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Proposal May Shed Light on 'Lite' Alcoholic Beverage Labels

September 11, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

A federal agency is proposing a sweeping revision of alcoholic beverage labeling by establishing criteria for those wines, beers and spirits claiming to be light or lite.

Under the pending regulations, manufacturers marketing such products would be required to provide the number of calories per serving and offer a nutritional analysis of components such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins, which may be present.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is also reviewing the use of the words light and lite in beer advertisements and intends to establish a maximum calorie level above which no beverage could claim this designation.

Similar standards will also be established for the more limited, but emerging, number of wines and distilled spirits in this category.

An agency spokeswoman stated that a review of the marketing and labeling of so-called reduced-calorie alcoholic beverages was needed because there are so many different interpretations of exactly what a light beverage might be.

"Light has come to mean a lot of different things and that is why we are going through with this," said Dot Koester, a bureau representative. "In the consumers' mind, light means fewer calories, but the word is also used (by manufacturers) to indicate lighter taster or lighter color. We want to get the labeling to the point where the word light only means fewer calories."

Currently, some beers marketed as light contain almost as many calories as regular beers.

The agency is anticipating a large number of formal comments on its proposal, particularly from the alcohol industry, because of the precedent-setting regulations being sought, Koester said.

The bureau's action was prompted in part by a consumer group that petitioned to have all beer, wine and spirit labels provide caloric information.

Defining Fat's Limits--The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has been scrutinizing the use and misuse of the words light and low fat. After reviewing meat products with lean allusions on the label, the agency has announced standards to which the food industry must conform by March, 1987.

Before the agency's recent intervention, the words lite, lean and extra lean had been used interchangeably on meat and poultry labels, thus creating confusion among calorie- or cholesterol-conscious consumers. These same terms were used to describe two entirely different categories: items with 25% reduced fat content as well as those processed meat products containing only 10% fat.

Under the new requirements distinctions become clearer.

For instance, the words lean and low fat can only be used on products that contain less than 10% total fat. The amount of fat per serving must also be stated on the labels for meats in this category.

Additionally, producers will be able to market their reduced-calorie delicatessen items, frankfurters or breakfast meats as light, lite, leaner or lower fat only if the product offers 25% less fat than traditional items--many of which contain as much as 33% fat.

Use of any of these terms must be accompanied by an appropriate comparison. For instance, the agency proposes that an item labeled as "leaner ground beef" must also carry a phrase that states, "This product contains 20% fat, which is 33% less fat than is in most ground beef."

The same guidelines will also apply to frozen dinners or entrees, according to the proposal.

Slimming Down Beef--Yet another group concerned about the perception of calories is the American Meat Institute in Washington. The organization recently announced a program it hopes will make more lean beef available for consumers.

The industry has had its share of problems in the past few years as dietary preferences have evolved toward poultry and seafood and away from red meats. Part of this change is attributed to concerns about the amount of fat and cholesterol in beef--an image that the meat industry is addressing, in part, with its recently announced program.

The primary objective of the institute is to join other groups in requesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture rename what is now known as the USDA Good grade of beef. Meat that carries this grade contains a minimal amount of marbling or flecks of fat. In fact, much of what is sold today at supermarket meat counters is actually USDA Good but is labeled with other, more appealing, names developed by the food chains. One proposal being considered would be to rename this grade USDA Lean.

(The grading system is an optional program conducted by the federal government to differentiate meat according to tenderness. It is separate from the USDA's mandatory inspection service, which monitors for food safety and sanitation.)

Although USDA Good meat is leaner than the higher-priced categories of USDA Prime and USDA Choice grades, it is also tougher. Nevertheless, the institute believes this change would help improve beef's overall image.

The plan also calls for eliminating or reducing the amount of visible fat in the various cuts of beef that reach meat cases. The institute is encouraging retailers to offer beef with only a quarter-inch trim of fat, a program that has recently been adopted by a number of Southland supermarket chains.

Possibly the most far-reaching proposal sought by the American Meat Institute is for producers to adopt cattle feeding procedures that would result in slimmer steers. This would require considerably less time for meat producing animals in feed-lots where they are fattened before slaughter. The suggestion would also decrease ranchers' feed costs.

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