“There’s obviously a large consumer interest in this information, and the industry which was, you know, very strongly opposed to this in 2003 has sort of come around a bit,” said Matt Simon, associate director of litigation for CSPI.
Transparency will be given to all types of alcoholic beverages. It could change the way people buy beer, wine, or liquor. It could also have huge consequences for a industry that is worth hundreds of trillions of dollars. Global companies will need to invest heavily in order to meet new requirements beyond the listing of alcohol by volume.
The alcohol industry managed to skirt detailed labeling requirements over many years, even though previous administrations failed to act on their initial petition. This was because the issue was not political and did not divide the industry. The government started a rulemaking process back in 2005 but it did not finalize any rules beyond guidelines for voluntary labels.
Many expected the administration’s actions to follow its release. a report in February on competition in the alcohol industry, which indicated that regulatory proposals on allergen, nutrition and ingredient labeling “could serve public health and foster competition by providing information to consumers.”
The report — and President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order on competition — made clear that this administration was prioritizing alcohol, and labeling would be a big part of that. CSPI and other consumers are stepping up the ante. groups sued the governmentTo act on their October petition
“Because of the history in this matter, where sometimes things were proposed and they were never finalized, we do want to use this litigation to try and work with the TTB on getting a commitment to noticing the rulemaking in a time that would be mutually acceptable,” said Lisa Mankofsky, director of litigation for CSPI.
As the market for alcohol changed dramatically during the pandemic, the move to mandatory labeling follows. States relaxed regulations and allowed to-go cocktails. The shift coincided with increased alcohol-related deaths.
These three labeling regulations will be open for public comment. They will concentrate on nutrition and alcohol content, allergens, as well as ingredients. TTB regulates the labeling of malted beverages such as beer and alcohol greater than 7 per cent by volume. The TTB did not respond to a request to comment on future labeling rules.
“We’re not trying to obfuscate but I think we definitely want it to be based on accuracy and that’s something we’d like to see clarification on [when the rules are proposed],” said Michael Kaiser, vice president of Wine America, a trade group.
Many winemakers use additives during the production process. For example, egg whites and fish bladders. Health advocates demand that those ingredients be disclosed. But Kaiser explained that those additions are undetectable in the final product and won’t trigger an allergic response.
A similar process happens in spirits.
“The distillation process itself transforms the raw materials used to make a spirits product in such a way that many of the ingredients, proteins, peptides or fragments, for example, are not carried over into the distillate,” explained Lisa Hawkins, senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group. “Labeling for ingredients that went through the distillation process and are no longer present in the final product might introduce consumer confusion, rather than mitigate it.”
Some big industry players saw the signs of the times as consumer tastes and habits changed.
Six years ago, the Beer Institute, the trade group for the beer industry’s biggest players, adopted a voluntary disclosure policy asking its members to include more information about ingredients and nutrition, either through a label or online. According to a recent survey, “95 percent of the beer volume” sold by large brands including Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors Beverage Company now includes such information on “products, packaging or websites.”
“The beer industry already offers more information to consumers than any other alcohol category and we are proud to have paved the way for greater nutritional transparency,” said Jeff Guittard, senior manager of communications at the Beer Institute.
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health concluded with the Distilled Spirits Council announced that their board members–including brands like Bacardi and Diageo–would voluntarily include nutrition and serving information on a new label.
But advocates say it’s not enough. For one, they say, it’s voluntary.
“They often make the disclosure very small and hard to read, as opposed to what the petition requests, which is, you can think of it, almost as a graphic box. And then they also don’t include ingredient information,” said Mankofsky.
Trade groups representing nearly all alcoholic beverages suggested QR codes on alcohol labels. They would link directly to the relevant information and not a large panel of nutrition facts based on food nutrition labeling. The industry would find the nutrition panel more costly and harder to implement. Experts said it would also be burdensome for small-sized alcohol manufacturers.
White Claw and other hard-seltzers were a major factor in this development. Many alcohol producers opposed similar labeling in the past, even though nutrition and other transparency initiatives gained ground. Hard cider was first introduced about ten years ago. The Food and Drug Administration regulates hard ciders and seltzers. It also requires nutrition labeling.
However, the industry is still reluctant to embrace the labeling advocates have called for, particularly for smaller alcohol producers.
Marc Sorini, general counsel of the Brewers Association, which represents independent craft brewers, said that his group is still “exploring exactly where our position will be” given that the rules are not public yet.
“There has to be some flexibility in it for small batch products,” he said. “The TTB tends to be pretty sensitive to this.”
For example, brewers that release a seasonal brew–such as a Christmas Ale or Oktoberfest – may have a slightly different formulation each year but use the same spices. If that brewery had to seek government approval every year–conducting rigorous testing and meeting tight requirements–that “will be a hardship for small brewers and for big brewers that make one-off small batches,” Sorini said.
The industry is slowly but surely releasing more information about products, but it still needs plenty of time to implement them.
“We’ve seen in the past where new labeling requirements have been required within a month of their announcement and that’s not feasible,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association. “There needs to be a long road for implementation whatever the solution.”
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