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The Burden of Proof: TTB’s Annual Alcohol Sampling Program

Most of what consumers know about the alcoholic beverage products they buy comes from their interaction with the label, so it is important to get it right. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which regulates the labeling of most beverage alcohol products, recently released their annual alcohol beverage sampling program results, highlighting the most common compliance issues with drinks labels in the marketplace. Every year, the TTB conducts a random survey of alcoholic beverage products available for sale to the public. They select a range of brands across the distilled spirits, wine and malt beverage categories, and crosscheck the information on the label against the beverage in the bottle (or can, or alternative packaging). In 2015, well over a third of the distilled spirits and malt beverages surveyed were non-compliant (at 62 out of 154, and 61 out of 158 respectively), and just under a quarter of the wines were non-compliant (at 34 out of 138).

Many of the products in the market were found to have labels that were different from the certificates of label approval (COLAs) that the TTB had issued for those products. The TTB has worked hard in the last few years to balance its limited resources against ever increasing numbers of COLA submissions, and has published a long list of allowable changes that can be made to approved COLAs. However, some changes still require a new COLA. Some of the information on the label can be changed or removed, the shape and color can be altered, and statements and graphics can be moved, but it is difficult to add anything new without getting a new COLA.

Leaving aside COLA compliance, however, far and away the biggest issue identified by the TTB was related to the alcoholic content claims of the products surveyed. Each category of alcoholic beverages has some room to maneuver with the stated alcohol content. In particular, wine and malt beverages have greater tolerances, because the regulations recognize that they are products which can and often do continue to evolve in the bottle. However, even with these permitted tolerances, over 20% of the samples had a stated alcoholic content that was non-compliant. A table wine between 7% and 14% alcohol by volume (ABV), is allowed to be up to 1.5% either above or below the stated alcoholic content on the label (provided the wine remains in the same tax class, below 14%). Wine with over 14% alcohol can still be up to 1% over or under the stated amount. Malt beverages can be up to 0.3% different from the labeled ABV, either higher or lower. In contrast to the permitted variations for wine and beer, distilled spirits are not allowed to contain any alcohol over the stated ABV. The regulations reflect TTB’s view that there is no reason why distilled spirits should not be able to be accurately proofed upon completion of production. Spirits are allowed a small 0.15% tolerance below the labeled amount, which reduction is only to recognize possible losses during bottling. The proofing and gauging of distilled spirits is key to the TTB’s principal aim of protecting the revenue, and is directly linked to how much tax is paid by the producer. The TTB offers a range of resources to help producers and bottlers with that process, and it is important to ensure that care is taken when your product is labeled.

For any questions related to labeling of beverage alcohol, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.

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