Battle Over Wine Label Continues

Times Wine Writer

Some consumer groups have lost the first round, but they are still pressing to have health warnings labels, mandated to be on alcoholic beverage containers by late this year, placed on the front of all such containers.

The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ruled last Thursday that the required warning statement may be placed on the front, side or the back of alcoholic beverage containers, at the discretion of the producer.

But some consumer groups who tried to require that the warning labels on beer, wine and distilled spirits appear on the front of all such containers said they would persist.

BATF's ruling last week was a temporary ruling and will not become final until a 45-day comment period ends on April 1. And BATF specifically asked for comments about where the label should be placed:

"In particular, BATF wishes to solicit comments on the 'placement' issue," said the statement. "Specifically, in light of the statutory requirement that the health warning statement be located 'in a conspicuous and prominent place' on the container, should the warning statement be restricted to appearing on the brand (front) label?"

A spokeswoman for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest said CSPI had petitioned BATF, seeking that the warning label be on the front of the package; that it have a box around it; that the size of the warning be readable and that it be of uniform type face.

The spokeswoman said CSPI would continue to seek, during the comment period, to have the warning statement required for the front of all alcoholic beverage containers.

Richard Mascolo, head of the beer and wine branch of BATF, said his agency would "evaluate all the comments, and then make a final ruling on how the warning label will be implemented."

He said if no changes are made in Thursday's filing, alcoholic beverage producers would be required to affix the warning statement to all packages produced on and after Nov. 18, 1989.

If changes are made to the ruling, "we are going to expeditiously issue a final rule. This is going to be a hot issue (and) we will give an adequate amount of time in which to implement the new rule, which may go beyond the Nov. 18, 1989, date."

He said BATF could ask "for a certificate of authenticity from a (foreign) government agency to authenticate that an alcoholic beverage was bottled before that date."

Mascolo noted that consumers shouldn't "look for every bottle to have the statement on Nov. 20." He pointed out that some wines are aged in bottle for two or three years before they are released.

By November 1990 a final rule on the health warning will be imposed, he said. Meanwhile, he said, BATF will work with the Dept. of Health and Human Services and the office of the Surgeon General to determine if the wording of the statement should be changed.

The Omnibus Drug Bill, passed by Congress last year and signed by President Reagan, requires all alcoholic beverage containers to contain the following statement:

"GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems."

John De Luca, president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, said he felt the draft regulation from BATF, which is the first official act implementing the law, was implemented fairly.

"But on a personal level, the very idea that the government would put out a warning label on wine, well, my 2,000 years of Italian ancestors must be turning over in their graves right now."

Jeff Becker, director the office of alcohol issues for the Washington-based Beer Institute, said: "We feel the requirements are reasonable and don't present any logistical problems." He added, however, that the regulations requiring a back label could be difficult for some small producers who now do not have labeling equipment that can affix back labels.

"For some of the smaller brewers it could require a tremendous cash outlay to purchase the new labeling equipment," he said.

He added that he was satisfied that the BATF was acting fairly to permit the warning statement to be on either the front, side or back label: "As we read the requirements, they are consistent with federal warnings for other products in which warning labels are necessitated, such as saccharin."

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