Alcohol industry battles among itself over the issue of nutrition labels

The beer industry argues that serving sizes for hard liquor are meaningless, depending on who's doing the pouring.
The beer industry argues that serving sizes for hard liquor are meaningless, depending on who's doing the pouring. (Tracy A Woodward/washington Post)
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Alcoholic beverages don't carry ingredient labels similar to those found on most packaged foods.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:00 AM

New Year's revelers who plan to belly up to the bar but also resolve to drop 10 pounds in 2011 face a hurdle: calories, carbohydrates and other nutritional facts are nowhere to be found on a bottle of booze.

In fact, a debate has raged for seven years between federal regulators, consumer groups and the alcohol industry over just how much drinkers should know about the contents of alcoholic beverages: They are among the few consumable products that do not carry a nutrition label.

A light beer may have as few as 95 calories, while a Long Island iced tea, composed of equal parts vodka, tequila, triple sec, rum and gin, contains hundreds. A diabetic monitoring carbohydrates has no way to know the effects of a couple of stiff drinks. And those who want to avoid artificial additives can't tell by looking at a label if their suds are naturally golden, or chemically enhanced.

In 2003, two consumer groups petitioned the federal government to make alcohol producers go beyond the disclosures that have been required for stronger spirits since Prohibition. Back then, lawmakers required liquor manufacturers to cite the "proof" of their alcohol to protect consumers from being duped into buying watered-down booze.

The latest effort goes far beyond that requirement. It would make bottlers of beer, wine and spirits apply an "Alcohol Facts" label to their products, similar to the "Nutrition Facts" label found on most foods.

All parties agreed in principle that drinkers deserve basic information to make informed choices about beverages.

But the harmony gave way to a brawl between beer makers and the distilled spirits industry over how to define the average "serving size" of a drink - a standard way of measuring caloric content.

The hard liquor folks thought it was fine to use a standard produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, which every five years issues dietary guidelines to help Americans follow a healthy lifestyle. It says a serving is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

But the beer industry balked.

In 95 pages of comments submitted to the government, the Beer Institute, an industry trade group, argued that the HHS serving sizes are "fictitious" and do not reflect how drinkers actually consume alcohol.

A generous bartender, they argued, is unlikely to measure exactly 1.5 ounces when pouring a drink. And many mixed drinks contain more than one type of alcohol, making the HHS standard irrelevant, they said.

Beer makers argued that a more consistent labeling system would disclose the percentage of alcohol in an entire bottle and use a yet-to-be-developed serving size that takes into account "actual pouring and consumption habits, drink recipes and existing packaging information."

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