Posts Tagged ‘policy’
Here we are, checking in a year later, after this post on GMO labeling. TTB still does not allow GMO labeling of the sort depicted above. This sort of labeling seems to be sweeping across the grocery store, but not in the alcohol beverage aisle. We have at least two bases for saying this. First of all, there is this recent Needs Correction (NC) notice. It says the GMO talk is misleading, therapeutic and not acceptable.
Second, we checked through LabelVision and see essentially no GMO-related labels. It is pretty amazing that few if any seem to have slipped through, even though this list tends to say quite a few alcohol beverage products meet the Non-GMO Profect standards.
This NC notice is good because it also happens to cover a few other issues. It reminds us that grape varietal terms should not be used on flavored wine products. It also reminds us that if you have something like a margarita-flavored wine product, it may be necessary to clearly mention that it’s a “wine cocktail.”
Sorry to disappoint anyone, but that’s not Attorney John Messinger over to the left. But it is John, over to the right, covering Gluten-Free Labeling for Beer, Wine and Spirits, in a recent issue of Beverage Master Magazine.
The full article is here. The first few paragraphs are here:
Gluten-free foods and beverages were one of the popular trends of 2014. In the past year, over 70 new alcohol beverage label approvals mentioned “gluten-free,” which is more than the combined total of gluten-free labels in 2012 and 2013. Breweries, wineries and distilleries who wish to cater to the gluten-free diet market and provide those with celiac disease additional choices can do so, but there are a fair amount of rules and red tape to wade through. This article breaks down the federal requirements for gluten-free labeling.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) regulates the labeling and advertising for the majority alcohol beverages. In May 2012, TTB issued an interim policy on gluten content statements in the labeling and advertising of beer, wine and distilled spirits, which allowed some products to make gluten-free claims (TTB Ruling 2012-2). This policy was issued pending guidance or rulemaking by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) on the subject of gluten-free claims. In August 2013, FDA issued a final rule to establish a regulatory definition of gluten-free (21 CFR 101.91). TTB revised their policy on gluten-free labeling and advertising in February 2014 to be consistent with (but not identical to) FDA’s final rule (TTB Ruling 2014-2).
What Qualifies as Gluten-Free?
TTB’s current policy does not allow alcohol beverage products to be labeled and advertised as gluten-free if they are made from or contain:
- “Gluten-containing grains,” meaning wheat, rye, barley or crossbred hybrids (e.g. triticale);
- Ingredients made from gluten-containing grains, if those ingredients have not been processed to reduce the gluten content of the ingredient to a level below 20 parts per million (ppm).
In general, wines fermented from fruit and certain distilled spirits that are produced from specific non-grain commodities (e.g. rum, tequila, vodka distilled from cherries) can be labeled or advertised as gluten-free without substantial difficulty.
Whoa! The first of the “handmade” cases wrapped up within the past week. On May 1, 2015 the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee dismissed the class action lawsuit against Maker’s Mark “with prejudice.” The now-defunct case alleged that Beam Suntory was bs’ing about whether the bourbon was “handmade.” The court seems to be saying “handmade” is a puff term, like “delicious.”
The term at issue has been amorphous, over the centuries, and Judge Hinkle seems to have dumped that burden on the plaintiffs:
the plaintiffs have been unable to articulate a consistent, plausible explanation of what they understood ‘handmade’ to mean in this context. This is understandable; nobody could believe a bourbon marketed this widely at this volume is made entirely or predominantly by hand. This order grants the defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.
The Judge makes a good point, saying:
But the term ‘handmade’ is no longer used in that sense. The same dictionary now gives a circular definition: ‘handmade’ means ‘[m]ade by hand.’ Id. But the term obviously cannot be used literally to describe bourbon. One can knit a sweater by hand, but one cannot make bourbon by hand. Or at least, one cannot make bourbon by hand at the volume required for a nationally marketed brand like Maker’s Mark. No reasonable consumer could believe otherwise.
In sum, no reasonable person would understand “handmade” in this context to mean literally made by hand. No reasonable person would understand “handmade” in this context to mean substantial equipment was not used. If “handmade” means only made from scratch, or in small units, or in a carefully monitored process, then the plaintiffs have alleged no facts plausibly suggesting the statement is untrue. If “handmade” is understood to mean something else—some ill-defined effort to glom onto a trend toward products like craft beer—the statement is the kind of puffery that cannot support claims of this kind.
Another Maker’s Mark case is still pending, but darned if Judge Hinkle does not shoot a hole through its heart. The result here is refreshing in that I have rarely seen an important court case move so quickly. I suspect most observers expected this to grind on longer than it takes to make the very best Bourbon.
From the demise of Prohibition until about a year ago, you could fairly safely assume your label was right, if it was approved by TTB. Most people assumed they had a “safe harbor,” created upon approval, even if some of the claims were dubious.
This has been changing, and fast. The causes are numerous. One big one is the Pom case, decided in mid-2014. Another is an onslaught of class action lawsuits (such as Tito’s, Makers Mark, Beam, Angel’s Envy, Templeton). I am not discussing these factors in detail in this post because we have covered them a lot in many other blog posts, readily findable. A third factor is the rise of whiskey. The whiskey rules are quite a bit more complicated than those for other leading categories such as vodka.
Some people don’t like hearing this message and think it sounds a tad alarmist. But for every one of those people, there are experts who understand this confluence of circumstances can take your company down (and perhaps some who are eager to do so). On a less somber note, the article explains some easy ways to tamp down the threats presented.
And here is something else you can do to push these threats away from your business. Get your labels audited. In response to the markedly changed situation, we are pleased to announce our 2015 label audit program. The details are here.
The list of labels deemed ok and approved, and then not ok, grows longer every day (Skinnygirl, Black Death Vodka, Palcohol, etc.). Wouldn’t it be nice to stay off that list? You should think about having a knowledgeable person review your labels, before this chap (Thomas Zimmerman, the man behind many of the lawsuits) does it for you.
Louisville is great. Such a nice break from the clamor of DC. I think I am nearly qualified to make this call because I have been going to Louisville half a dozen times per year for a few years now, and I have now hit all the top 50 or so bars and restaurants. I just got back from a 10 day stay.
Some highlights of course are the great people at Flavorman, Moonshine University, Challenge Bottling, Grease Monkey Distillery, and the Distilled Spirits Epicenter (all seeming to be one big happy family).
Another highlight was speaking at ADI. More on that in a few days.
A major highlight was meeting Tom Cunningham and Simon Fleischmann from Locke Lord (a big Chicago law firm). They are handling some of the whiskey disputes, on the defense side, and I learned more about class action lawsuits during a few drinks with them, and their speech, as compared to three years in law school. For those who missed the boat on attending the 2015 ADI convention, here is a summary of Locke Lord’s presentation, Spirits Industry Under Fire: What You Need to Know About Class Action Litigation.
The most illuminating parts of this booklet (a companion to the speech), in my opinion, are as follows:
- Plaintiff class action lawyers thrive on ambiguity in the law and jump in where regulators don’t. For example, the federal government has not done much with defining such basic concepts as “natural” or “handmade” and so this part of the bar jumps in — in the form of actions such as the Skinnygirl and Tito lawsuits.
- In startlingly strong language, the Locke lawyers assert:
Plaintiffs’ class action attorneys by and large don’t care whether your product is truly “handmade” or made in “small batches” or is “craft.” They trade in what is essentially blackmail and terrorism. If they have a basis for alleging that your product is not what you claim it to be, even if you fervently believe that it is, they will sue you. Very few cases go to trial. Especially class action cases, which can easily kill a company. They have the power to put you out of business simply by making a claim. Therefore, you are likely to pay them to simply drop their claim, even if it’s bogus.
- Not big fans of their brethren on the other side of the class action bar, and with refreshing candor, the Chicago lawyers explain:
Plaintiffs’ class action attorneys are either inherently lazy or extremely efficient, depending on your perspective. For most of them, the goal is to maximize their fees by expending the least amount of effort. They are a creative breed of attorney, but after one comes up with a legal theory that pays off, others will tend to simply file copycat cases and “paint by numbers” to receive their reward.
- The same lawyer and plaintiff are behind many of the cases: Templeton, WhistlePig, Angel’s Envy, and Tin Cup. There is also a herd mentality.
If these cases are settled with any significant amount of attorneys’ fees recovered, many more cases will likely follow. Any spirits producer who uses ambiguous terms on its label or in its marketing will likely be a target. More plaintiffs’ attorneys will join the frenzy. Big settlements are like blood in the water – they will attract more sharks.
- The truth is not always a complete defense and it’s not only falsity that puts the blood in the water.
Knowing where you cross the line between [puffery and deception] is an art, not a science. That line is fuzzy. A claim does not need to be outright “false” to be actionable … [If] it tends to be misleading or deceptive, even if strictly true, a plaintiffs’ class action lawyer will likely seize upon it and file a lawsuit.
- Easy precautions are avoiding risky or ambiguous claims, being transparent, and having a knowledgeable person review your marketing materials. You can also trip up the herd by changing your labels periodically — making it much harder for the herd to declare that all in the nationwide class suffered on account of the same labels and claims.
- Another strategy is to block the plaintiffs’ effort to certify a class.
If a plaintiff is suing for disgorgement of the proceeds of the allegedly deceptive marketing, which the plaintiff argues is $5 per bottle, and you have sold 1,000,000 bottles of your product, the exposure is $5 million if a class is certified that consists of everyone who purchased those 1,000,000 bottles. But if the court decides that the case is not appropriate for class certification, the plaintiff’s damages are $5. The case is a serious threat if a class is certified, and no threat at all if one is not certified. So even if you were to lose the case on its merits, if no class is certified you still “win.” [But, because of] the typically high potential exposure and the high cost to defend these cases, the plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t really need to win. All they have to do is survive that initial motion to dismiss and they will be in a position to use their leverage to negotiate a lucrative settlement. Essentially, you can’t win. If you get sued, you’ve already lost, unless you happen to have a very deep pocket. And even then, you still lose. … It is a dirty business.
I reached out to Simon and Tom to ask what is new during the past few weeks in these matters. They pointed out:
The Tito’s vodka plaintiffs are seeking to consolidate a handful of Tito cases as of a few days ago. Consolidating class actions makes a lot of sense. When multiple cases are filed in different places, the defendant has to fight the same battle numerous times. An argument that carries the day in one judge’s courtroom might not carry the day in another. Multiple cases also expose witnesses to multiple depositions. The plaintiff’s lawyer gets the advantage of reviewing the first transcript and using it to develop better or more clever questions in the next deposition. For these reasons and others, having all the cases brought together in a single courtroom is a sound defense strategy. It often also helps facilitate a settlement.
In other news, while the pace of the new class action filings has slowed, they continue to be filed. Breckenridge Distilling was sued in Chicago by one of the groups of lawyers that previously sued Templeton Rye. In addition, Anheuser-Busch has been sued in an interesting “hybrid” case that includes aspects of the numerous “Made in the USA” cases that have plagued other manufacturing industries for several years and the cases against the spirits industry that involve claims related to the sourcing of ingredients from places other than the place the product is “made.” Fully briefed motions to dismiss are pending in the majority of the cases against the spirits industry. The next six months should see a number of opinions that will give us a good idea of where these cases are headed. If judges generally accept the defendants’ arguments, we may see the wave of cases against the industry dissipate. If judges generally reject those theories, we expect to see more cases filed.
We will continue to watch all these cases closely because when it comes to alcohol beverages, “the herd’s” actions are as important as anything the federal government is doing. That is new and epochal.