A guide to low and non-alcohol descriptors

By Poppleston Allen

- Last updated on GMT

Labelling issues: current regulations cause confusion
Labelling issues: current regulations cause confusion
Following the increasing popularity of low and no-alcohol drinks, the Government has responded to calls for the need to review the labelling of such drinks before the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 expire in December 2018

A consultation on low-alcohol descriptors has been launched with a view to ending the long-running confusion on labelling that is said to affect producers’ ability to label and sell low-alcohol products, and also causes confusion for consumers.

The current position of food labelling rules leaves many producers unclear as to what their responsibilities relating to labelling and descriptions are. At present the categories of indicators prescribed by the legislation are as follows:

  • Low alcohol – products between 0.5% and 1.2% ABV
  • De-alcoholised – products of 0.5% ABV or less where a process has been undertaken to remove the alcohol
  • Alcohol-free – products of 0.05% ABV or less
  • Non-alcoholic​ products with 0% ABV but this term may not be used for products that are usually alcoholic such as beer or wine

Currently, there is no definitive answer as to how a product with an ABV of 0.5% or less should be labelled if it has not gone through a ‘de-alcoholisation’ process. Club Soda, the ‘Mindful Drinking Movement’, confirmed in a letter to the Government that advances in brewing since regulations were introduced mean that it is less likely ‘alcohol is removed post-fermentation, such as using heat or reverse osmosis’ so some 0.5% ABV products have never contained alcohol. 

Further confusion is caused, as the definition of alcohol under section 191 of the Licensing Act 2003 is a product with an ABV of more than 0.5%. In Europe, drinks with an ABV of 0.5% or lower can be labelled as ‘alcohol-free’, which conflicts with the requirements within the UK. Many argue that unification of these descriptors will allow UK businesses to compete fairly and prevent confusion.

The consensus appears to be that a thorough review of current descriptors is necessary. The Government suggests in its consultation document that the matter may be addressed via guidance rather than new legislation but acknowledges there may be concerns of further inconsistency if the descriptors are not placed upon a statutory footing. Irrespective of the outcome of the consultation, it will still be an offence for labels to be misleading under s15 (1) of the Food Safety Act 1990. The consultation, which closes on 10 May 2018, invites comments and suggestions on the future of alcohol descriptors and the form that this should take.

Related topics: Licensing law

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