Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Labelling away diversity

There’s been a lot of talk this week about introducing compulsory “health” labelling on alcoholic drinks packages. There was an interesting report of SAB Miller ceasing to import one of their beer brands (it doesn’t say which) because they didn’t think it was practical to include the necessary labelling elements on the bottles. This underlines how such a scheme might have the unintended consequence of leading to a reduction in the variety of drinks available in the UK.

Mandatory labelling imposes an extra burden on small producers entering the market, and it is likely to deter people from importing low-volume specialist drinks, whether beers, wines or spirits, as they will have to either spend money redesigning the labels or put unsightly extra stickers on bottles or cans. And does it really matter in terms of the overall message that a handful of small-selling products don’t have the labels when the vast majority, including all the big brands, do? As an example, I have just opened a bottle of O’Hanlon’s Port Stout, a well-respected bottle-conditioned beer from a Devon micro-brewery. It doesn’t have any kind of health message at all.

You also have to wonder whether the European Union might regard a UK-only mandatory labelling scheme as a violation of the internal single market.

It doesn’t help that the contents of the labels are highly questionable anyway – the official unit guidelines, as I have pointed out on here before, were plucked out of thin air without any scientific justification, and neither is there any scientific evidence that drinking small quantities of alcohol will harm unborn babies. The recommendation that expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol entirely was adopted because it was clear and simple, not because it was true.

And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope. They will get bigger, they will have to appear on the front of bottles, they will have to appear on wine lists and menus, they will have to appear on adverts, they will have to be prominently displayed on all bars, they will have to include pictures of diseased livers. And so it goes on.


  1. Yes, I fear you may be correct in all of this. I hadn't thought of the possible impact on small producers.

  2. I looked through my cupboard - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Duvel, Leffe Blonde, BrewDog Punk IPA, Rekorderlig Swedish Cider - not a health warning on any of them. Realistically if it becomes compulsory we will end up with ugly stick-on labels, but in what way does that really improve health?

  3. "And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope."

    Yes, I agree, there's a long game being played here, using the strategy which led to the smoking ban.

    US bottled beers carry a Surgeon's General warning which importers must somehow incorporate. A sticker overlapping the original label is acceptable. On the other hand, they aren't required to include ABV.

  4. Currently in Tesco the following have abv & units & warning about boozing whilst pregnant clearly displayed : cooking lager & bitter! For those with abv & units : single unit bottles of premium ale!, for abv only : imported bottles of specialist beer!

  5. Perhaps we should have labelling rules for government policies. We could start by requiring the total cost and number of public-sector employees a policy requires; then we could make them bigger, and have them displayed on all government offices and advertisements. Finally we could require pictures of concentration camps to be added to them.


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