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Wine Producers Struggle With Proposal to Require Allergen Warnings

Major food allergens are often used in the winemaking process, but aren't necessarily in the finished wine, producers say

Posted: January 23, 2007

Federal authorities are considering changing wine labeling laws to require vintners to list allergens such as egg whites and milk proteins that are often used to fine and clarify wine. The wine industry, however, is fighting the change, arguing that there's little proof that such a warning on wine labels is appropriate or even necessary.

"We have several problems with the proposed rule. The primary issue is that it requires us to make a statement that our product contains an allergen when it may not," said Wendell Lee, general counsel for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, a lobbying organization that represents more than 800 California wineries.

Some allergy sufferers, however, insist that warnings are necessary to protect their health. Christine Rogers, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, petitioned the government in April 2004 to address the topic of wine allergen labeling. "I think this is an important public health issue, and the public needs this information to make informed decisions," said Rogers, who believes she has suffered a number of allergic reactions to wine.

Winemakers use some foods that are common allergens, such as milk, eggs and fish, as fining and clarifying agents. Egg whites, to which Rogers is highly allergic, are sometimes added to barrels of red wine to remove harsh or excessive tannins. The protein in the egg whites attracts and binds to the tannins, which then settle to the bottom of the barrel with relatively little loss of flavor or color in the wine. White wines are fined more often, however. Casein, a protein derived from milk, is used to remove brown discoloration. Isinglass, a product made from the swim bladders of sturgeon fish, is another favored clarifying agent, as is bentonite, a type of volcanic clay.

"[These products] are fairly ubiquitous. There are alternatives, but they wouldn't be my first choice because they have a bigger impact on flavor," said Kristin Belair, winemaker at Honig in Napa Valley.

Wine-industry professionals fear that facts are being lost in a rush to regulate. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the branch of the U.S. government responsible for wine-labeling laws, is writing the new rules in compliance with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), which designated eight foods--milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans--as "major food allergens." Foods containing those allergens must already indicate so on the label, and the TTB must now apply the law to wine and other alcoholic beverages. (This has been standard practice in Australia and New Zealand since 2002.)

Even though wines are made with allergens, finished wines, producers say, do not contain those allergens, at least not in quantities that cause life-threatening reactions.

However, current technology cannot detect the presence of some allergens at sufficiently low levels to assure the safety of highly allergic individuals. Some allergy sufferers insist that vintners are mistaken and that wines can indeed cause serious reactions. Food allergies can be fatal; every year, roughly 30,000 individuals in the United States require emergency room treatment and 150 die as a result of food allergies.

Some anecdotal evidence appears to support the wine industry's position. One Australian study, funded in part by the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation of Australia, concluded that wines contain negligible quantities of residual allergens. (While some adults experience flushed skin and an elevated heart rate after consuming alcohol, that's not usually the result of an allergy, but rather an inability to properly metabolize alcohol due to the lack of an enzyme.)

Also, in the public comments that the TTB has received on the proposed regulation, some respondents insist that there have been no confirmed wine-related reactions to the major food allergens listed in FALCPA. George Soleas, vice president of quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, wrote to the TTB that since 2000 the LCBO received nearly 500,000 consumer complaints, of which 337 were illness-related. None were "substantiated adverse allergic reaction to wine products."

However, the absence of substantiated evidence does not prove that problems do not occur, just that those reactions are not officially documented. Rogers, who has been allergic to egg whites since birth, has suffered reactions that she is convinced could only have been due to wine. Follow-up calls to the producers, said Rogers, have always confirmed that the wine was fined with egg whites.

If the proposed allergen-labeling requirements are enacted, things won't be as simple as changing or modifying wine labels, unfortunately. Often, vintners do not make the decision to fine a wine until relatively close to bottling, but labels have to be ordered months in advance. So to leave options open, winemakers could find themselves in the position of using labels that indicate the presence of specific allergens even though none were used during production.

"How ironic is that? Wine labeling laws are all supposed to prevent misleading and inaccurate information," said Lee.

Vintners, who are uncertain how consumers will respond to allergen labeling, have additional concerns. Belair values isinglass for its effectiveness and its minimal impact on flavor, but depending on the rules approved by the TTB, she might consider using other products.

"No one's too keen to put 'contains fish' on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc," she said.

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