- The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League sued the U.S. Treasury Department this week to force a comprehensive labeling requirement for all alcoholic beverages. The Treasury Department houses the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which governs some alcoholic beverages.
- The three consumer groups, as well as 66 other organizations and eight individuals — including four deans of public health schools — filed a petition for this kind of labeling in 2003. In 2005 and 2006, the bureau took comments on the issue, but a proposed label was never finalized. In 2013, the bureau allowed voluntary use of a “Serving Facts” label while the rule was finalized, but that never occurred.
- Revamping labeling so consumers can get more detailed information about what they eat and drink is a trend that is picking up steam. An updated Nutrition Facts label now shows more detailed information about serving sizes and added sugars, and the FDA last week proposed a new definition of “healthy.”
Consumer advocates have long pushed for more transparency about what people eat or drink, but the timing of this lawsuit is ideal for what the plaintiffs are trying to accomplish.
Last week was the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health since the Nixon administration, and a spotlight is on policies to both end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases.
The Biden administration publicly committed to new labeling initiatives to help ensure consumers are better educated about the nutrition of the products they consume. Alcoholic beverage labeling wasn’t included in Biden’s strategy, but with so much attention on food and nutrition-related initiatives right now, the publicity of a lawsuit could make it extremely difficult to ignore.
Last week as the White House conference opened, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States committed to having its members include “Serving Facts” labeling by June 2024. The information — available either directly on the label or accessible on a website or scannable code — would include serving sizes and calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving.
The alcoholic beverage labeling proposed in the 2003 petition is similar to what consumers see on food items. It would tell shoppers how many servings are in a bottle, the recommended serving size, how many calories per serving and the percentage of alcohol in the drink and how much actual alcohol that represents. In addition, it would highlight the ingredients — and call-out out top allergens — while reminding consumers of how much alcohol consumption is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The Treasury Department responded with a similar proposed Serving Facts panel. Information on ingredients was to be the subject of future rulemaking.
Some alcoholic beverages have this kind of labeling already. As is the case for several other categories and types of food, regulation of alcoholic beverages is split between the FDA and the Treasury Department bureau that collects excise taxes on the drinks. The FDA already mandates labeling on those drinks it regulates.
According to federal law, Treasury regulates distilled spirits, wine and some malt beverages. But the lawsuit points out that some nutritional information is provided on any alcoholic beverage served in a restaurant under another federal law.
Results of a telephone poll included with the 2003 labeling petition showed overwhelming support among consumers for alcoholic beverage labeling — 84% supported serving size guidelines, 89% favored calorie information, 94% wanted information on alcohol content and 91% backed ingredient labeling.
Today’s consumers expect more out of food labeling than 19 years ago. The International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health Survey found 85% of consumers pay attention to labels when they shop at least sometimes.
It’s not clear why the labeling rule languished at the Treasury Department, but as the federal government prepares to enter into several rulemaking policies designed to facilitate clearer information for consumers to make better nutritional choices, finishing the rulemaking for alcoholic beverages could easily be added to the docket.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the labeling commitment of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.