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Sigh of Relief Over 'Serving Facts'

July 2013
by Jim Gordon
The Treasury Department’s ruling May 28 that wine, beer and spirits makers may add “serving facts” to their packaging appears to give all three what they want. Those few producers who want to start posting details related to serving size, calories, protein and fat on their back labels can go ahead, and those who don’t want to don’t have to.

Some spirits producers lobbied for the serving facts approval, while beer and wine producers mostly opposed it. Breweries may not have wanted consumers to know how caloric their beers are. Vintners didn’t want the hassle and expense of lab tests to affirm the information, and they didn’t want to mess up their sophisticated packaging with the mundane black and white serving facts boxes.

The Distilled Spirits Council was the first industry association to weigh in on the ruling. A news release applauded the decision and called it “one of the most significant TTB labeling initiatives for distilled spirits, beer and wine in decades.” Diageo, a producer of both spirits and wine, was particularly upfront about supporting the serving facts option.

Wine Institute and WineAmerica breathed big sighs of relief that the serving facts label is merely allowed, not required, on wine bottles. Wine­America emailed a press release the following day, and when I called Michael Kaiser, the group’s director of communications and regulatory affairs in Washington, D.C., he described the ruling as “a unique thing that will actually please everybody.”

At Wine Institute in San Francisco, general counsel Wendell Lee said, “I think what they came up with is fair, and it will provide consistent information for wineries that choose to carry that serving facts label.” Lee said that when the issue first came up six years ago, Wine Institute’s position was that serving facts should be voluntary. “We foresaw that wineries would be spending more time at the analytical labs than the winery” if it was made mandatory, he said.

What the ruling says
TTB Ruling 2013-2 addresses only one of the labeling issues the Treasury’s Tax and Trade Bureau has been mulling for years. Allergen labeling, for example, was not covered in this one.

The ruling permits serving facts statements similar to those on virtually all food products; that includes the serving size, the number of servings per container, the number of calories and the number of grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. Serving facts statements also may include the wine’s alcohol content by percentage and by fluid ounces of pure ethyl alcohol per serving.

Importantly, a winery will not need to apply for a new  Certificate of Label Approval to add a serving facts statement if it conforms to examples contained in the ruling and the wine already has a COLA.

The TTB gave wineries wide latitude for alcohol content related to serving size. The ruling establishes the serving size for table wine as 5 ounces and defines table wine as 7%-16% alcohol by volume. The serving size for dessert wine from 16%-24% alcohol by volume is 2.5 ounces. However, this doesn’t change the official definition of table wine, which remains at 7%-14% alcohol by volume. Fortunately the TTB accepted the reality that many wines not considered dessert wines now have alcohol levels above 14.1%. If alcohol content is listed on the serving facts panel, it still must be included on the label for COLA approval.

It’s not over
This is not the final word on serving facts. TTB’s 2007 notice of proposed rulemaking said it would make serving facts and nutritional information a requirement on all alcoholic beverage labels. That proposed rulemaking is still pending, and the TTB has not said what will come next.

There’s an argument that serving facts and even ingredient labeling are features that may help wine blend into American culture even more than it does now. If wine labels looked more like food packaging, then consumers and (more importantly) legislators and regulators might begin to see wine as a nutritional, everyday food product.

Would they be less likely to raise taxes on it and more likely to allow sales of it on all days and in all counties? Possibly, but the wine industry in some ways prefers to have its current special regulatory status apart from food, with its own peculiar but familiar system. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” as the saying goes. From our perspective, the recent serving facts ruling by the devil we know is a welcome one.

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