By MICHAEL DOYLE
May 03, 2005
Or informative; it depends how you look at it. Either way, the Treasury Department is now uncorking a fresh look at what wine labels should include. It's something winemakers worry about.
"I would hate for it to get any more restrictive than it already is," said Hank Battjes, owner of California's Gold Hill Winery. "You don't have any room as it is, with all the (stuff) they require you to put on now."
The alcohol labeling review begun last week is not the first time officials have reviewed label requirements. Consumer advocates and winemakers alike have previously sought to revise the acutely detailed federal labeling standards.
The new effort, though, represents a more comprehensive approach than the single-issue reviews conducted earlier. Officials will examine the potential for mandatory nutrition and ingredient information, including processing aids. They will mull over wine advertising, which could also face new labeling requirements.
Officials will consider matching U.S. labeling standards with those imposed by other countries including the European Union. They will debate a proposed "alcohol facts" box for each label, listing data like alcohol content expressed in fluid ounces, and they will evaluate permitting voluntary listing of protein and carbohydrate content.
"A lot of these issues overlap," said Art Resnick, spokesman for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. "So, we felt that rather than do this piecemeal ... we've compiled them all together."
Resnick added, though, that some of the individual label proposals could eventually be singled out for further consideration. The public _ which, in cases like this typically means a combination of winemakers, lawyers and consumer activists _ has until June 28 to comment.
"This is a small step forward, and we're hopeful," said George Hacker, alcohol policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The center has been aggressive, though not always successful, in pushing for new alcohol label requirements. In late 2002, for instance, federal regulators rejected the center's proposal to require more vivid warning labels on beer, wine and liquor containers.
"It would garbage up the labels, that's for sure," Battjes said, when asked about potential new information requirements.
If the past is any guide, the new label review could be a long and complicated affair.
As far back as 1972, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned to require ingredient labeling on alcohol. Three years and more than 1,000 public comments later, federal officials rejected the proposal. In 1980, the agency then known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reconsidered and proposed requiring listing ingredients on labels.
The Reagan administration then reversed course and dropped the requirement in 1981. Consumer groups sued, repeatedly. Back and forth the arguments flew, until two years ago, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest again petitioned to require ingredient labeling.
"The (agency) has been reluctant to address a number of serious issues," Hacker said. "Because they have limited authority, they don't want to step out too far, and I also think they get plenty from industry to keep things the way they are."