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Your New Friend, ARTAL

In early July TTB announced a massive and important change to the COLA system. TTB greatly expanded the “Allowable Revisions to Approved Labels” (hereinafter “ARTAL,” as on page 3 of the new 4-page COLA form).

TTB began laying the groundwork for big “streamlining” changes in early 2012, as summarized here. Although some of the ideas seemed very modest as of then, the streamlining train clearly picked up momentum in the next few months. It seems entirely possible that some of the new changes could or should cut a very large percentage of the more than 10,000 labels submitted to TTB every month. Compared to a few years ago, it is quite amazing that the lighthouse label on the left (above) could change to something as different-looking as the striped label on the right — without any need for a new COLA.

The TTB ID number on this label, for example, shows that TTB received at least 671 label applications on just one day in April 2012 — to say nothing about the labels submitted via paper. That should not happen anymore. Instead, applicants should get familiar with ARTAL. It can eliminate lots of waiting, expense, frustration, inconsistent determinations, TTB work and applicant work.

In my view, the biggest changes to ARTAL are these. Now, it’s ok to:

  1. move things, as at 2.
  2. change typesizes and fonts, as at 3.
  3. change colors and spelling, as at 3.
  4. shift amongst paper v. painted v. etched, as at 3.
  5. make one COLA cover all sizes, as at 10. (Previously, the table said “separate applications must be submitted for containers of 237 ml or less, containers over 237 ml to 3 liters, and containers over 3 liters.”)
  6. add/delete/change awards and medals, as at 27.

ARTAL is much more powerful now. Like other powerful things, such as a chainsaw, it can do great things when used carefully — and make big problems when used improperly.

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Label Flexibility

TTB has been working on a new COLA form, with new and more flexible rules about what may change without seeking a new label approval. TTB announced this in the January 13, 2012 Newsletter and the Federal Register two weeks prior.

The new rules, if/when implemented, could allow a huge variety of big and small changes — without the need to submit, wait, haggle.

Here is the draft form. For example, the new rules (at page 3) would allow you to:

  1. Move mandatory around. This is at category 2. This would allow you to move VODKA from the bottom of the front label to the top of the front label, for example. It would not allow you to move VODKA from the front to the back. (The draft form does not seem to make it clear, about whether it’s also okay to reposition non-mandatory. It would be very strange if okay to move the important stuff but not the less important stuff.)
  2. Change colors. This is at category 3.
  3. Add/delete/change a QR code. This is at category 22.
  4. Add/delete/change social media icons. This is at category 25.
  5. Add/delete/change information about awards. This is at category 26. It remains a bad idea to announce  “Award for most antioxidants in a Cabernet.”
  6. Add/delete/change holiday/seasonal graphics/salutations. This is at category 27.
  7. Cover all sizes with one approval. This is at category 9. This could avoid the need for three separate COLAs — above 3 liters, below 237 ml., and in the middle (as on the current form at category 4).

All of this is in addition to the many other changes that have been allowed for years. For the sake of comparison, the 2011 form is here. Some of these are big changes and should help a lot. TTB’s comment period ended on February 27, 2012, but if you missed the boat or have an opinion, please set it forth below.

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The Five Year Rule

Be careful about the five year rule as above and here. The rule says TTB formulas expire five years after approval. Not all formulas. Just the ones for imported products such as vodka, sake, and liqueur for example. This is in substantial contrast with TTB label approvals, permits, and domestic formulas. Generally speaking, they don’t expire unless the applicant changes something.

In our experience, TTB tends to explain the expiration date on the relevant formula approvals, but not in the regulations or widely elsewhere. An example is here. It can come as an unpleasant surprise, if you are seeking a new label approval more than five years after issuance of the formula approval, as in the case above. In the time period about 5-8 years ago, TTB would frequently allow a use-up in some cases where the formulas was expired. But, as suggested above, use-ups are much harder to get, in more recent years.

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Streamlining at TTB

In recent months TTB has been busy tinkering with the label approval process. TTB announced the culmination of its streamlining efforts here. This is important for all regulated entities because, despite all these streamlining initiatives (plus the advent of computers and online filing), the average processing time for spirits has moved from a few hours to well over a month, during the past 20 years. Most spirits labels are currently taking well over 30 days, and TTB often says you should allow up to about 90 days. Since last summer, things seem a lot better with wine labels (moving from over a month to about half that). Beer has stayed relatively and consistently quick during the past several years, with an average turnaround of about a week.

In the late 1990s, if I recall correctly, it was possible to receive a label by fax, Scotch tape it to a form, Xerox it, walk it across the street to ATF, not go through a metal detector, wander around the government building until you found the label reviewer, wait your turn — and voila — walk out 45 minutes later with approval in hand. It was even possible to sit face-to-face with the reviewer and revise the application on the fly (with other quaint relics like a pen and Wite-Out). Well, clearly a lot has changed.

TTB is clearly enamored of the term “streamlining” and seems to believe a thorough application of this word is an important step toward making things better. The term is used at least 10 times in the press release touting the various streamlining accomplishments. Many of the accomplishments seem rather modest (compared to, for example, showing that the average processing time is going down). It looks like somebody got carried away in brainstorming the list of accomplishments. One such accomplishment was:  “created a new email address” about streamlining. Another example is cutting out informal label reviews. This may be a sensible or necessary step, but it’s not clear why cutting out services should be presented as a significant accomplishment.

Despite some of the overheated verbiage in the announcement, there are several serious and important points that seem worthy of emphasis.

  1. TTB received over 146,000 labels last year, and the numbers continue to grow every year. I suspect a large number of the applications are in bad shape, and that many of the labels raise difficult issues. It would be hard to be consistent and fast with so many labels, especially since so many of the necessary judgments are inherently subjective.
  2. TTB explained why they don’t accept pdf labels. Because pdfs “will not display as part of the printable version of the approved COLA, which utilizes HTML formatting.”
  3. Formulas Online makes it easier to attach a formula approval. This is true.
  4. More time to make corrections. Under the current system, if you wait five weeks for review of your imported liqueur label, and then you are told the formula approval is too old, you would only have 15 days to fix it — or go to the back of the line. With this change, expected in a few months, you would actually have ample time to get a new formula approval and attach it without losing your place near the front of the line.
  5. Updating the form and instructions to allow more changes without extra applications.

Among all these changes, one of the most important is not set forth in TTB’s streamlining announcement. After an unusually long period of the same people staying in the same jobs, there is much rotation. The person newly in charge of spirits labeling (the slowest category for many years) seems to take streamlining very seriously to the point where I could see her fitting right in at FedEx or Amazon.com. Perhaps things really will improve soon.

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TTB Down

At the moment, I am not having a pleasant or a magnificent week (despite the above exhortation). I can’t get any work done. Because all or almost all of TTB’s various online systems have been altogether unavailable for the past several days.

TTB provided plenty of advance notice, such as the above, explaining that all such systems will be down for maintenance during all or part of five consecutive days, from November 10th to November 14th. But still, this is an awfully long time for a critical system to be unavailable. I can not even imagine Amazon, Facebook, craigslist, or Gmail going down for a few hours, let alone a few days — without a firestorm. Is TTB’s system really a whole lot less crucial to the affected industries? Should the maintenance really take so long or happen so often? Can’t the government find a way to do maintenance in the background, without blocking thousands of regular users?

On a happier note, the systems do not seem to go down unexpectedly, or crash, very often at all, in our experience. This may be due in large part to careful and robust maintenance. But the scheduled maintenance occurs fairly often and for large blocks of time. I think it was just a few weeks ago that the system was down during the course of another multi-day period. Likewise, on a positive note, the systems are very good and provide a huge benefit, when they are up and running.

COLAs Online is down. I can’t search or look at COLAs. I can’t upload applications. I can’t receive approvals. I can’t see or respond to Needs Correction notices, in order to get approval or avoid a timeout. Dozens of urgent labels and scores of other labels need to sit idly, day after day, rather than begin their long march to approval.

Formulas Online is down. Permits Online is down. The Public COLA Registry is down (as touched upon above). These sites are not mere conveniences, luxuries or frivolities at this point. They are indispensable; federal law more or less requires thousands of alcohol beverage companies to use these systems massively and continuously. There is no realistic option to switch back to paper in the interim.

In related news about TTB Online, it is regrettable that, several weeks ago, TTB removed the ability to search permits and brewer’s notices from within the Public COLA Registry. There was a button to allow a search of, for example, all DSPs in Idaho — but the lookup is disappeared. This feature was enormously useful, and a set of old data (via the electronic reading room or FOIA) is not a good alternative. In recent weeks, many people have said TTB should fix any issues as may be necessary, but restore this functionality as soon as possible.

We encourage all readers to write in with their views. Perhaps Robert is just being a baby and should step away from the computer and go enjoy a long walk in the woods. Perhaps we should celebrate the 355-odd updays per year rather than curse the downtime. Or, perhaps the inconvenience is even more detrimental than what is described here.

Since all of the above issues have conspired to block me from doing any meaningful work, or seeking approval on the various beer labels stacking up in my inbox, I suppose I will go drink one beer, rather than seeking approval on another.

November 14, 2011, 9:15 am ET Update:  The systems seem to be back up and running, as promised. Good! Sadly, this is still missing.

November 16, 2011, 9 pm ET Update:  The system will go down again, over the coming weekend, as explained here. But at least it’s for a good reason, again with plenty of notice. Last weekend’s maintenance involved moving the servers to a lower cost environment, and next weekend’s maintenance will add flavor approvals alongside beverage formula approvals.

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