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Alcohol labels draw mixed . . . reaction

WASHINGTON – Consumer advocates are pressing the Treasury Department to develop detailed labels for alcoholic drink packaging to let people know how much alcohol is in each serving of liquor.

The groups want the department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau to expand the information included in a proposed requirement for alcoholic drink labels. Specifically, they want labels that reveal the amount of alcohol per serving, the definition of a standard drink and the U.S. dietary guidelines on drinking.

“I think people have no idea how much alcohol is in a standard drink,” Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, said in an interview last week. “They need to know that to make the right choices.”

Last July, the Treasury Department published a proposed rule to label all alcoholic drink packages with percentage of alcohol by volume along with the number of calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein for a standard serving size. The comment period on the proposed rule ended in late January and the department is analyzing the results to determine if and how to move forward. There is no time frame for this process, said spokesman Arthur Resnick.

But consumer groups were upset that the label proposed in July did not list the amount of alcohol in each serving, the amount defined as a standard drink and the U.S. dietary guidelines for how many drinks an individual should have in a day.

A newspaper ad campaign launched last month and signed by 18 public health, nutrition and consumer organizations and officials urged Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to change the labels on alcoholic drinks to include such information along with the products’ nutritional details.

“When the TTB finally put out a proposed label, it didn’t include alcohol,” said Barbara Moore, nutritionist and president of Shape Up America! She said adding the total amount of alcohol would help people realize that alcohol itself is a significant source of calories.

The industry’s reception of such desired changes is mixed.

Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade group, favored two of the potential additions. “Knowing how much alcohol is in a serving of beer, wine or spirits and how that alcohol content relates to a standard drink helps consumers make responsible drinking decisions,” he said in a statement.

But other trade groups have different views.

The Beer Institute and the Wine Institute, which represents California wineries and wine businesses, both think that including the amount of alcohol per serving could confuse consumers.

“Use of fractional measurements of beverage volume and absolute alcohol content to prepare drinks or to make product comparisons requires complex calculations,” the Beer Institute said in its January comments to Treasury, adding that this is “likely to mislead consumers.”

Both trade groups also feel the standard drink size information does not have meaning for consumers, especially when they order a mixed drink in a bar.

Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Wine Institute said “Consumers may think they’re getting a standard drink” at the bar but “it’s not what happens in the real world.”

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