By Cindy Skrzycki
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Consumer advocates are toasting the arrival of Timothy Geithner as President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be the new Treasury secretary by urging him to fix -- along with the economy -- labels on alcoholic drinks.
In a Dec. 11 letter, four groups told Geithner that while they recognize the challenges he faces, nutritional details on the ingredients in libations, especially the alcohol content per serving, have gone unaddressed for too long.
"Anything short of this basic information would leave alcoholic beverages as an enormous blind spot in the American diet and would be a failure of the regulatory process,'' wrote leaders of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the National Consumers League, the Consumer Federation of America and Shape Up America, an organization founded to fight obesity.
The Bush administration issued a proposed rule on the topic in July 2007. The proposal requires that nutritional information, such as carbohydrates, calories, fat and protein, be placed on labels. It would make disclosure of the amount of alcohol in a drink optional.
The proposal has drawn interest from the beer, wine and liquor industries, whose retail sales totaled almost $188 billion last year. Though a final version isn't likely to be approved before Obama takes office Jan. 20, groups that have pressed the alcohol-labeling issue periodically over 36 years want to draw attention to it.
"Even though the economy is going to hell and they will have to work 24 hours a day,'' Treasury officials have other responsibilities, too, said George Hacker, director of the alcohol-policies project at the Center for Science, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington. "This has been long ignored.''
The groups are seeking a meeting with the Treasury transition team to make the topic a priority, he said.
Consumer organizations first petitioned U.S. regulators on the issue in 1972 and filed a new call for action five years ago. Consumers deserve information, they said, that spells out what a standard serving size is, how much alcohol is in it, the number of drinks in a container, how many calories are in it and the definition of a standard drink.
They also want Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to require a message on bottles about what constitutes moderate drinking. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued every five years by the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, define it as one a day for women and two for men.
The Beer Institute, a trade group in Washington that has opposed serving-size labeling, said it still hopes regulators issue a final rule based on last year's proposal, which attracted 700 comments.
"We certainly hope with all that effort'' the Bush administration will act, said Jeff Becker, president of the group. "It's apolitical. It's a consumer information issue.''
The Beer Institute wants the government to express the percent of alcohol in a container by volume. "There is no such thing as a standard drink size,'' Becker said, opposing any comparison of beer to spirits.
There's the same amount of alcohol, about half an ounce, in a standard drink -- a 12-ounce beer, five ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, according to the government.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents major liquor companies, generally agrees with the consumer groups. It has joined them in pushing for a serving facts label that would spell out the standard drink definition.
Consumer advocate Hacker said he realizes the issue is "small change'' compared with the other concerns Geithner and his regulators have on their agenda. Still, he hopes the Obama administration will revise the current proposal and slap a label on drinks for many New Year celebrations to come.
Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached at email@example.com