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Help TTB Break the Logjam (Free the Labels)

In this blog, every now and then, we talk about how the label and formula system at TTB can be quite slow, despite various TTB efforts to streamline things. Some top examples are here:  101 Days (to get a spirits label approved); Streamlining; Sen. Schumer Says Labels Take Too Long; more streamlining. It is not a pleasure to observe that it can take more than five months to get an ordinary French Vodka approved (30 or so days at the TTB Lab, then 60 or so days to write up the formula approval, then 60 or so days for label approval — to say nothing about potholes and glitches along the way). Add a few weeks if you’d like to add a flavor.

For a change, today let’s give TTB a break and talk about what the submitters can do, to help speed things up. We will also cover what applicants should not do. Many of the same principles apply to both labels and formulas.

Applicants should:

  1. Start early. TTB and others do a pretty good job of showing the updated average processing times (APTs), for labels and formulas, so it should come as a surprise to nobody that both processes can take a very long time. Why not start early? This can help the system because it leads to fewer panicked status checks. It also should mean fewer expedite requests. Such requests can put a lot of stress on the system, tie up a lot of resources, and they can also mean other applications are jumping in front of and slowing down yours.
  2. Put in solid applications. It’s not so hard to put in a good application, especially if you are only handling one commodity (such as only domestic wine or only imported beer). An example would be knowing what kinds of products need formula approval prior to label approval, then attaching the formula approval to the label. TTB calls such applications, without errors or omissions, “perfected applications.” More than 43% of all label applications go back to the applicant as “needs correction” (see page 3 of the PowerPoint here). When all such labels are counted — submissions and resubmissions — TTB gets about 250,000 label submissions per year. TTB only has about one beer reviewer and 1-2 spirits reviewers — so this can sometimes be a very heavy load. If you think it’s easy, you are not paying attention; you can submit any old thing but the government has the burden to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down (and not just a maybe) to every one, under hundreds of pages of rules.
  3. Read the rules. In the days before the internet maybe you had a good excuse not to skim the rules. But with the rules essentially at your fingertips, free, you should probably do your part to peruse the rules before complaining that TTB is too slow. If you don’t want to read the rules you should probably hire a lawyer or consultant.
  4. Get familiar with ARTAL. This is the Allowable Revisions to Approved Labels. It can save you and TTB a lot of time. There is no reason to wait 6 weeks for a label approval, and inflict the extra work on TTB, when all you are doing is changing the alcohol content. On the formula side, when you have small changes that don’t impact labeling, you can save yourself and TTB a lot of time if you supersede rather than start anew. Otherwise, submitting a new formula usually, in turn, would trigger a new label approval.

Applicants should not:

  1. Submit for products they have no real intention of selling. Only a small percentage of all the products that go through TTB ever end up on store shelves. TTB has said it’s research tends to show that the number is as low as 10%, which would mean that the label and formula division is using more than 80% of its bandwidth on things that never go to market. In many ways the online systems have made it too easy and too inexpensive for applicants to dump work on TTB. In the olden days, the applicant at least had to pay for a stamp or FedEx, and now the system is free (if you ignore the time it takes to load the data and wait).
  2. Cry wolf. If you want to use up TTB’s time telling them it’s urgent, you should have a very good reason, and it should be a whole lot better than:
    1. we can’t sell without the approvals (too obvious, and applies to everyone in front of you in line as well)
    2. we can’t pay tax until we get the approvals (I am pretty sure TTB is not excited about the prospect of collecting a few hundred dollars in tax from you, especially when the same tax dollars are otherwise likely to get put in the till by another guy who planned ahead a bit more)
    3. an exaggeration
  3. Jam up the system with status checks or vague inquiries. There is rarely any advantage in contacting TTB about the status of a pending item, unless it’s well past the published norms. To the contrary, such requests (even when clear, polite, and when they include the ID numbers) mostly tie up the phone lines and scarce TTB resources. An especially detrimental variation is the vague status request. A good status request would be a few days after the APT, with the ID number, such as “Why is label ID 14018001000065 taking so long?” A bad status request would be, “We put in a chardonnay label a few days ago, can you check on it, it should be easy because only a few words changed, and you can find it under Jones Winery, in Napa. No I don’t have the ID number or permit number handy.” With the old, paper-based system there was at least a small chance your paperwork was stuck at the bottom of a forlorn tower of paper; in the current age there is almost no chance that the computer lost track of your application.

With this as a starting point I hope others (Ann, Deb, Marc, Teresa, Fred?) will jump in with ideas about what the industry can do to help push the wait times lower, for the benefit of all.

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3 Responses to “Help TTB Break the Logjam (Free the Labels)”

  1. July 7th, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Anonymous says:

    I typically agree with most of your comments, even if I’m guilty of my share of violations, but the ARTAL is of very limited value, as many states do not recognize them, and require COLAs. Thus, unless you are either tiny and only selling in one state that recognizes ARTAL, or super sized, and have the staff to manage all of the paperwork, ARTAL is of virtually no value in trimming the load. Plus, given the delays, and the need to plan ahead with these massively long timelines, we have to file COLA on anything and everything, as the delays are simply too long. It’s a perverse system, but its the one we have.

  2. July 7th, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Jon Bjork says:

    I know there are political arguments against this idea, but I still feel that many of us would pay $10 or so per COLA app to hire more TTB staff. It would also cause submitters to think twice.

  3. July 8th, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Jon Bjork says:

    By the way, I just emailed ALFD@TTB.gov with a question about a brand name that a client is considering to develop that is based around a winemaking process. My question concerned whether or not all wines labeled with that brand would need to use that process.

    Here’s what I quickly got back in reply:

    “Good afternoon
    The wine team cannot provide any comment until the label has been submit for formal review. Thanks

    Geina M. Fields
    Customer Service Specialist
    Risk Assessment & Information Service office”

    That is telling me that they DO want us to make bogus labels just to get a good answer from them, which is completely counter to breaking this log jam, in my opinion.

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