Regulators inch toward nutrition labels for booze

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on Tuesday called on the industry to begin including the amount of calories, carbohydrate and alcoholic content in advertising and branding of wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages while it writes specific regulations for labels.

The actions stem from a decade-old petition filed by 69 public interest groups that called for more transparent nutritional information on liquor products. Although the TTB is the Treasury Department agency with the legal authority to write the rules, they have yet to be crafted.

“The wheels of government grind slowly, to be sure, but I wonder whether the Treasury Department truly needed 10 years to make this small bit of ‘interim’ progress on alcohol labeling — and then only make it voluntary,” said Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the original groups on the 2003 petition to TTB.

Health groups said in a release about the petition that current labels for alcohol are “inconsistent” and “confusing,” making it hard for consumers to know what they are drinking.

The industry guidance that TTB released Tuesday on the labels is much weaker than consumer groups has asked for. The requirements for labeling beer, wine, hard liquor and malt beverages differ, and ingredients such as dyes or additives are not required to be listed on bottles.

The guidance urges winemakers to include the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) on labels, except in the case of products that contain between 7 percent and 14 percent alcohol – which can be called “table wine” or “light wine” on the label instead of specific percentages.

While hard liquor should contain the percentage of ABV, and can include a “proof” to correspond with those numbers, flavored malt beverages — like spiked lemonade products — are not required to list alcohol content at all.

“A manufacturer of lemonade must list each ingredient, but a maker of hard lemonade can conceal its main ingredients, even if dyes, sugars, preservatives, or other additives are used,” Jacobson said.