A Warning Label About Nothing

March 2007
by Dan Berger
If the U.S. government gets its way, wine bottles could well have four information labels imposed on them--and one of them would be a fraud.

One of the labels being sought is simply a statement of how many "standard drinks" are in a bottle of wine, based entirely on the wine's alcohol content. Already such requirements now exist in Australia and New Zealand.

But it's the second issue that is so curious.

What's odd about the move by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to impose yet another warning label is that almost everybody concerned is aware that it's a can of worms. Moreover, if such an allergen warning label were to be mandated, it would violate TTB's own regulation prohibiting false and misleading statements.

The pernicious move to put an allergen warning label onto all wine packages was kick-started by passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which was Congress' way of quickly dispensing with an issue that is far too complex to deal with in this manner.

At the heart of the issue, proponents of the additional label say, is that many wines are fined with substances like eggs (egg whites or even fish eggs, usually termed isinglass) or other elements that are known to cause allergic reactions in some people.

The catch is that not one single allergic reaction has ever been ascribed to the fining substances used in wine, and for one very important reason: The fining agents are all removed from wine before it is bottled.

This minor point seems inconsequential to TTB, which is simply following orders (the act) that seek to protect consumers from some bogeyman called allergens, even if they don't exist (or exist at such low levels that they are harmless).

Wendell Lee, attorney for California's Wine Institute (WI), said the act came about as a result of severe allergic reactions some people have toward peanuts, shellfish and other substances. And it's well known that some allergic reactions--to substances such as walnuts--can cause anaphylactic shock.

But, Lee said, Wine Institute is "opposed to the way the rule is written….The way they propose to implement the rule is that the use of a fining agent triggers the labeling statement saying wine contains allergens.

"But that's a lie," he said. "They (TTB) don't know it's there. Just the mere use (of an agent) doesn't mean it's in the finished product. Fining agents are removed before bottling, so they are not in the finished product."

He said that to state that a wine contains allergens "would be misleading and deceptive, which violates TTB's own regulations."

Reactions to peanuts, shellfish and other substances to which consumers may be allergic are widely known and proven by scientific tests, he said. However, all cases of wine-related allergic reactions have thus far been totally anecdotal.

"Since when does anecdotal evidence make it into rule-making?" he asked. "Show me one case" where wine was the cause of an allergic reaction to the fining agent used in its production.

A key point in all this is that the act says that the winery submitting a label for approval and admitting it used a fining agent is required to pay for a test to prove that the agent isn't in the wine anymore. Or it may add a statement that the wine contains the agent. (WI prefers the wording, "processed with," instead of "contains.") Not only is this financially burdensome in either case, but it's pointless, in view of the fact that there has never been a single case of a confirmed allergic reaction to a wine due solely to use of its fining agents.

But it gets worse. Assume a winery were willing to send out samples of its wines to a lab for chemical analysis to determine the level of an allergen that was in the wine. What level of detection is appropriate? If none of the egg is found in parts per thousand, is that sufficient to satisfy TTB that no label is necessary? So what then, if TTB requires that the test detect down to parts per billion?
Assume an analysis shows that a wine has three parts per billion of egg. Is this sufficient to trigger a warning label? Is such a level humanly significant?

Lee argues that no one knows at what level an allergen becomes harmful to humans. Moreover, since TTB doesn't have the resources to monitor such a program, the entire labeling issue seems to be cloudy, and one about which almost all agree: there can be no winners, only losers.

(Dan Berger has been a wine columnist since 1976. Currently he issues weekly wine commentary, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences and a nationally syndicated wine column. His books include Beyond the Grapes: An Inside Look at Napa Valley and Beyond the Grapes: An Inside Look at Sonoma Valley. To comment on this article, contact him through

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