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Consumers call for better alcohol labelling

17-Dec-2003

Consumer bodies in the US are clamouring for tougher labelling on alcoholic beverages. This week a proposal for a uniform alcohol facts label was submitted by the National Consumers League (NCL), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and a total of 67 other consumer groups. The petition was sent to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

The petition urges the agency to require a new label for alcoholic beverages that would give consumers clear information about alcohol content, serving sizes, calories, and ingredients. The groups argue that alcohol facts labels will do for alcoholic beverages what nutrition facts labels have done for packaged food - provide readable information that would empower consumers to make informed decisions about the products they consume.

These consumer groups argue that the rules governing alcoholic-beverage labelling suffer from jurisdictional gaps between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms). For example, the FDA can weigh in on alcoholic- beverage labeling in only a small number of cases. And in addition, say these organisations, TTB has no institutional expertise in diet or nutrition.

 

These organisations also contend that the TTB's inconsistent standards for beer, wine, and hard liquor, and the abundance of products that increasingly blur those three traditional categories of alcoholic beverages, simply adds to the confusion.

 

"Existing labelling rules are inconsistent, confusing, and don't help consumers compare beverages' alcohol or calorie content," said NCL president Linda Golodner. "While wine and hard liquor list alcohol content, beer doesn't. And while 'light' beer and low-alcohol wines list calories, regular beer, wine, and hard liquor don't."

 

George Hacker, director of CSPI's alcohol policies project underlines the group's health message. "Consumers who are trying to maintain a healthful weight have very little information about how many calories alcoholic beverages are contributing to their diet," he said. "Given America's concern over the epidemic of overweight and obesity, it makes no sense that such a significant source of calories goes undisclosed on labels."

 

The alcohol facts label would disclose the alcohol content and standard servings of the beverage. Labels would also list the number of drinks per container and the amount of alcohol in a standard serving, along with calorie information.

 

In addition, the label would detail ingredients. This, say consumer bodies, would help the seven million Americans with food allergies. Currently, sulfites and Yellow Dye No. 5 are the only ingredients that are required to be listed.

 

"It seems silly that a bottle of lemonade has to list its ingredients, but a bottle of hard lemonade doesn't," Hacker said. "Our proposed label would let consumers see exactly what's in various brands of beers, wine, and hard liquors."

 

A recent survey commissioned by CSPI found that 58 per cent either do not know the caloric content of beer or believe it to be lower than it is. Eighty-nine per cent support calorie labelling on alcoholic beverages. "Current labelling requirements for alcoholic beverages are outdated," according to the National Consumers League , founded in 1899, is a major consumer organisation in the US. Its mission is to identify, protect, represent, and advance the economic and social interests of consumers and workers. NCL is a private, nonprofit membership organisation.

 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a nonprofit health-advocacy group based in Washington, DC, which focuses on nutrition, food safety, and pro-health alcohol policies. CSPI is supported largely by the 800,000 US and Canadian subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and by foundation grants.