Alcopops, the ABCs. Labels to be redone

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Alcopops. From the Bellini to the Bacardi Breezer and the Smirnoff Ice, to name the best known, the rise and fall of a market segment that still has widespread label irregularities. ABC to follow.

A) Alcopop. A variable geometry segment

The term ‘alcopop,’ from the crasis of ‘alcohol’ and ‘soda pop,’ was introduced by some consumer groups, such as The Center for Science in The Public Interest (CSPI) and Alcohol Concern (USA). Who first fought in the early 2000s for these beverages to be subjected to strict sales and marketing restrictions. The category lends itself to a fair variety of flavored alcoholic beverages(FABs). In particular:

Flavored drinks with added distilled alcohol or spirits such as rum, vodka, tequila (e.g. Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff Ice, etc.),

ready-to-drink cocktails, even from wine(ready-to-drink beverage, RTD). Starting with the historic Campari Soda, to the Spritz, whose planetary boom in bar and home preparation accompanied the success of prosecco,

Malt and/or beer-based beverages(malt alcoholic beverages), with added water, sugar and flavorings. Such as the Radler or panaché, a mix of beer and gazzosa or lemonade, and various others that have never landed in Italy.

Production is similar to that of soft drinks, being water-based mixtures with added sugar, flavorings, carbon dioxide, food additives and fruit juice as appropriate. To which is added the ethyl matrix, which brings a variable alcohol content to the beverages, usually not exceeding 10 percent by volume.

The history of some products-such as Radler and Campari Soda-is centuries old, or nearly so. But the global market launch of the most popular alcopops dates back to the 1990s and peaked in the early 2000s. With the launch of Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff Ice and Hooper’s Hooch. Sales volumes doubled, year on year, until gradually declining.

B) Sales battles and restrictions

The landing on the mass market of sweet and carbonated beverages with ‘moderate’ alcohol addition (in comparison with spirits used as ingredients) immediately drew fierce criticism from consumer groups. Which have railed-with the probable support, behind the scenes, of the brewing industry (equally focused, but excluded from the phenomenon, until the launch of Radlers)-against products aimed primarily at teenagers.

In fact, the relatively low alcohol content, combined with the bubbles and smooth taste, is certainly worth introducing younger people to alcohol consumption. With the double aggravation of appealing to the familiar flavors of soft drinks and marketing policies undoubtedly aimed at the youth target audience. So-called entry-level drinkers, particularly adolescent girls, even minors below the ‘legal’ drinking age, have indeed contributed significantly to theexploit of pre-mix bottled drinks.

We think the creation of alcopops was a rather cynical attempt to recruit young drinkers who do not naturally like the taste of alcohol by tempting them with flavors that are more likely to be found in soft drinks. Marketing and branding these drinks in a style that appealed to young people was the key to success.’ (Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern, UK. See Note 1).

Reactions were not lacking. Several large-scale retail chains-such as Coop Food and Iceland in England, which have always been attentive to social issues (including on palm oil, Iceland for example)-ok an immediate stance, withdrawing such drinks from the shelves. And many governments (e.g., UK, Denmark, Germany, Canada, Australia) have introduced deterrent tax measures, with excise tax increases of up to 70 percent in Oceania.

Large manufacturers have been running for cover. In 1996, at the dawn of the reputational crisis at a time of double-digit growth, they introduced the first international code of good marketing practices. By the Portman Group, funded precisely by the alcoholic beverage industry. But the commercial life cycle of pre-mixes, a few years thereafter, nonetheless took a downward parabola.

Indeed, in retrospect, it has been observed that perhaps the concerns of the 1990s, although legitimate and shareable, were disproportionate to the actual data on alcohol consumption by the young and very young. Because the alcohol danger is real and current-even in Italy, as noted -but it seems rather to be attributed to other product categories.

Paradoxically, even young people devoted to the mad practice of binge-drinking tend to favor stronger and cheaper alcohol, relative to the amount of alcohol. Those who aspire to get drunk, in short, buy a bottle of cheap vodka instead of a case of lemonade with one-tenth the alcohol content.

However, sales have dropped dramatically over the past 15 years, even at home. (2)

C) Label communication

The labels of alcopops for sale on the Italian market often have serious nonconformities. Also on famous-brand bottles. Thus, the inattention of the mammoth legal departments of the beverage giants is surprising. But even more so, by statistical evidence, that of the hundreds (ICQRF) and thousands (Ministry of Health, ASLs) of public officials deputized to monitor the application of the ‘Food Information Regulation‘ (FIR) and ‘Nutrition & Health Regulation‘ (NHC). (3)

The name of the food, it is worth remembering, is the first compulsory information to be stated on the label. Applying rules that have remained virtually unchanged for over 40 years (!)

The sales name of a foodstuff is the name provided for in the laws, regulations or administrative provisions applicable to it or, failing that, the name consecrated by use in the Member State in which the foodstuff is sold to the final consumer, or a description of it and, if necessary, of its use, sufficiently precise to enable the purchaser to know its true nature and to distinguish it from products with which it might be confused‘ (Directive 1979/112/EEC, Article 5. See footnote 4).

Alcopops lack both a legal and a customary name in Europe. Unlike other countries, where such drinks are customarily designated by various names (Coolers in Canada, Spirit Coolers in South Africa, Wine Coolers in other markets). Therefore, it is necessary to designate such products by using a descriptive name, such as ‘alcoholic beverage’. Possibly followed by a reference to a characteristic ingredient, in which case also reporting its quantity (according to the QUID, Quantitative Ingredient Declaration, rule).

In contrast, the designationlow-alcohol drink‘-as similar others found on labels and advertisements of various bottles of alcopops-is completely outlawed. Integrating a double violation, both of the general regulations (FIR) and the Nutrition & Health Claims regulation. In fact, such a statement does not comply with the established criteria for designating food products and at the same time qualifies as an impermissible claim. In violation of rules that are almost 13 years old (!).

Beverages containing more than 1.2 percent by volume of alcohol may not bear health claims.

As for nutrition claims, only those concerning a low alcohol content or reduction in alcohol content or reduction in energy content in beverages with an alcohol volume greater than 1.2 percent are allowed.

In the absence of specific EU rules on nutrition claims regarding low alcohol content or the reduction or absence of alcohol or energy content in beverages that normally contain alcohol, relevant national rules may be applied under the provisions of the treaty.’ (EC Reg. 1924/06, Article 4(3) and (4))

Transparent labels, legality, when?

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) Finlo Rohrer & Tom de Castella. The quiet death of the alcopop. BBC News Magazine, 7/31/13, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23502892

(2) Claudio Troiani. Ready to drink, a category that has remained a niche. Bottling, 3/26/14 http://www.imbottigliamento.it/2014/03/26/ready-to-drink-una-categoria-rimasta-una-nicchia/

(3) See reg. EU 1169/11, Food Information Regulation, and related penalties in Leg. 231/17; reg. EC 1924/06 as amended, Nutrition & Health Claims, with penalties in Leg. 27/17. See also the free ebook ‘1169 Penalties. Reg. EU 1169/11, food news, controls and penalties‘, at https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/libri/1169-pene-e-book-gratuito-su-delitti-e-sanzioni-nel-food

(4) Directive 1979/112/EEC of 18.12.78, ‘on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer,’ was repealed by the subsequent dir. 2000/13/EC. Which in turn was later repealed by reg. EU 1169/11. Moreover, the food name provisions of Article 5 of Directive 1979/112/EEC have remained unchanged over 4 decades, until they were transposed into the current Article 17 of Reg. EU 1169/11

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.