“Serving Facts” for Alcohol Beverages—FINALLY!

Yesterday, a 9-year effort by consumer and public health groups, and beer, wine and spirits maker Diageo, succeeded when a unit of the Treasury Department issued a ruling permitting voluntary Serving Facts labels for alcohol beverages.

The Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) Ruling 2013-2 allows beer, wine and distilled spirits makers to provide much clearer  and comprehensive information to consumers as to what they are drinking in terms of amount of alcohol per serving, servings per container, and calories, carbs, protein and fat per serving or per container.

Until now, consumers would be hard-pressed to tell you that a 750 ml bottle of 12% alcohol by volume (ABV) wine contained 5 (standard) servings, or that a 750 ml bottle of 40& ABV vodka contains 17 servings. Now they can just look on the label—provided the supplier voluntarily puts Serving Facts on the label!

Alcohol Serving Facts

Under the ruling, the fact that 12 oz of regular beer, 5 oz of table wine and 1.5 oz of vodka all contain the same amount of alcohol, i.e., 0.6 oz, or a “standard drink,” remains somewhat obscured. Perhaps the still-pending rulemaking will address that what TTB now calls a “serving” is, in fact, for all practical purposes, a Standard Drink.

Interestingly, the final impetus for Ruling 2013-2 probably came from another federal agency: the Federal Trade Commission. On February 12th of this year, the FTC issued an order that required Four Loko flavored malt beverages containing more than two “servings” of alcohol to carry an “Alcohol Facts” panel on the back of the container. The FTC said that the Alcohol Facts panel must include the beverage’s serving size, number of servings per container, container size, and %ABV. The FTC’s order was necessitated by the agency’s belief that the makers of Four Loko “falsely” represented that a 23.5 oz can of the product (at 12% ABV) “contains the alcohol equivalent of one or two regular 12-ounce beers, and that a consumer could drink one entire can safely on a single occasion.” This is precisely the kind of situation that the original Serving Facts petition was meant to address.

According to the US Dietary Guidelines, people who drink alcohol should do so in moderation, defined as not more than one standard drink per day for women, and two standard drinks per day for men. With TTB’s action yesterday, consumers who choose to drink now have much more easy-to-understand information with which to gauge their drinking.

Consumers can now only hope that the final rulemaking will maintain this general approach, and also finally define a serving for what it is: a “Standard Drink.”

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