Alcohol industry grapples with nutrition labeling

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- Pick up just about any beverage on store shelves and on the back of the packaging you'll find a numerical rundown of calories, carbs, etc.

Unless, that is, the beverage is alcohol.

Some folks want to change that.

"In the year 2011, it's sort of bizarre that alcohol's the only consumable product sold in the United States that you can't tell what's inside the bottle," said Guy L. Smith, executive vice president in North America for Diageo, the world's leading distilled spirits, beer and wine company.

Diageo is supporting a proposal before the federal Tax and Trade Bureau -- the agency with authority over alcohol labels -- to list nutrition information such as calories, carbohydrates, serving size and alcohol per serving.

But not everyone in the industry is as enthusiastic.

At the Beer Institute, a trade association based in Washington, D.C., officials support listing calories, carbs, protein and fat content, as well as alcohol by volume. But they oppose the idea of defining serving size by fluid ounces of pure alcohol, or as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, on the grounds that you may get more than 1.5 ounces of liquor in a cocktail depending on what else is in the drink and the accuracy of the bartender.

But Smith said consumers know when they're getting a large martini. The point is, he said, to give them a point of reference so they can generally know what to expect.

At the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, officials are asking that the labeling requirements be on a voluntary basis only. (Diageo also supports voluntary compliance.)

If labeling is made mandatory, then the Wine Institute is asking for accommodations, such as being allowed to generalize the calorie and carb counts on wine, rather than needing to have each vintage of each variety analyzed. Additionally, they want the option of choosing the style of label, perhaps putting the information on a thin strip-style label rather than the more traditional, and much larger, box format that appears on other foods and drinks.

"There shouldn't be a significant cost impact on wineries," said Wendell Lee, general counsel for the institute.

The current push for nutrition information was started in late 2003 by a coalition of consumer and public health advocates.

The Distilled Spirits Council, based in Washington, also supports putting serving information on bottles.

Current labeling law is complicated.

Wine, beer and liquor manufacturers don't have to list ingredients -- and the nutritional labeling proposals being considered don't require them to start doing that. However, they must list substances people might be sensitive to, such as sulfites, FD&C Yellow No. 5 and aspartame.

Wines containing 14 percent or more alcohol by volume must list alcohol content. Wines that are 7 percent to 14 percent alcohol by volume may list alcohol content or put "light" or "table" wine on the label. (Most wines in that category, however, do list alcohol by volume.)

"Light" beers must list calorie and carbohydrate content only. Liquor must list alcohol content by volume and may also list proof.

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