Look carefully at the label of a bottle of wine, beer or whiskey. What's missing?
Unlike almost all other foods and beverages produced in this country, there is no list of ingredients.
It's a mistake, you might say. Surely it should be easy to rectify.
That's what Michael Jacboson, the biologist who wrote "Eater's Digest," thought in 1972 when he and the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned for ingredient labeling of alcoholic beverages.
Severn years later the proposal still is in the bureaucratic swamp. Lines have been drawn, a few heads have rolled, tempers have shortened and early this month it popped back into the lap of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The period allowed for public comment on proposed "partial ingredient labeling" ended. Now the bureau must decide whether to pass (by announcing public hearings), kick (by ordering the proposal implemented) or punt (by dropping the proposal).
Due to pressures from industry, consumer advocates and even from within government, none of these choices is likely to end the debate.
The activists argue that the average shopper could use the ingredient lists to help make purchasing decisions. More than 80 additives are sanctioned for use in winemaking, though few remain in the final product.
Some wine is made from grape concentrate rather than the juice of freshly crushed grapes. Some wines are treated more extensively than others to correct defects in the grapes, insure stability and lengthen shelf life. Acetic and ascorbic acids can be used, calcium carbonate will reduce excess acids, copper sulfate may or may not be a clarifying agent and stabilizer, "phospates" might be employed to start secondary fermentation in wines intended to become champagne. How is the consumer to tell?
He shouldn't, answers the wine buff. The only judgment that counts is taste judgment.The consumer should drink the wine that pleases him or her. He or she doesn't know enough and the labels won't tell enough, add some wine scientists. A wine that has been skillfully treated may taste better than one that has no additives, they contend, yet the consumer would probably opt for the one with the fewest ingredients on the label. A wine with "sugar added" may have a lower sugar level than one made without the addition of sugar, they point out.
Under the proposal, the two most common additives, sugar and acid, are considered "incidental ingredients" and need not be listed if they are added only to bring the sugar or acid content of the grape juice up to an (unspecified) "normal" level before fermentation.
To this Dr. Edward J. Wowszkiewicz, a microbiologist, responded, "as far as I am concerned, there are no 'incidental' ingredients, at least in wine. "I say the winemaker who has to add acid or some other ingredient to his must (new wine) should be forced to admit it in public," he wrote.
While beer manufacturers announced some time ago they would not oppose labeling, the Distilled Spirits Council is fighting it and the Wine Institute, the trade association that represents most California winemakers, is so mad it has taken the point position.
On Aug. 2 the Institute announced its "strong and unqualified opposition" to the proposal. The objections are summarized concisely in a detailed submission to BATF. In the winemakers' view:
There is no genuine consumer support for ingredient labeling; costs would be "excessive and inflationary"; the proposal contains "major technical problems" and would "mislead" consumers; health concerns are no justification for labeling because wine presents "no health hazard," and if implemented it would give imported wines an unfair advantage.
Others think differently.
Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.), whose subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee has jurisdiction in this area, calls the industry position "anachronistic" and a spokesman for the committee warned last week that "if BATF doesn't take final action we're going to hold some hearings."
In the spokesman's view, "It's really the same old story. The food manufacturers fought fair packaging and labeling. The bankers fought truth in lending. Their reaction was over reaction. Nothing is more basic than the right to know what's in the food you are eating. If the industry went with a reasonable labeling bill I think there would be no damage to their sales or the mystique of their products."
The National Consumers League also supports labeling, but wants the proposal to be stronger. The League objects to the long lead time before implementation. It would not be required until 1983. It wants listing of ingredients by order of predominance as with foods, which is not required in the proposal, and objects to the provision allowing disjunctive rather than specific labeling. (An example of disjunctive labeling: "made from corn, wheat or rye"). The League also calls for "prominent disclosure" of sodium content, pointing out that excess sodium consumption is a considered a major health hazard.
The exceptions and exemptions were intended as sweeteners to make "partial" ingredient labeling palatable to industry. They were justified as lessening cost and making the process more practical.
Industry doesn't see it that way.
According to the Wine Institute's president, John A. DeLuca, "What we are facing, in essence, is the old proposal (for full ingredient labeling). I think we were naive when we listened to talk of compromise." He points a finger at the Food and Drug Administration and accuses the agency and its former commissioner, Donald Kennedy, of playing bureaucratic politics. The winemakers' attitude changed, he says, when FDA "used taxpayers' dollars for lobbying" by "soliciting letters in favor of ingredient labeling and training consumer groups to testify."
FDA's role in this issue is complex. The original labeling proposal was written by BATF. When the bureau withdrew it in 1975, citing unwarranted cost and lack of consumer interest, angry consumer activists turned to FDA. Under a post-Prohibition agreement, the agency had ceded its regulatory authority over spirits, beer and wine to the Treasury Department and BATF. With the blessing of Rosenthal's committee, FDA reclaimed its authority and said it would insist on ingredient labeling. Industry turned to the federal courts and had the satisfaction of seeing FDA ruled out of bounds.
Then the administration stepped in. The Office of Management and Budget ordered BATF to try again and to work with FDA in formulating its proposal. The BATF director who threw in the towel on labeling had stepped down. Treasury higherups appeared to favor action. So "good faith discussions" were held and the partial ingredient proposal was issued in February.
The gut reaction of winemakers and wine connoisseurs was: Why bother? Wine has been around for centuries, they said. It gets along with people well when taken in moderation and we are in the forefront of those urging moderation. Wine is a natural product made from grapes. People understand that and virtually no one among the several million Americans who visit wineries each year has demanded information about ingredients.
On the practical side, the industry reacted to OMB Director James McIntyre's promise (in a letter to California congressman John E. Moss) that "we do not envision such regulations if excessive cost would be imposed and no health hazard exists."
As to cost, the Wine Institute has come up with a figure of $91.2 million in 1983, for wine alone. No one has had to time yet to examine or challenge the Institute's arithmetic.
As to health, the American Council on Alcoholism told BATF that "based on existing information, allergic reactions do not occur in connection with the use of distilled spirits. Labeling ingredients to show the kind of grain used in the distilling process appears to be unwarranted." As the result of a study by Vincent A. Marinkovich, a Stanford University allergy specialist, the Wine Institute concluded, "only rare, relatively minor allergic responses have been related to wine's appropriate use." Marinkovich established the risk rate at "3 one-thousandths of 1 percent of the American public." Two fining (clarifying) agents, egg white and isinglass, are possible allergens, but these are found in amounts "so small that allergic reactions . . . would be extremely rare," he wrote.
Defendants of the status quo point out that beer, wine and spirits are not essential foods, that their purchase is restricted by law to adults who do not-- on a per capita basis-- consume much and certainly do not think of these beverages as nutrition aids.
In addition, the potentially potent political issue of trade and balance of payments has been brought up. Free-trade advocates and wine importers see labeling as a non-tariff barrier and predict winemakers abroad may choose to boycott the United States if they must include ingredients on their labels. According to a Department of Agriculture statement, "no other country requires ingredient labeling of alcoholic beverages." The Wine Institute cries foul because American winemakers will be subject to inspection while foreign winemakers would not. BATF intends to accept properly labeled wine from abroad if accompanied by a government certificate authenticating the ingredients.
To further muddle this aspect of the controversy, government sources hint that at least some forces within the European Economic Community would like the United States to take the initiative on ingredient labeling.
Consumerists don't have much patience with the industry's arguments. They point out that wine, especially, enjoys a romantic image and promotes it through advertising. "People don't ask about wine because they think they know what's in it," said Michael Jacobson. "The industry doesn't brag about the aromatic sulphur dioxide that's being used to make some liquor smell better."
One vocal pro-regulation advocate, law professor Robert W. Benson, contends that federal regulations have made wine the most deceptively labeled consumer product in America." He has compiled a list of disciplinary sections against wineries that while small in number (an average of only seven a year from 1965 to 1975) indicate that some of considerable size and reputation have admitted breaking the law.
It might seem likely that the limited production, quality conscious wineries which now voluntarily list ingredients and other information on their labels would take a position in favor of ingredient labeling. In comments received by the BATF, they have not.
So the lines remain drawn. BATF sources acknowledge that the bureau will have to act fairly promptly, but indicate that with so much controversy public hearings are a likely next step. This would mean no final ruling would be issued before next year. BATF also holds out the possibility that separate labeling requirements could be set for beer, spirits and wine.
The California winemakers wouldn't like that. They are feeling threatened enough by regulation and what they call "neo-Prohibitionists" to form something called "Americans for Wine." The Wine Institute has been building bridges to other states and no doubt will test wine's political muscle if BATF doesn't drop the proposal.