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Medicinal Claims for Wine Are Recorked : Marketing: Beringer backs down in face of public and government outcry. It wanted to put a tag on bottles touting potential health benefits.

November 11, 1992|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the face of mounting public and governmental opposition, Beringer Winery said it has "voluntarily suspended" plans for wine bottle tags that tell of potential benefits of drinking red wine. The decision comes as a disappointment to other winemakers, who had hoped to follow Beringer's lead in taking good news about their product to consumers.

Beringer said it is still hopeful that it will be allowed to convey claims that moderate wine drinking reduces risk of heart disease, and is awaiting the outcome of discussions between several federal regulatory agencies.

But on Tuesday, it appeared doubtful that Beringer would be able to print and distribute its wine "neck-hanger" tags. Even though the tags were approved in mid-October by the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a television network may have the ultimate power to reject the tags.

An attorney for CBS News, producer of a "60 Minutes" episode that is quoted on the Beringer tags, said on Tuesday that it was unlikely that the network would grant Beringer permission to use the excerpts.

In the meantime, critics of the bureau's decision, both within the federal bureaucracy and among activist groups, were raising strong concerns about whether ATF had the authority to grant such approval. The bureau has primary regulatory control over alcohol labeling, but the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission regulate food labeling and advertising.

The October decision was an abrupt turnaround from longtime bureau policies, and it comes at a time when the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are struggling to implement a law requiring uniform food labeling and nutritional information. Even as food makers were facing clampdowns on their use of terms such as "healthy" and "light," the ATF decision gave the wine industry hope that it would be able to counter years of increasing regulations and negative publicity about drinking with some positive information.

Although there have been many studies of the potential health benefits of wine and other alcoholic beverages, wine makers and sellers were particularly buoyed by the "60 Minutes" report, called "The French Paradox." The program, which aired exactly one year ago, discussed possible reasons--including moderate consumption of red wine--why the French, despite their rich diet, have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans.

The bureau has repeatedly rejected other attempts by wineries to discuss the TV program in newsletters and promotional materials. Beringer's tag, which directly quoted the program, was the first use of the claims in sales materials to be approved by ATF.

When the bureau's decision was made public in late October, the controversy over the wine industry's use of the TV program, after simmering for a year, boiled over.

In Northern California, a woman filed suit seeking to block use of the tags.

Alcohol industry critics, who fear that health claims may mislead consumers into dismissing the potential hazards of drinking alcohol, immediately began a campaign to have the decision overturned. They have also called for new regulations to tightly restrict the ability of alcoholic beverage makers to make health claims.

Other federal agencies, including the FDA, the FTC and the surgeon general's office, expressed concern to ATF over its decision. In a speech Nov. 4, Surgeon General Antonia Coello Novello said she was "gravely concerned" about the intended use of the tags.

One government source said that Beringer's parent company, the U.S. arm of Swiss-based Nestle, was nervous that Beringer's high profile in the controversy might harm its image. Nestle officials declined comment on Tuesday.

Beringer officials met with representatives of the federal agencies last week, a company spokeswoman said.

The company's statement on the new developments said: "Beringer is anxious to cooperate with all the agencies involved and will work with them to achieve a unified directive regarding the neck hanger."

But critics on Tuesday were declaring a partial victory. "We feel these agencies will now get together to develop meaningful regulations on (alcohol) labeling that will put the same burden of responsibility on alcohol manufacturers, at least, that are on food manufacturers," said Christine Lubinski, director for public policy of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"The foods labeling act puts a high burden of proof on food manufacturers before they can assert a health claim--and many of these foods have far fewer health and safety risks than alcohol does."

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