The ATF's advanced notice of proposed rulemaking comes much to the dismay of wine industry members who have long fought to get the federal agency to approve "health-effects" labels that direct consumers to more information on the benefits and drawbacks of wine-drinking. Mounting scientific evidence has linked moderate alcohol consumption to a reduced risk of heart disease.
The Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1990 already requires all alcoholic beverage containers to carry a warning label indicating that pregnant women should not drink, and that alcohol consumption impairs one's ability to drive a car or operate machinery and may cause health problems. However, the CSPI, a nonprofit advocacy group focusing on food safety and nutritional issues, believes that wine and spirits producers often surreptitiously obscure these labels.
"There are a great many [labels] that totally ineffectively carry out the intent of Congress," said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at CSPI. "There is no incentive for producers to warn people that their product isn't as healthful as skim milk. We're not tampering with the [current text]. What we're suggesting is that the label design be changed."
CSPI has proposed a wider label, with larger text, to be placed in a horizontal position on the back of the bottle. To make it even more eye-catching, the warning would be printed in red or black ink on a white background, with an icon of an exclamation point inside a triangle.
According to CSPI, warning labels are sometimes printed in obscure places or with hard-to-read text. "We've seen them scrunched into the bottle-neck ring, or the ink doesn't contrast -- it's all the same color," said Hacker.
However, many winemakers oppose Hacker's approach as unnecessary. "If the ATF is letting labels like that slip by, then they need to tighten their grip," said winemaker Patrick Campbell, owner of Laurel Glen winery in Sonoma County. "If Hacker is trying to solve the allegation of one or more wineries taking label liberties, then I don't think [this solution] is logical. If we were making a product that, indeed, was terribly dangerous, then maybe, but we are selling a certified, legal product that has debatable health benefits."
Campbell is a big proponent of health-effects labels, and all Laurel Glen bottles contain a statement suggesting that consumers consult their family doctors to learn more about the possible health effects of wine consumption
In February 1999, the ATF approved the voluntary use of two "directional" statements on wine labels. One is Campbell's label wording; the second refers people to the federal "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," which discusses both the potential health benefits and drawbacks of drinking alcohol. But facing opposition from some prominent lawmakers, the agency later suspended action on any new applications from producers for directional health labels.
The CSPI petition has some big guns behind it, most notably Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a frequent adversary of the wine industry on issues such as labels and direct shipments to consumers. He is joined by Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; and Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, who helped author the current government warning labels in 1988, and is a strong opponent of the directional health-effect labels, is also in favor of the proposal. "[He] did not add his name as a co-petitioner, but he does support the petition," said Jim Crandell, spokesman for the ATF.
The ATF is accepting public input on the matter until Aug. 20, and the Wine Institute, which opposes the warning-label changes, sees the proposal as a good forum to present the wine industry's support for health-effects labels and the promotion of the federal dietary guidelines.
"I think CSPI has opened a Pandora's box. This is something the CSPI has attempted before, and I think our proper response will be based on [current] scientific findings," said John De Luca, president of the San Francisco¿based Wine Institute. "If they want to talk about labels, and what the proper way is to educate consumers, then ? the wider dissemination of the dietary guidelines would be more effective."
De Luca added that although the issue is up for public comment, most consumers don't get involved. "I think the word 'consumer' is liberally sprinkled into these petitions, when it's really lobbyists representing the 'consumer,'" he said. "I hope actual consumers choose to participate in this conversation."
Send letters to:
Chief, Regulations Division
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
P.O. Box 50221
Washington, D.C. 20091
For more on the debate over health-effects labels: