CSPI Sues TTB to Require Nutrition Labeling

Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau, its administrator, Mary G. Ryan, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to compel TTB to act on CSPI's 19-year-old petition to "require alcohol labeling with the same basic transparency that consumers expect in food.  For alcohol, that means labeling that has alcohol content, calorie and ingredient information – including ingredients that can cause allergic reactions."

Although the Treasury Department conceded in a report on competition in the markets for beer, wine and spirits, that alcohol labeling "could be an effective means of conveying information relevant to health concerns," the petition says, "and ensuring consumers are informed about the nature of alcohol beverages promotes public health goals, Defendants have failed to take significant action in nearly two decades to address the urgent public health and consumer protection matter."  

The petition asks the court to direct TTB to make a final decision granting or denying the petition within 60 days.

The lawsuit comes just days after Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. announced its largest members had agreed to put alcohol serving facts information of their labels.  

In the petition, CSPI cites a doctor who is also a diabetic who "manages his diabetes with a meticulously regulated diet.  If alcoholic beverages had calorie information(he) could and would enjoy integrating those beverages into his diet.  However, in the absence of such information, (he) must choose between largely forgoing alcoholic beverages or putting his health at risk.

"HE mostly chooses to avoid alcoholic beverages.  However, on the rate occasions that he allows himself to consume alcoholic beverages, he does his best to try to use his personal knowledge of the nutritional composition of alcoholic beverages to estimate how much he can safely drink.  

"However, this is not adquate.  Despite (his) extensive knowledge about alcoholic beverages on several occasions where he decided to consume an alcoholic beverage, he misestimated the information.  As a result, his blood sugar levels were high the next day, requiring the passage of time and a significant adjustment to his diet to bring them back within normal range."

The person also suffers from allergies to mint and several tree nuts which are used as flavorings in some bev/al.  "In the absence of labeling, (he) is unable to determine if alcoholic beverages contain tree nuts or other ingredients he is allergic to."

In the complaint, CSPI says that even if TTB made a final decision denying the petition, it would enable CSPI and allied groups to pursue remedies before he agency and in the courts that are not available so long as TTB withholds a final decision.  

The petition also notes the while TTB has jurisdiction over  labels for alcohol beverages exceeding 7% ABV, Food and Drug Administration is responsible for labels of alcohol products under 7%.  This "has resulted in wildly inconsistent labeling requirements for nearly identical (or in some cases identical) products," the complaint states.  

For example, Truly Hard Seltzer, with 5% ABV, made by Boston Beer Co., contains a Nutrition Facts panel as required by Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  But Samuel Adams Boston Lager, also 5% ABV and also made by Boston Beer Co., does not contain a calories or ingredient disclosure.

"More baffling still, the same bottle of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, when sold as a chain restaurant instead of a liquor store, is required to have calorie information because of the (Affordable Care Act's) menu labeling requirements that apply to all alcohol," the complaint says.

The complaint notes that TTB proposed on April 29, 2006, some 16 years ago, an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, and received over 19,000 comments.  Subsequently, TTB published a notice of proposed rulemaking on alcohol and nutritional labeling for alcoholic beverages on July 31, 2007, and a notice of proposed rulemaking on allergen labeling on July 26, 2006.  

Neither rule was finalized, but the FDA's Allergen Labeling Proposal will be effective for packaged food in January, the Complaint says.  

It expressed surprise that the Allergen Labeling Proposal is languishing since TTB noted that the "major trade associations representing the alcohol beverage industry expressed their support for mandatory labeling of food allergens."

TTB didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.  Beer Institute, Wine Institute and DISCUS also have been asked for comment.