Talking Points and Discussion for Responding

to TTB’s Request for Comments on Alcohol Labeling Issues




In April, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requested comments on a wide range of issues concerning informational labeling of alcoholic beverages.  The current Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) appears to be just the first step toward future rulemakings to provide consumers with more specific information about alcoholic beverages.  Comments are due on September 26, 2005.

The ANPRM contains many specific questions related to different labeling schemes or proposals, among them CSPI and NCL’s 2003 petition on ingredient and other labeling improvements.  Rather than address each of those questions directly, we would like to provide a framework of principles for alcohol labeling for your consideration.  We hope you will join us in sharing them (or your version of them) with TTB.  For additional guidance on responding to TTB’s specific inquiries, please see CSPI’s comments and CSPI and NCL’s petition to TTB.

CSPI urges groups and individuals to weigh in on this important matter by sending feedback on the proposed regulations to the TTB no later than September 26, 2005.  Include your name, mailing address, a legible signature if you are mailing or faxing your letter, and your e-mail address if you are submitting your comments via e-mail.  All comments should reference “TTB Notice No. 41.”  Please send a copy of your comments to CSPI for our records:

There are four simple ways to submit your opinion:

1.   Mail: Chief, Regulations and Procedures Division, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Attn: Notice Number 41, PO Box 14412, Washington, DC 20044-4412
2.   Fax: 202-927-8525 (if no longer than five pages)
3.   E-mail:
4.   Online:


Principles that should govern the labeling of alcoholic beverages:

In order for alcoholic-beverage labeling to be informative, helpful, and effective, and meet basic public health standards, TTB’s proposed labeling requirements must meet the following criteria:

1. Labeling rules concerning important consumer information must be mandatory, rather than voluntary.

Consumers should not have to guess about the alcohol content, serving size, calories, or ingredients of alcoholic beverages.  To allow voluntary labeling rather than require it, would stand TTB’s ANPRM rationale, to provide more specific information to consumers, on its head.  Voluntary labeling would elevate producer discretion above consumer interest or need.  Consumers should be able to look at any product to learn its ingredients, and use the information to compare among the myriad of products in the marketplace; by generating questions about unlabeled products, incomplete or ad hoc labeling may create even more confusion than currently exists among consumers.  Allowing labeling rules to be voluntary would permit producers to use labels selectively for marketing purposes, rather than for the purpose of providing important specific consumer information.

2. Information labeling rules for alcoholic beverages must be universal and consistent, and apply to all alcoholic beverages.

Today, different beverage types and different types of beverages within those types have different labeling requirements.  For example, light beers must list calories and a statement of average analysis on the label; but no beer is required to list alcohol content.  We get to know that light beer contains no fat, but not that regular beer is also fat-free.  Strangely, “malternative” products – but only those which derive most of their alcohol from distilled spirits sources (flavoring agents) – must provide alcohol-content information.  Brewed “malternatives” need not list alcohol content.  Only wines that have an alcohol content of 14% alcohol or more must label their alcohol content, under current regulations.  Besides that, wines with an alcohol content of less than 7% alcohol by volume are regulated by FDA, not TTB.  They bear a full nutrition facts label.  When it comes to providing consumers information about what they’re ingesting, there is no justification for such variation, which only leads to ignorance and massive confusion about alcoholic beverages.

3. Some proposed label information is more important and meaningful than other proposals.

Requiring all alcoholic beverages, whether beer, wine, distilled spirits, malternatives, or others, to be labeled for alcohol content is a no-brainer.  Alcohol can be harmful when consumed in excess and even addictive for a substantial number of consumers.  For that reason, labeling should provide clear information that allows consumers to measure and moderate their drinking.  Providing serving size, number of servings per container, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines definition of safe drinking limits would help consumers understand objective – rather than personal – safe limits and, conceivably, reduce their risk of alcohol problems.  Information about calories per serving would also assist consumers in better understanding how alcohol consumption fits into their diets.  Such knowledge could help consumers maintain a healthy weight or reduce weight, if desirable.  Ingredient disclosures would help consumers gauge the quality of products and assist in making choices among them.  More importantly, listing allergens, according to FDA protocol, would help consumers avoid potentially nasty physical reactions, and could even save lives.

In contrast, listing protein and fat content, which are absolutely irrelevant for most alcoholic beverages, provides little of value and may even do harm.  Consumers may come to believe that alcoholic beverages are a food source of those (and other) nutrients; also, if such labeling were voluntary, they may be confused into believing that non-labeled products might contain them.  Listing such information could also help open the door to meaningless “no-fat” claims for alcoholic beverages, suggesting they are somehow in the category of health foods.

4. Alcoholic-beverage labeling must be clear, comprehensive, and utilitarian.

Consumers have become familiar with nutrition facts labeling of the foods they eat.  That information is provided in an easy-to-find, clear and compact, standard format on most foods. In addition to listing what’s in the food, the nutrition label tells consumers how that information affects their diet.  For example, in addition to listing calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, etc., the label advises what portion of one’s dietary needs are fulfilled for key nutrients that are found in a particular amount (a designated serving size) of the food consumed.

Although alcohol labeling might not require such detailed information, the concept of applying comprehensive information to individual needs (or limits in the case of alcohol) is transferable.  For example, providing serving size, number of servings per container, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines definition of moderate drinking (as proposed in CSPI’s 2003 petition) would help consumers regulate their drinking and avoid dangerous activities, such as driving after too much drinking.

Labeling requirements should focus on those items that are most important in educating consumers about the alcohol they consume, without potentially misleading them about the products.  For that reason, labeling information should include calories per serving, alcohol by volume, serving size, number of servings per container, U.S. Dietary Guidelines advice on moderate drinking, and ingredients (especially known allergens). Nutritional information (“serving facts”) should generally be limited to listing carbohydrates and calories.  Listing fats and proteins should be permitted only if they meet a certain base threshold amount.  Otherwise, such information is useful primarily as a marketing device for a producer that wants to tout the low fat and low carbohydrate content of its products or suggest that the product is a source of nutrition.  Labeling non-existent proteins might give consumers the impression that other (non-labeled beverages) contained them.  And, even if most beverages proved to contain no protein, it is conceivable that consumers would begin to consider alcoholic beverages as a source of nutrition.

The labeling format is also important, and TTB should follow FDA precedent in developing an informational panel that is visible, readable, understandable, and non-promotional (see CSPI and NCL petition).  Like many basic mandatory labeling requirements already on the TTB books, the informational panel must generally appear parallel to the base of the container, be in a box, be readily legible, appear on a contrasting background (black on white), and be separate and apart from other information on the label.  Similarly, TTB should revise its requirements for warning label design to ensure that they’re also prominently noticeable, legible, consistent in size and location on containers, and understandable.

5. TTB allergen labeling requirements should emulate FDA policies.

Labels should disclose the presence of any major allergen intentionally added to the beverage unless the major allergen is a highly refined oil or the TTB and FDA determine that the amount of the major allergen in the beverage does not pose a public health risk.  Producers that claim an exemption from labeling potentially allergenic ingredients could petition TTB, but would bear the burden of proving that the allergen is undetectable in the beverage and does not present a risk to users with such allergies.

The House of Representatives committee report on the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2003 clearly states that the committee expects TTB to determine how to apply the Act’s allergen labeling requirements to alcoholic beverages, and expects TTB to work with FDA to promulgate those regulations.  And with good reason: FALCPA found that approximately 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of infants and young children suffer from food allergies and that each year roughly 30,000 individuals require emergency room treatment and 150 individuals die because of allergic reactions to food.  Congress also found that eight major foods – milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans – account for 90 percent of food allergies.

6. The consumer benefits of labeling can be significant and the costs of requiring informational panels is trivial.

Providing information about calories, alcohol content, serving size, number of servings per container, and ingredients (including allergens) yields distinct benefits for consumers.  Many watch their calorie intake in order to help maintain a healthy weight.  Those who drink are at risk of driving impaired or consuming unsafe and unhealthy excess quantities of alcohol.  Other consumers may have severe reactions to the ingredients in alcoholic beverages.  “Alcohol Facts” labeling will help consumers better gauge their alcohol consumption and protect them from some of the many risks associated with drinking.


Secondarily, improved product information will help consumers make better choices among alcoholic beverages and alcoholic-beverage types.  Improved safety and health consequences, though difficult to quantify, could mean lives saved, obesity averted, and other alcohol problems dodged.

In contrast, the extra costs of changing labels, which could be amortized over the full life of a label (which is often several years), would be trivial, likely amounting, on average, to a small fraction of a penny per label.  In past assessments done by the FDA regarding nutrition labels and trans-fat labels, that agency found that the cost of new labels per “stock keeping unit” (a specific product sold in a particular size) was insignificant, given the large number of packages of each.  FDA estimated the cost to range from $1,100 to $2,600 per sku.  Applying that to a winery selling 5 wines would yield a total cost of $5,500 to $13,000.


Applying that to a brand: the La Terre wine brand (a Canandaigua Wine product), the 120th largest wine brand in the U.S. in 2003 (according to Adams Wine Handbook, 2004) produced 320,000 9-liter cases (3,840,000 750 ml bottles). Each of those bottles would incur a cost of $0.000677 – less than 7/100ths of a penny if the cost were $2,600 per sku.  Small producers could be exempted temporarily from the requirement – until they next revise their labels or three years following the requirement, whichever comes first.  Alcoholic beverages in small containers could be required to provide abbreviated information.

7. TTB should require the disclosure of nutritive information and comparisons to a company’s “regular” products in labeling and advertising that include specific nutritive claims (e.g., light, low-calorie, reduced-calorie, low-carbohydrate, reduced-carbohydrate).

Alcohol producers have exploited today’s increasingly health-conscious marketplace by developing and promoting low-calorie and low-carbohydrate products as more healthful alternatives to other beverages.  Many advertisements (not to mention product names or designations) tout those special qualities, but in the absence of specific standards for those claims, the proclaimed product attributes have little meaning and can easily mislead consumers.  In order to avoid misleading consumers about the character of an alcoholic beverage, and provide consistency in the marketplace, TTB should finalize regulations defining such terms as “low- and reduced-carbohydrates” and “low- and reduced-calorie” without waiting for FDA action.  In addition, producers should be required to include statements in their advertising that identify those standards (“contains 7 grams or less of carbohydrates”; “contains 20% fewer calories than our regular beer”) and offer a statement of “average analysis,” as currently required (in addition to an “alcohol facts” panel).  TTB should carefully monitor whether claims made in such advertising qualify as prohibited health claims.

8. If TTB explores the adoption of international labeling standards for alcoholic beverages sold in the United States, all attempts must be made to ensure “upward global harmonization.”

Because so many alcoholic-beverage products are imported today, and the harmonization of labeling and advertising standards is inevitable in a growing global economy, TTB should work with foreign governments and international authorities to establish as much consistency in labeling requirements as possible.  Such an endeavor must be guided by several key principles, including: 1) a focus on adopting standards that represent best practices (“upward harmonization”) that at least ensure that U.S. labeling standards are not diluted; 2) a transparent process of deliberation that includes consumer participation, public comment, and stakeholder consultations; 3) a priority for public health and safety, consumer, and quality and purity concerns above pure trade issues; and 4) consumer recourse to challenge inadequate standards.

9. Alternatives to labeling are inadequate and would be ineffectual

Providing alcohol and “serving” facts on Internet websites or at a telephone number indicated on the product label would be an appropriate additional – but not substitute – means of offering consumers important information about alcohol products.  Few, if any consumers actually take the time to go on-line or make a call when directed by label information, rendering this an extremely inefficient means of reaching most consumers.  Furthermore, imposing that extra barrier to learning the information would mean that most consumers are least likely to be able to get the information exactly when they most need it – while shopping or about to consume an alcoholic beverage.  People with allergies might be highly motivated to seek out those sources of information, but other consumers, for whom alcohol facts – alcohol content, serving size, number of servings per container, calories, etc. – might also have considerable value, are unlikely to be.  “Alcohol facts” help guide consumer choices of what to drink, but also (hopefully) inform the decision about how much to drink.  That information has broad public health and safety implications for all drinkers (and others with whom drinkers come in contact), and should be as accessible as possible.



Updated August 31, 2005


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Alcohol Policies Project

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