Home Packaging You’ve Been Served: TTB Sued Over Wine Ingredient Labels

You’ve Been Served: TTB Sued Over Wine Ingredient Labels

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A lawsuit filed by three leading consumer organizations could finally bring the debate about ingredient and nutritional labeling for wine front and center.

By Jeff Siegel

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League this week sued the Treasury Department, claiming the federal government has failed to act on a 19-year-old petition urging it to require alcohol labeling “with the same basic transparency consumers expect in foods.”

Says Matthew Simon, CSPI’s deputy litigation director, “We think the lawsuit is coming at the right time to put this across the finish line. To use a sports analogy, we’re in the red zone now, and we think the lawsuit will help us get into the end zone.”

The Court of Public Opinion

There’s almost a sense that it’s not so much the lawsuit’s legal merit that matters, which some attorneys doubt (though Simon says his group “has a really strong case”). Jason R. Canvasser, an attorney with Clark Hill in Detroit who represents clients in the alcohol trade, says the crux of the legal argument is whether waiting 19 years to sue, given the terms of the applicable federal law, is waiting too long. Canvasser says he can see the suit being dismissed on those grounds; in that case, its merits would never be argued.

Rather, say several people interviewed for this article, it’s the lawsuit’s public relations potential to win consumers over to the idea that wine should include calorie counts, lists of additives, and all the rest. This is something the wine industry has fought with considerable vigor.

But public opinion has shifted significantly in the past couple of decades, with younger consumers, who seem to want ingredient and nutritional information, leading the way. It’s the idea, as some in the wine business have said recently, that wine is the most natural of all alcoholic beverages – grapes, yeast and not much else. So what’s the harm in listing that?

Drawing the Lines

A spokesman for the Wine Institute trade group said, “We are monitoring TTB’s Unified Agenda and the Federal Register for upcoming rulemakings and regularly comment on those important to the wine industry.” A spokesman for WineAmerica, an industry advocacy group, declined comment. TTB spokesman Tom Hogue said the agency does not comment on litigation.

Ingredient and nutrition labeling for wine has a long history, with the current round dating to 2003, when TTB considered the proposal that’s the focus of this lawsuit. The agency took up the issue again in 2007 and 2008, the result that time was voluntary labeling, which is little used in the wine business, but, says Simon, seems to have been accepted more eagerly by beer and spirits.

One dispute about wine labeling: What ingredients would be included? How detailed would the list have to be? This is often seen as the additives vs. ingredients argument: is it necessary to list tartaric or citric acid? Simon says his group understands that issue, and although it’s not ready to discuss specifics now, there is a general framework in place for making those decisions, based on the FDA’s rules for food labeling. There is, he says, no need to reinvent the wheel. 

It’s also worth noting that  TTB started the process to consider some sort of labeling system again this summer, with what’s called Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the “pre-rule” phase. That means the agency will ask for comments and consider what has been said. If there are enough comments supporting the proposal, the agency could move to a “Notice of Rulemaking,” which is the actual process to decide whether to add labels.

Simon says his group considers the advanced notice stage more like a to-do list; rather than wait for TTB to eventfully check labels off the list, it wants to spur the agency into action.

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Jeff Siegel

Jeff Siegel is an award-winning wine writer, as well as the co-founder and former president of Drink Local Wine, the first locavore wine movement. He has taught wine, beer, spirits, and beverage management at El Centro College and the Cordon Bleu in Dallas. He has written seven books, including “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Labeling on wine so far is just about misinformation. Take “Contains sulfites”, there is much misinformation and confusion by the consumer about sulfites. It pretty much should be a non issue when the level can be over 10ppm without adding any. the only reason it is on there was after the big 1980’s scare where huge amounts of sodium bisulfite spread on the new salad bar fad had some asthmatics have an asthma attack and die. I guess it was banned for that, but dried fruit and the like can contain many times the level of any wine. If someone is that sensitive to the low levels in wine they should not drink wine at all. For all others sulfite is an antioxidant and pretty much works in the body like any other antioxidant. The addition of this on the label has some that have no issue (pretty much every wine drinker) concerned about it for no legitimate reason. As for labeling overall it is much more expensive for a wine label to be made and changed from all aspects than any food label which only has to supposedly follow the rules . Wine labels are subject to quality of material standards and have to have TTB preapproval unlike food products through FDA. Trying to equate the alcoholic beverage business to a real food product business is nonsense. the calories from alcohol are not the same in any respect to the calories from food as they can only be burned by the body. As for carbs they are only sugar, which is the only thing else in a wine of dietary consideration. I’m diabetic and could appreciate some mention of residual sugar level, but still have not found it to be of overriding necessity. Most of what is put in a wine are additives with not having any left in the wine after bottling. the list of these additives is quite narrow and a fraction of the thousands if not millions of things available as ingredients left in processed food. Basically there is no nutritional effect outside of possible residual sugar. A glass of wine has between 120 and 130 calories for a normal dry style wine across the board. Easy to find and putting that information on a label for something the same for all is kind of nonsense. Pushing wine in to the food industrial processing regulatory mess is a mistake. We are not the same as real food. There is not even any history of real food safety issues with wine as it kills human pathogens. When referred to in communication wine is always mentioned in addition to food if it is included.

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