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Grapes, Milk, Fish Guts: Vintners may have to label allergens

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Whats in your wine?
Proposal to require labels to ID presence of allergens such as eggs, fish, milk, wheat used in winemaking alarms industry
By KEVIN MCCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Most folks know white wine goes well with fish.

Far fewer are aware that wine is often made with fish.

And milk.

And eggs.

Confused?

Thats exactly what the wine industry says will happen if the government requires wine labels to state when these and other potential allergens are used in the winemaking process.

""If people read, This wine contains milk, fish and eggs, they are not going to know what hit them,"" said Wendell Lee, legal counsel for the Wine Institute, the San Francisco-based trade group that opposes the new rules.

But thats exactly what the federal government, which is responsible for approving the labels on alcoholic beverages, is proposing.

It has drafted new rules that require wine labels to state if the wines are made with one of eight major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

Whats that got to do with the fermented grape juice?

Everything. Or nothing. It depends on whom you ask.

Winemakers often use fining agents to clarify wine before it is bottled. Byproducts of at least three of the eight allergens on the governments list are commonly used in making wine.

They include egg whites; a milk protein called casein and isinglass, a substance derived from the inner membrane of the air bladders of sturgeon.

Thats right - fish guts.

No wonder winemakers arent excited about printing this fact on their labels.

But their opposition goes beyond just being worried about grossing out consumers. Theyre worried people will be confused and misled by the warnings.

To say the wines ""contain"" those products is wrong because fining agents are filtered out before bottling, according to the Wine Institute and other opponents of the proposed rules.

Fining agents work by bonding with whatever particles the winemaker wants removed, such as yeast, bacteria and excess tannins. This creates a larger molecule that sinks to the bottom of the barrel or tank and leaves the wine above it clearer.

""Its kind of like sweeping the wine,"" said Bill Nelson, president of the wine lobby Wine America. ""Youre putting in something that holds onto those particles in suspension.""

Since the fining agents are filtered out after they do their job but before bottling, it would be misleading to tell consumers the wines ""contain"" those substances, Nelson said.

But the government is placing the burden of proof on the wine producers - and brewers and distillers - to demonstrate their products dont contain allergens, Lee said.

Thats proving to be a tall order.

While there are proven tests for peanuts, ""there are no such methods available for testing the presence of eggs, milk, wheat or fish in wine,"" according to the Wine Institutes written comments.

Wheat-based glues are sometimes used to seal wine barrels, raising the issue of whether the wine comes into contact with a wheat product, Lee said.

Anecdotally, the wine industry says there is no evidence these potential allergens make it into the final product. If they did, people would have been having bad reactions to wine for years.

""In 400 years theres not been a single documented case of someone getting a fish allergy (reaction) from wine,"" said Russell Robbins, manager of the Napa-based U.S. operations of French wine supply company Laffort Oenologie, which sells most of the common fining agents used in winemaking.

The Wine Institute made a similar argument in its comments.

""Fining agents such as eggs and milk have been used in wine production for millennia with few, if any, substantiated complaints from allergy sufferers,"" it claimed.

Without any evidence of a problem, many winemakers question why they should go through the expense and hassle of changing their labels. Wine America estimated it could cost wineries $2,000 to $5,000 per label to redesign their labels.

""I think its a solution in search of a problem,"" said Pete Downs, vice president of governmental affairs for Santa Rosas Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. ""I kind of feel like its Shakespearean in nature. Its much ado about nothing.""

Others disagree.

The latest debate about allergen labeling has been brewing since 2004, when a Harvard University scientist, Christine Rogers, petitioned the government to add an allergen warning to alcoholic beverages.

Rogers claimed she was allergic to eggs and had noticed her own allergic reactions when she drank wine.

Lawmakers saw sufficient reason to be concerned, as well.

When they passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act later in 2004, lawmakers cited studies that showed food allergies affect 2 percent to 5 percent of children, send 30,000 people to emergency rooms every year, and kill 150 people annually.

Ninety percent of food allergies are from the eight major groups cited in the law, lawmakers found.

Proponents of allergen warnings say the information is critical to helping them stay healthy.

Fremont resident Catharine Alvarez supports the new rules for wine because she knows just how hard it can be to protect her children from foods they are allergic to. Alvarezs 4-year-old son is allergic to eggs, while her 7-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts, she said.

While shes not worried about their drinking wine now, they will someday, and she uses beer and wine in cooking today, she said. She thinks wine companies and other producers have an obligation to be transparent about how wine is made and let consumers make up their own minds.

Those who dont care about allergens wont be scared off by a small warning on the back label, she predicted. And those who do care will appreciate the additional information and feel more confident in their purchases, she said.

""There are a lot of people I know who are willing to pay extra for products that they know to be safe,"" said Alvarez, one of 45 people, companies and trade groups who submitted comments to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as the TTB.

The deadline for comments, which was extended at the request of the wine industry, passed in December. Federal officials hope to publish a final rule by the end of 2007, TTB spokesman Art Resnick said.

Several groups are asking the TTB to hold off on implementing the proposed rule until the science of testing for allergens improves. Others urge patience and a global approach that allows consistency across all wine-producing nations.

""A scenario where the exact same product is being labeled as containing allergens in one country, but not another country, serves no interests,"" stated one letter signed by eight alcohol groups in the United States and Canada.

For an industry that touts the health benefits of its products, yet another health warning on wine concerns many producers.

Their labels already carry two prominent warnings.

The phrase ""this product contains sulfites"" has been required on most wine labels since 1986. The naturally occurring compound is added to wine to help it age, but some people are allergic to it and claim it gives them headaches.

In 1988, a surgeon generals warning was added to alcoholic beverages, citing the risk of birth defects, impairment of peoples ability to drive, and the catch-all ""and may cause health problems.""

Yet another warning worries some winemakers.

Fining agents, while used far less today than 15 years ago, are still an important part of the winemaking process, said Nick Goldschmidt, executive winemaker of Beam Wine Estates, which owns some of the best-known Sonoma County wine brands, including Geyser Peak, Clos du Bois and Buena Vista Carneros.

""We like to be able to have those tools available to us if we need them,"" Goldschmidt said.

If it comes down to a choice of using a fining agent that would trigger a warning or finding another technique, Goldschmidt said its too soon to say what he would do.

""I actually think its a healthy conversation for the industry to have,"" he said.

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