to the petition.
In order to "provide the American public with adequate information as to the identity and quality of beverage alcohol products," the petitioners asked the TTB to require beverage alcohol labels to include the product's alcohol content, the serving size of the container, the amount of alcohol and calories per serving, list of ingredients (including additives), the number of standard drinks per container, and a governmental opinion as to moderate drinking for men and women.
In making their case for the new regulations, the petitioners cited consumer demand for the new information. In one particular study cited by NCL and CSPI, the Global Strategy Group, an independent, Washington D.C.-based polling and market research firm, found strong support for including serving sizes, calorie content, alcohol content, and a list of ingredients on the labels of beverage alcohol products. The petitioners argue that providing consumers with this additional information will help them make more informed choices about their consumption of alcohol and help those who are allergic to some ingredients and additives. The petitioners also cited, without providing a source, that such new labeling would help reduce consumer confusion over the different types of beverage alcohol and the amounts of alcohol in each product.
In reviewing existing laws, the petitioners cited some peculiar disparities in the labeling of beverage alcohol. Specifically, they note that wines and hard ciders containing less than 7-percent alcohol by volume are not subject to the TTB's regulations. These products are instead governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires nutritional information, including calorie counts, to appear on the label. Malt beverages, including beer, are not required under federal law to carry this information, or list the alcohol content. Only light beers must disclose certain nutritional information. As CSPI and NCL point out in their petition, existing alcohol labeling laws strain credulity to explain why a 7-percent a.b.v. wine should be required to include nutritional and alcohol information, while all beers and those wines above that alcohol level should be separately regulated and thus exempt.
Ingredients and Allergens
Of all the proposed label changes, those involved most often find common ground on the issue of allergens. The petitioners, backed by comments from health studies professors and allergy prone consumers, contend that beverage alcohol labels should include a list of potentially problematic ingredients and warnings about their ingestion. In August 2004, President George Bush signed into law the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCP), which required that food and beverage products regulated by the FDA bear a warning if their ingredients included a source of a major food allergen. The list of allergens includes milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans.
While nearly all groups agree on the general utility of allergen labeling, the TTB is considering several proposals that will specifically affect brewers. For products, such as wheat beers, where the name of the beer itself clearly identifies the allergen, the TTB is deciding whether a separate warning should also be required. The agency is also considering whether to require the inclusion of fining agents, including isinglass (a protein from the swim bladders of fish), which are either filtered out of the final product or are not a primary ingredient.
In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the TTB's predecessor agency, solicited public comments on rules that would require producers to provide nutritional information on labels. In response to this inquiry, a diverse assembly of industry groups, including both CSPI and the Beer Institute, opposed the new rules. Based upon the negative response, the ATF shelved the idea for more than a decade.
The TTB is now again exploring whether it should allow or require producers to include certain nutritional information on labels, similar to the 'Nutrition Facts' information boxes found on most consumer food items. The new rules could provide for the inclusion of serving sizes, calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat levels, and the number of ounces of alcohol in each bottle. The proposed changes would bring alcohol labeling more in line with that of the food and beverage products regulated separately by the FDA, without allowing producers to claim the health benefits of vitamins or other minerals.
With the growing popularity of low-carb diets, the issue of the amounts of carbohydrates in alcohol is again at debate. CSPI now supports the inclusion of certain nutritional information, which it believes would allow consumers concerned about excess weight or obesity to better understand the place of alcoholic beverages in their diets. The group, however, does not support a full-fledged nutrition label. The group has asked the TTB to exclude information regarding fat and protein from new labels so as not to mislead consumers into thinking they are important components of alcoholic beverages.
By far the most controversial and inherently political element of the petition is the request that labels contain detailed information about alcohol levels, serving sizes, and recommended amounts of consumption. While the petition's proposed label would include relatively innocuous "alcohol facts" and statements, such as the beverage's alcohol by volume and the amount of alcohol in terms of fluid ounces, it also includes an icon relating the number of standard drinks per container and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines advice on moderate drinking for men and women.
Following receipt of the petition, several beverage alcohol producers contacted the TTB and requested permission to begin voluntarily providing such alcohol information on their products. After soliciting comments on an interim rule, the TTB decided to postpone any decision until completion of the formal rulemaking process.
Beverage Alcohol Producers Disagree on the Petition
In response to the petition, the TTB requested public input and assistance in formulating possible new rules for alcohol labels. During the extended comment period, thousands of consumers, brewers, alcohol industry organizations, and other special interest groups weighed in on the petition. Even in areas where most involved agree to consider regulation, several outstanding issues remain. For allergens, brewers are concerned that they may be required to undertake expensive package redesigns to alert consumers to ingredients, such as finings, that bear no chance of harming them. "To some degree, because the fermentation and conditioning processes remove a lot of the ingredients that go into a batch of beer, those ingredients are not recognizable in the final product," says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association (BA), a group representing the interests of American craft brewers. "If there is going to be a regulation [on ingredients], the Brewers Association wants it to be voluntary for brewers."
While the allergen issue is a particularly difficult proposal to oppose due to the potential risk to consumers, beverage alcohol producers have urged the TTB to proceed cautiously before imposing any new regulations. Industry groups, including the National Association of Beverage Importers (NABI), point out that in order to best serve affected consumers, allergen warnings should be based upon proven scientific evidence that the ingredients will cause harm to the drinker. "Consumers need to trust that the allergen labeling information is reliable and not be subjected to precautionary statements where the statement will be ignored based upon, for example, prior experience consuming the food in product in question," said NABI's President, Robert J. Maxwell, in his comment to the TTB.
Gatza himself worked on the TTB's allergen working group, doing research on cross-contact between potentially allergenic and non-allergenic ingredients in breweries. "We don't want to dissuade people who are looking for something to drink," he says. "We want them to feel like they can drink something rather than be afraid of drinking the products of craft brewers." Despite its opposition to mandatory labeling, the BA does acknowledge the seriousness of the issue raised by the allergen proposals. "If it's a matter of public safety then we believe it should be on there."
Equivalency and When a Drink is a Drink
The controversy over the 'Alcohol Facts' label centers around the concept of the 'standard drink,' a somewhat variable measure of calculating the pure beverage alcohol level of each product. Usually expressed in terms of beer, wine, and spirits, the concept is often used abroad on labels to represent a drink's alcohol level. Industry disagreement finds its origins in the protean nature of the concept. The definition of a standard drink varies significantly from nation to nation, ranging from a low of 10 milliliters of alcohol in the United Kingdom (where a five-percent a.b.v pint would register as 2.84 standard drinks) to a high of 25 milliliters in Japan (where the same pint would average just over 1 standard drink).
According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, a serving is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Beer and wine industry representatives deny that their products have a standard drink equivalent to spirits-based beverages. "Attempting to standardize servings of products that do not come in a standard container or with a uniform alcohol concentration amount could be potentially misleading and harmful to consumers," said David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, in his comment to the TTB on Notice No. 41.
The petitioners argue that the 'Alcohol Facts' labels will do for alcoholic beverages what 'Nutrition Facts' labels have done for packaged food: "provide readable information that would empower consumers to make informed decisions about the products they consume."
On paper the standard remains more objective than it is in practice. While serving sizes are fairly common for beer, they vary greatly in terms of hard liquor. "One rum drink could contain up to four times the amount of alcohol as another rum drink, and several times as much alcohol as a single beer or glass of wine," says Rehr of the NBWA. "Two martinis also affect a person much differently than two bottles of beer or two glasses of wine and the notion that they do not is nothing short of irresponsible."
Although the debate over proposals for nutrition and allergen labels remains polite, the beverage alcohol industry is fiercely split over the alcohol facts proposal. As a national trade association representing the interests of beer, wine, and spirit importers, NABI perhaps best symbolizes the industry division. In its comment to the TTB, the group took no position on the 'Alcohol Facts' label proposal and instead deferred to the positions taken by individual company members. "We're staying neutral on some of the more controversial issues because we represent both sides," NABI's Maxwell says.
Some critics of the standard drink concept believe that the 'Alcohol Facts' proposal is the result of an unusual union of interests between the spirits industry and those who seek to pass greater regulation of beverage alcohol. "The "Equivalency" theory has been advanced by the distilled spirits industry ostensibly as a public safety message," says Michelle Plasari, vice-president of the Center for Government Reform, an outside organization dedicated to limited government and lowering tax levels. "Creating a public perception of parity among clearly different types of alcohol is the first step in the liquor industry's plan to erase any differences among beer, wine, and hard liquor when it comes to taxation, licensing, and marketing."
Effects on Brewers
The comment period on Notice No. 41 is now closed and the TTB is expected to decide on whether to undertake the formal rulemaking process sometime later this year. In the interim, brewers are weighing the financial impacts of the proposed labeling regulations. According to the Brewers Association, which conducted an informal survey of its members, label redesigns and new equipment purchases could cost small brewers more than $100 million. "In that survey, we learned that 27-percent of our packaging brewers would either stop selling out-of-state or would just stop packaging altogether," says Paul Gatza. "So the potential impact, if the regulations are extreme, basically means a whole lot of breweries going out of business. I don't think the TTB intends that."