Regulation Nation: A quick glance at the label approval process

WCBN-MR-1-REGULATION-NAT11by Kelly Gallagher
Which of these labels would likely be rejected by an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) officer:
A.) A whiskey bottle label depicting a huddle of soldiers raising the American flag
B.) A wine bottle label depicting a cartoon witch with rings around her head to indicate dizziness
C.) A beer logo bearing the name “Canned Cure”
D.) All of the above
And the answer is D…all of the above.
Each of the above examples runs a high risk of violating the regulations laid out by the TTB. Alcohol producers must follow these regulations in order to have their product labels pass through the Federal Certification of Label Approval (COLA) process. Having a label rejected could cause considerable hassle for the up-and-coming alcohol producer who is busy trying to establish themselves and their product.
In the case of example A, section 5.65 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations states, in part, that, “No advertisement shall contain any statement, design, device, or pictorial representation of or relating to, or capable of being construed as relating to, the armed forces of the United States, or of the American flag, or of any emblem, seal, insignia, or decoration associated with such flag or armed forces.”
The other two imaginary alcohol labels would likely be rejected for violating regulations stating that labels should not contain, “statements and claims that imply that a physical or psychological sensation results from consuming the wine” (such as implicit dizziness) or “statements of a curative or therapeutic nature that, expressly or by implication, suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, malt beverages, or any substance found within the malt beverage, and health benefits or effects on health”. In this case, the use of the word “cure”.
Rules pertaining to illustrations and brand names are only two of the many things that alcohol producers must consider in order to have their label approved by the TTB. John Reyes, owner of Halfmoon Cellars Winery in Saratoga Springs, NY says his business frequently contends with a rule pertaining to American Viticultural designations on his wine labels.
“We get our grapes from California and make the wine in New York. This requires us to put the designation ‘Appellation American’ on any bottle that has a grape varietal designation,” says Reyes. “If we made the wine in any state bordering California it would be labeled as ‘California’ and we can’t put New York on the bottle as the grapes don’t come from New York. There are also percentage requirements to qualify for varietal labeling.”
There are also rules in place to cover things such as font size, net content, alcoholic content, potentially misleading words and phrases, and much more.  Established distillers, vintners and brewers may find the process to be “old hat” after they have been through it several times, but for the newcomer, the label approval process can quickly become overwhelming. But while there is a lot of information to sift through, it needn’t be a headache. Here are some tips to help you plan your label.
• Call your lawyer. There is no shame in asking someone who is familiar with reading legal documents to make sense of the regulations pertaining to your label so you can concentrate your efforts on making beverages. “We currently use three different lawyers in regards to [many aspects of] this business, and we’re a very small winery,” Reyes reveals.
• Learn from others. Once you have a general idea of your label design, pay attention to the labels you see in stores that have a similar theme or look to what you have in mind. How do those producers balance the display of mandatory information with the label design? If you have a specific vision in mind (such as a brew with a patriotic flair) try to study how other brands convey a similar message while still keeping in line with the regulations.
• Learn the legal lingo. The TTB regulations for wine, liquor and malt beverage labels are accessible online. The sheer length of the documents may be unappealing, especially when you’re busy with other aspects of your business, but it may bring peace of mind to familiarize yourself with the rules. This knowledge may even enhance your overall design-after all, sometimes limitations serve to enhance creativity. If sifting through a sea of text seems daunting, take it in chunks. Mentally eliminate rules that that don’t apply to your product and create a game plan to acquire all of the mandatory label information so it can be worked into the label design.
• Communicate. The TTB website contains vital information on the COLAs application process, as well as a FAQ page and contact information. The web URL is: www.ttb.gov/labeling/colas.shtml .
Pre-COLA Evaluation
Some products require a pre-COLA product evaluation so the TTB can determine whether or not the proposed label will accurately represent the product and not mislead customers. This evaluation includes a review of the product’s ingredients and formulation, and may include laboratory analysis. The TTB maintains an active list, divided by type (distilled spirits, wine and malt beverages), which can be accessed at the following URL: www.ttb.gov/formulation/pre_cola.shtml .
The addition of flavoring or coloring is among the top reasons for a product to require pre-COLA evaluation.
Submission and Approval Times
Alcohol producers are encouraged to use TTB’s online system, COLAs Online, to submit their labels for approval. By doing this, one can check their submission’s approval status around the clock, simply by logging into the system. The average approval times are 14 days for wine labels, 28 days for distilled spirits labels and 33 days for malt beverage labels. Regulations allow the TTB to take up to 90 days to process a label application.
Making Changes to Your Label After Approval
The addition, deletion, alteration, or reposition of certain information may be performed after your label has been approved without requiring you to obtain a new COLA. The complete list of allowable revisions to approved labels can be found here: www.ttb.gov/labeling/allowable_revisions.shtml#completeList .

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