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.
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.”