THE EIGHT-year struggle over ingredient labeling of alcoholic beverages has ended. Beginning in January 1983, containers of beer, spirits and wine must either contain a list of ingredients or provide an address where consumers can write to obtain such a list.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? A rule issued by the Treasury Department to be enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Well, as so often happens with government regulations, it wasn't simple getting there and the solution -- in the best tradition of compromise -- has made neither side happy.
Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called it "a small victory in this anti-regulatory time." But Jacobson, who was the first to demand labeling back in 1972, said the need to write for information poses "quite a barrier" to the consumer. "This ruling is significantly different from the earlier proposal," he said, "but there was not time allowed for public comment and no information on probate cost. It may violate the law. We're going to look into it and see if it's worth raising that point."
This stand is certain to cause gnashing of teeth within the wine industry. The Wine Institute, trade association for most California vintners, took the lead in opposing ingredient labeling. Two of the strongest planks in their argument were cost to the industry and lack of consumer interest in labelings (as reflected by very limited public comment in writing or at hearings and in opinion research study commissioned by BATF).
The Wine Industry came up with an implementation figure of $19.1 million and an estimated annual cost to consumers of $57.2 million.
It contended that "only rare, reltively minor allergic responses have been related to wine's appropriate use," and commissioned research that led to a conclusion that 6/1000 of 1 percent of the American public are "at risk" of an allergenic reaction when drinking wine. Sulfur dioxide was ruled an "irritant," not an allergen. Synthetic food colors, the Institute pointed out, are not used in wine. The only "serious" possible allergens found were egg white and isinglass, both used in fining (clarifying) but likely to remain in the wine only in very small amounts.
The industry also found technical problems in the labeling scheme that would "mislead" consumers and howled that while BATF monitoring would include onsite inspections, no similar action would be taken to police the ingredient in wines made in other countries and imported into the United States. It was "discrimination in favor of foreign wines," they said.
The California congressional delegation was impressed. They sent representatives to confer with Secretary of the Treasury G. William Miller, the ultimate overseer of federal alcoholic beverage regulation. The new regulation, already printed and scheduled for publication in the Federal Register in mid-May, was held up.Sensing a possible deal between Congress and the administration, consumer activists alerted their allies.
This wasn't a new situation. After the BATF held hearings on ingredient labeling in 1974 and 1975, the agency withdrew its proposal, citing lack of consumer interest. The consumerists struck back quickly. BATF director Rex Davis was summoned to Capitol Hill and dressed down at a committee hearing during which the Federal Drug Administration announced it would require labeling of alcoholic beverages. The industry then found a friendly federal judge in Kentucky who ruled FDA out of order. Finally, in February of this year, BATF issued a proposal for "partial ingredient labeling." The beer industry, said it would go along and distilled spirits interests mounted only nominal opposition. But the Wine Institute (and the governments of countries that export wine to the United States) reacted strongly.
The final proposal did come as a surprise and clearly was a concession to industry's stand. "We eliminated the costly part," said a BATF official last week, "the need to update and change labels continuously. We recognized the consumer's right to know what is in a product, not just for health reasons, and did it in as cost effective a manner as possible."
Evidently, the administration agreed. Less than three weeks elapsed before regulation was published, unchanged.
Barring a law suit from consumerists or modifications in the labeling provisions through industry pressure (perhaps because the addition of water or sugar, or the use of grape concentrate would have to be acknowledged), this is what would happen in 1983: Wineries that so wished, would list their ingredients. Others, presumably most, would simply list an address where consumers could write for this information and expect a "prompt" response.
Then, as the official put it, the ball would be in the consumers" court. If they voted with their dollars by buying wines from producers who provided ingredient labeling on the bottle, that would create economic -- rather than regulatory -- pressure on other wineries to follow suit.