Labels on commercial food products in the U.S. now have to state in plain language whether potential allergens like dairy, egg, or wheat are contained in the ingredients. This is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Beer, wine, and liquor don't have to reveal their ingredients at all. Or much of anything else about them. For most of us most of the time, this is no big deal. Who thinks about alcoholic beverages containing dairy?
But they do. Milk stouts are made from lactose, as I wrote about in Lactose in Beer. And cream liquors, like Bailey's Irish Cream, Prestige Rom Cream Liqueur Essence, Amarula Cream Liqueur, and Danny DeVito's favorite, Gioia Luisa Cream Lemoncello, to name a few, all contain real cream.
Dairy can also be hidden in the manufacture of products, although it may or may not remain in the final product.
The problem for those of us with lactose intolerance, or dairy allergies, or vegans, or those keeping kosher, is that the FDA has no jurisdiction over wine or beer labeling. Who does? The fairly obscure Tax and Trade Bureau of the Alcohol and Tobacco unit under the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
So obscure is this arm of the government that when on July 26, 2006, they proposed a rule to require the same kind of allergen notification on beer, wine, and spirits, that few people outside the industry noticed.
The proposed rules aren't even all that easy to find from the www.ttb.gov site. However, I persevered and located a .pdf file here.
I've extracted from the bureaucratese the sections of most interest to those with dairy concerns:
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(d) If a major food allergen as defined in § 4.32a is used in the production of a wine, there shall be included on a label affixed to the container a statement as required by that section.
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3. Section 4.32a is revised to read as follows:
§ 4.32a Major food allergens.
(a) Definitions. For purposes of this section the following terms have the meanings indicated.
(1) Major food allergen. Major food allergen means any of the following:
(i) Milk, egg, fish (for example, bass, flounder, or cod), Crustacean shellfish (for example, crab, lobster, or shrimp), tree nuts (for example, almonds, pecans, or walnuts), wheat, peanuts, and soybeans; or
(ii) A food ingredient that contains protein derived from a food specified in paragraph (a)(1)(i) of this section,
(b) Labeling requirements. All major food allergens (defined in paragraph (a)(1) of this section) used in the production of a wine, including major food allergens used as fining or processing agents, must be declared on a label affixed to the container, except when subject to an approved petition for exemption described in § 4.32b. The major food allergens declaration must consist of the word ‘‘Contains’’ followed by a colon and the name of the food source source from which each major food allergen is derived (for example, ‘‘Contains: egg’’).
Similar rules are given for malt beverages [beer] and distilled spirits [liquor].
The comment period on the proposed rule has expired, but you can read the comments here.
The alcohol industry is against this, of course, because it provides yet another excuse for people to reject their products. A story by Nina M. Lentini from MediaPost's Marketing Daily sums up the opposition:
The San Francisco-based Wine Institute says ingredients such as egg whites, a milk protein called casein, and isinglass, a substance derived from fish guts, are often used to clarify the wine before bottling. These agents bond with yeast, bacteria and excess tannins, creating a larger molecule that sinks to the bottom of the barrel, leaving clear wine above. The agents are filtered out before bottling.
Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager at the Wine Institute, said wheat-based glues are sometimes used in sealing barrels. "Sometimes when they wash them out, wheat can get left behind." She also said there is "no definitive test" available to ascertain the presence of eggs, milk, wheat or fish in wine.
Russell Robbins, manager of the U.S. operations of Laffort Oenologie, a French wine supply company, told the Wine Institute that "there are no known instances of persons with fish allergies having any reaction to wine treated with isinglass, including winemakers that have known sensitivities to fish."
Some groups, like the Wine Institute, are asking the government to delay implementing the proposed rule until scientific testing improves. Others would like to see a global approach that is consistent.
Federal officials are looking to finalize a ruling by the end of the year.
For now, consumers should use the clues given in product names to stay away from dairy-containing alcoholic drinks. By next year, with any luck, a better system will be in place.
You can also write to your Representative or Senator and ask that they put pressure on the Tax and Trade Bureau so that this regulation doesn't get conveniently lost.