Transparency must triumph: US Treasury Department sued for inaction on mandatory alcohol content labeling
04 Oct 2022 --- A coalition including the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) is suing the US Treasury Department to compel a decision on mandatory alcohol content, allergen, ingredients and calorie labeling on alcoholic beverages. The move pressures the department to act on a 19-year-old petition and stop “dragging its feet in responding.”
The CSPI represented itself, the National Consumers League and the Consumer Federation of America. The coalition says that the petition requiring alcohol labeling with the same essential transparency as food labeling has been ignored or failed by the Treasury Department.
“The problem is many manufacturers have decided they can sell more by telling consumers less,” says Lisa Mankofsky, litigation director at the CSPI.
“Unless you’re in the market for one of the fairly unusual alcoholic products that fall under the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation – like hard ciders – or happen across a product whose manufacturer volunteers this information, you can expect to remain in the dark about just what it is you are drinking and how it impacts your health.”
Hidden empty calories
Alcohol labels are regulated by the Treasury Department, unlike most other F&B products, which the FDA regulates. The department has “forestalled action on mandatory labeling and instead uses a voluntary system allowing companies to put nutrition and allergy information on their products as a choice,” the CSPI explains.
The non-profit center argues that alcohol labels are inadequate and implementing guidance on the number of standard drinks per container could help consumers drink in moderation. Consuming alcohol increases the risk of several diseases, disorders, injuries and cancers.
Additionally, alcohol serves as an empty calorie – food or beverage that does not contain a represented amount of nutrients to match the number of calories, sugar and fat. Currently, the CSPI says that displaying the number of calories on labels is not mandatory for alcoholic drinks.
“Moreover, like other foods and beverages, alcoholic beverages contain various ingredients and additives that consumers may need or want to avoid for health, safety, religious, or other reasons. This is particularly true for the millions of Americans with food allergies. Yet, most ingredients are not required to be disclosed on alcohol labels,” says the CSPI.
Two decades of waiting
In 2003, eight individuals and 66 organizations signed a petition against the department, demanding mandatory, comprehensive and consistent labeling on alcoholic beverages. The new lawsuit aims to force the department into acting on this issue.
“Imagine the chaos in the supermarket if food manufacturers could decide to list ingredients, or not; decide to disclose calories, or not; or include a uniform, easy-to-read label, or not,” says Dr. Peter Lurie, president at CSPI.
“Well, that’s the kind of informational chaos we find today in the liquor store. After nearly 20 years of delay, it’s time for the Treasury Department to bring some order to this uneven marketplace.”
A recent UK-based study showed that alcohol consumption increases the risk for cardiovascular disease even with a low alcohol percentage. The findings challenge the past research suggesting that light to moderate alcohol consumption may bring benefits and indicate that the positive health impact most likely comes from other sources.
An issue beyond labeling?
The call for transparent alcohol labeling has also been stressed recently by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), which called on the government to update the current requirements, including volume, alcoholic strength, and common allergens. The AHA pressured the government to display health warnings, ingredients, calories, sugar and other nutritional information.
Similarly, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand said in May that a proposal is being worked on for implementing energy labels on alcoholic beverages to tackle the increased rates of alcohol-related health concerns.
“Consumers have a right to know what’s in the beverages they drink, whether those beverages are alcoholic or not,” said Thomas Gremillion, director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America.
“Standard labeling requirements are common sense, and the federal government’s 19-year delay in responding to this petition is a shameful reflection of Big Alcohol’s influence on policymakers.”
Meanwhile, UK-based Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign unveiled the dangers of junk food and alcohol’s high presence in Reality TV. A study of Reality TV episodes showed an 88% presence of unhealthy F&B brands featured, “evidencing how normalized junk food consumption has become in the UK.”
By Beatrice Wihlander
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