WASHINGTON — Beer, wine and other alcoholic beverage labels would be loaded up with mandatory nutrition and alcohol-content information under a new Bush administration proposal.
For the first time, all alcohol labels would list calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates. They would include the percent of alcohol by volume. And with separate "Serving Facts" panels, alcohol labels would more closely resemble those found on other foods.
"We believe that this information should be presented to consumers in a uniform, standardized format that is prominent on the label, so that consumers may easily avail themselves of this important information," the Treasury Department said when posting its proposed rule in the Federal Register.
Beer, wine and liquor would all be covered by the new label requirements, proposed Tuesday by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The label proposal has been years in the making, and the fight isn't over yet.
The Beer Institute, the brewers' national lobby, has fought to keep the alcohol content labels voluntary, saying consumers already know what they need.
"The alcohol content of most beer is in a very narrow range, and consumers are generally aware of that fact," the Beer Institute stated.
Mom-and-pop vintners agree.
"I'd hate to have to do it," Leon Sobon, founder of the small, family-owned Shenandoah Vineyards in California's Amador County, said Tuesday. "I think it's completely unnecessary."
Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission in California's San Joaquin Valley, agreed that nutrition labels would be "unnecessary and redundant." He said they might force winemakers to "reconfigure" the size of their labels.
"I think the American consumer is already pretty well informed about nutrition and these issues," Chandler said.
The proposal, open for public comment through October, would give the industry three years to phase in the new labels. Treasury Department officials say this would reduce transition costs.
Currently, distilled spirits must carry alcohol-content information, as must flavored malt beverages and wines with alcohol content greater than 14 percent. Many wineries already voluntarily declare alcohol content even if it is below the 14 percent threshold.
The Treasury Department concluded that the alcohol percentage was too important to leave as voluntary information.
"The alcohol content of a beverage is one of the most important pieces of information about that product," the Treasury rule posting said. "We also believe that consumers use information about alcohol content to measure and moderate their drinking."
Officials stress the importance of nutritional facts. These would show, for instance, that beers can range between 95 and 340 calories per serving, while wine can range from 100 to 235 calories per serving.
"Calorie labeling could provide a constant, low-cost reminder that alcohol consumption adds generally empty, discretionary calories to the diet," the agency stated.
More than 19,000 public comments swamped the federal agency when it initially solicited opinions about labeling requirements in 2005. The Treasury Department reported Tuesday that "most of these comments were form letters" generated by a Internet campaign led by Diageo PLC.
Diageo owns Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker and Guinness, and company officials have said they believe consumers overwhelmingly want nutrition information.
"If you think it's about time to know what's in your drink, take action now!" the company urged on one Web site.
The latest proposal represents an about-face for the Treasury Department. In 1993, following earlier study, the agency concluded that "there was no significant consumer interest" in having nutrition information on alcohol. Smaller wineries and breweries, moreover, worry that the information requirements will both cost more money and congest current label designs.
"It's just so cumbersome," Sobon said. "We would have to redesign our labels."
Small companies sought exemption from the new labeling requirements, citing the costs for lab testing as well as the labels themselves. Treasury responded by arguing that three years should be enough time for the businesses to use up their existing stock of labels, so they would have to produce new labels anyway.