In July of 2006, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau of the U.S. Treasury posted a notice in the Federal Register regarding proposed rulemaking for mandatory allergen labeling of wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages. The final rule is scheduled to be released sometime this summer… we’ll see!

The proposed regulation closely follows the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and states that all major food allergens used in the production of wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverages, including food allergens used as fining or processing agents must be declared on the label.

Major food allergens are defined as 1) milk, egg, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans, or 2) an ingredient that contains protein from one of these foods. This is the same definition used in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.

Because alcohol containers generally do not include an ingredients list, allergens will be declared in a “Contains” statement. As with FALCPA, manufacturers may petition to have an ingredient exempted from allergen labeling.

One of the issues of concern to alcohol beverage manufacturers is how the TTB will handle distilled alcohol made from grain, namely wheat. As you all know, pure distilled alcohol (and products made from pure distilled alcohol, such as distilled vinegar) is gluten free regardless of whether it is made from wheat, barley, or rye.

In the Federal Register Notice of July 26, 2006, Notice of Proposed Rule Making, Solicitation of Comments, it is noted that the U.S. alcohol beverage industry trade associations urged the TTB to “follow the approach taken by the EU that excludes categories of products that are produced and/or processed in a similar manner, i.e. the exclusions from the allergen labeling requirement are linked to the specific methods of manufacture and/or uses identified in the documentation supporting the exclusions.”

One category of products excluded from allergen labeling in the European Union is distillates made from cereals containing gluten. In response to this request from the trade associations, the TTB stated that they were “not proposing a provisional exclusion for any ingredients or substances at this time.”

The European Food Safety Authority arrived at their decision to exempt cereals used in distilled alcohol from allergen labeling by reviewing reports pertaining to the protein content of various distilled alcohols. The EFSA concluded, “that proteins and peptides are not carried over into the distillate during a properly controlled distillation process, at least not in amounts higher than 1 mg/L for total proteins and 0.4 mg/kg for gluten.” Please note that 0.4 mg/kg is equivalent to 0.4 parts per million.

These findings are in keeping with the results of testing reported by MGP Ingredients, Inc. a producer of high purity beverage alcohol who uses corn, sorghum, and wheat starch as starting materials. According to comments submitted to the TTB, this company had several alcohol samples tested for wheat gluten at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. All samples tested below the limit of detection of 3 parts per million of gluten.

Some of you may wonder how it is that distilled alcohol made from wheat, barley, or rye doesn’t contain any gluten protein. The answer lies in the distillation process. The late J.A. Campbell described it this way in a letter to the editor published in the Journal of the Canadian Dietetic Association in 1988 (yes, the debate over whether distilled alcohol and distilled vinegar made from distilled alcohol is safe for persons with celiac disease to consume has been going on for a very long time!!): “Spirits now are distilled in column stills containing 20 or more perforated plates in each column. Steam rises through the columns stripping the alcohol from the fermented mash. Alcohol vaporizes at 78.5 degrees Celsius but gluten or gluten fragments are not vaporized and do not go through the still.”

It will be interesting to see how allergen labeling of distilled alcohol made from grain (e.g., wheat) is handled. When the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act took effect there was some concern about how manufacturers would handle distilled vinegar (as you know, distilled vinegar is made from distilled alcohol which can have wheat as a starting material). Food manufacturers seem to have dealt with this issue by realizing that distilled vinegar does not contain protein. In all my looking I have only come across one product that suggests a different view. This product includes “vinegar from wheat” in the ingredients list.

When the TTB finalizes their allergen labeling rule I will let you know.

Update February 2, 2011: The TTB has yet to finalize their allergen labeling rule.

Copyright © Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

Originally published June 2009. Updated February 2, 2011.

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Allergen labeling of alcoholic beverages