Alcohol Labeling Proposal Sets Off a Brawl

(By Keith Bendis -- Bloomberg News)
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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

After more than 30 years of deliberation, federal regulators have proposed requiring the alcoholic-beverage industry to put nutrition and alcohol-content labels on their containers, setting off the equivalent of a barroom brawl among makers of beer, wine and liquor.

Pushed by consumer groups, the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for the first time would mandate disclosure of how many carbohydrates and calories and how much protein and fat alcoholic drinks contain, as food labels do. How and where to disclose alcohol content is generating heat.

The stakes are high for the half of the adult population that drinks alcohol and might seek health guidance, as well as for the $160 billion industry, which is split over concern that the content rules may give one sector an advantage over the other.

"We find it astonishing" that regulators would propose a nutrition label "without requiring that it include information on alcohol content,'' George Hacker, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's alcohol policies project, said in comments to be filed today.

The agency said it recommended allowing the alcohol-by-volume statement to be placed anywhere on the container to conform to an international trade agreement on wine.

Consumers currently have almost no standardized information on calories, ingredients, or alcohol in a serving of beer, wine or liquor. Some producers, including brewers of light beer, list some of the information to help capture sales.

Some companies capitalized on the low-carb diet craze by running print ads, such as one by Seagram's 7 whiskey: "No fat, zero carbs and 97 calories per 1.5-ounce serving."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a District nonprofit advocacy group, first petitioned the agency for ingredient labels in 1972, long before Americans became accustomed to reading nutrition facts on food packages.

It filed another one in late 2003 that asked for a list of ingredients, the alcohol content and a message, like the one in the government's dietary guidelines. They say moderate drinking means one drink a day for women and two for men.

The comment period, which ends Sunday, already has generated more than 100 responses from industry and health groups. Wineries, brewers and distillers have competing concerns about cost, placement and shape of the label and how alcohol content is disclosed.

Groups representing consumers have weighed in, too, asking for a label that expresses alcohol content by volume and in fluid ounces by serving.

The agency said its proposal does not include a definition of moderate drinking because, "We must avoid creating the misleading impression that the dietary guidelines condone the consumption of one or two alcohol beverages per day for those who should not consume alcohol at all." George McGovern, a former Democratic senator of South Dakota who worked on the first steps toward the government's dietary guidelines, suggested that regulators include standard drink sizes -- each containing the same amount of alcohol -- and how many drinks there are in a container.

Former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who founded an organization called Shape Up America to fight obesity, urged the agency "to get it right" by "mandating standardized information about the alcohol content as part of the Serving Facts panel."

A key issue is the amount of alcohol in a drink, which the proposal makes optional. Distillers prefer a standard measure of 0.6 ounces in a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor.

Beermakers oppose this comparison because, unlike a 12-ounce beer, there is no standard measure for how much liquor, and thus how much alcohol, goes into a drink.

Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute trade group in Washington, said, "This is about marketing advantages to sell their product. If the public believes having a beer is the same as having a martini, we are in big trouble."

He said it would take a "drink calculator" to figure out the difference.

Distillers have been working aggressively to get the serving-size alcohol content on the bottle because they think it would dispel the impression that spirits are more intoxicating than beer or wine.

"To know how much alcohol is in a serving gives everyone a point of comparison," said Guy Smith, executive vice president of Diageo, the world's largest alcoholic-beverage company. "Don't hide this stuff from consumers."

Though the labeling requirement would not take effect until three years after a final rule is published, beer producers already have taken the battle to Capitol Hill. In a letter last month, they asked lawmakers to convince the Tax and Trade Bureau that disclosing the alcohol in a serving would be "complex, redundant and could mislead consumers."

Vintners are concerned about the cost of the proposal, which would require lab testing of different wines. Besides, they complain, the nutrition-facts array would rob them of space for the artistic displays that are common on wine labels.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist with Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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