You most likely hard that the USDA released the quinquennial Dietary Guidelines for Americans at the end of last month. The 2010 version made a number of small, but significant changes with regard to food, such as “make half your plate fruits and vegetables” and “drink water instead of sugary drinks.”
In Chapter 3, they also made one small change to how they define an “alcoholic drink.”
Harry Schuhmacher commented on the guidelines in today’s Beer Business Daily newsletter. With Harry’s permission, below I’ve reprinted his thoughts on the Dietary Guidelines and specifically the changes to the alcohol portion of them:
Earlier this week the USDA issued its 2010 Dietary Guidelines as it does every 5 years. It states: “One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80 proof (40% alcohol) distilled spirits. One drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.”
Now, you’d think this maybe isn’t a big deal. Well, you’d be wrong on that. It is.
Here’s why: The previous USDA Dietary Guidelines five years ago had very similar language, although it was fought tooth and nail by the beer and wine lobbies. However, this time the feds added the crucial last sentence: “One drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.” [Emphasis added.]
This further puts the Feds on record as saying, basically, a drink is a drink is a drink, even though we all know in reality that’s not the case. You can be sure that Diageo and DISCUS — the spirits lobby — worked with a laser focus to get this sentence added. It’s the next step toward alcohol equivalency (for excise tax, labeling, and consumer access issues), even though Diageo and DISCUS have previously said this is not what they’re after.
LABELING: First let’s consider labeling. As we know, the federal TTB is considering (since 2003) allowing alcohol producers to include voluntarily display serving facts (which includes standard alcohol content for servings) on labels. This is an issue that large distillers support, but brewers and wineries typically oppose because some believe the push for serving facts is a stalking horse for equivalency.
INDUSTRY SPLIT ON STANDARD DRINK: The Wine Institute and DISCUS are on the same side of most issues, such as opposing the CARE Act, but standard drink isn’t one of them.
DISCUS followed the release of the Guidelines with a statement. “The Government today emphasized the scientific fact that a standard drink of beer, wine and distilled spirits each contains the same amount of alcohol,” said Dr. Monica Gourovitch, Distilled Spirits Council’s svp of scientific affairs. “Alcohol is alcohol and it all should be treated equally, as a matter of public health and public policy.”
Monica told our sister publication, WSD, that the updated definition is “very clear” and shows that “each standard drink contains the same amount of alcohol.” When looking at the science involved, each serving has the “same effect on the body — potential benefits and potential risks.” She also noted that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) already defines a standard alcoholic drink as anything containing 0.6 fluid ounces.
Wait ….. 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol? Not 0.5 fluid ounces? There are plenty of public health folks who defined drinks as having 0.5 fluid ounces of alcohol as a standard drink. Who, I wonder, lobbied the USDA to add that extra 0.1 fluid ounce to the definition?
The Wine Institute, for one, is livid. For once they are on the other side of DISCUS on an issue. The WI issued a statement on Tuesday, saying there is no such thing as a standard drink: “We agree with the time-tested definition of a serving as being 12 fl. oz. of regular beer, 5 fl. oz. of wine, or 1.5 fl. oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits but are concerned about the additional statement that each of the drinks contains the same amount of alcohol. A precise fluid-ounces-of-alcohol statement implies that the alcohol content is the same for every drink of wine, beer or distilled spirits when, in reality, alcohol content varies widely from drink to drink. Consumers should not be misled into believing there is such a thing as a ‘standard drink.’ In fact, the term ‘standard drink’ does not appear in the Dietary Guidelines.” This is true. But it doesn’t dull the fact that a federal agency has swallowed the equivalency argument hook, line and sinker while the rest of the industry sleeps.
The Beer Institute and the NBWA have remained mute on this issue, so far. But clearly it is important: As one alcohol politico told me: “Once the language is in a federal government guideline, it’s in the bloodstream.” What he meant by that is that, since the USDA has defined a drink as 0.6 ounces of alcohol, it gives the TTB cover to move forward with their “serving facts” labeling, and maybe it gives the states the argument to increase taxes on beer and wine and offer it at more times and in more channels, and maybe it gives the feds something to point to when considering an excise tax increase. It’s a slippery slope, my friends, toward equalization of taxes and access among the beverages, which works against beer and wine and is probably just bad public policy. In fact, if alcohol excise taxes were suddenly equivalent, it would virtually kill the wine and beer industries, and we’d be a nation of vodka swillers like Russia, wiping away 200+ years of cultural and policy differences between the beverages. It was Thomas Jefferson who logically first put forward the notion that moderation should be nurtured by the government by encouraging the consumption of beer and wine over spirits.
As usual, a distributor put it most succinctly: “So a Four Loko is the same as Jack Daniels is same as Coors Light is same as Mad Dog 20/20 is same as a hot 17% abv California cab is the same as an 11% abv Italian white? Really?”
It brings to mind the old story where August Busch III went to Capitol Hill and demonstrated to a Congressman considering equivalency that a drink is not a drink. He reportedly said, “I’ll drink these three Budweisers, and you drink these three dry martinis, and at the end we’ll see who is more intoxicated.” It’s a shame our beer industry leaders don’t pull more stunts like that.
Ethanol is ethanol, to be sure. But different types of bev-alc are consumed by the majority of Americans in different ways. Ethanol is ethanol, but a drink is not a drink.