Distilling Contractor

Why does alcohol need to carry warning labels in the UK?

Barley for distilling

By far the most complicated part of creating your own food or drink product is the red tape. Whether you’re planning to export your product overseas or sell it here in the UK, there are a myriad of guidelines that should be followed. Of course, this legislation is in place for a very good reason and it is now safer to buy consumables than it ever has been before as a result, but this means, as a drinks producer, it’s also crucial to get your labelling all present and correct on your bottles, and that there are serious consequences for those who don’t.

Alcohol bottle labels

If you’re wondering what sort of information needs to go on an alcohol label, you can read all about that right here. Now, let’s do a quick re-cap on why labels feature an ingredients list… and then what happens when correct guidance isn’t followed! And don’t worry, we won’t leave you high and dry without advice on how to avoid a similar fate!

Now that we’ve made it clear how important it is to have the correct information on your labels, it might surprise you to learn that currently in the UK, alcoholic drinks are not strictly required to have an ingredients list on their labels! There is one key area to bear in mind here, though, and that’s allergens. Most of us are now used to seeing allergens highlighted on food ingredients labels and restaurant menus, and regulation changes such as Natasha’s Law have made the sale of pre-packaged food much more hot on ensuring any allergens are communicated. If your alcoholic drinks product contains any of the 14 allergens listed by EU law, you do need to declare these on the label. It is the responsibility of the drinks manufacturer to understand where in the making process allergens might have crept in – or out. For example, there might be cereals such as wheat present in the raw materials used to make distilled spirits, but the distillation process should have removed their allergen status. More information on this can be found in Commission Directive 2007/68/EC Annea IIIa.

Post-distillation, it’s important to be aware of potential allergens in additive products. Glucose syrup is derived from wheat-based raw materials, for example – but where this is used to make spirit caramels within the EU only, it is exempt from being classed as an allergen. It’s important to check what the legislation is where you are producing your product, and especially now that the United Kingdom is no longer in the EU.

Another element that isn’t immediately obvious is where spirits are stored in casks for maturation. Companies must ensure no wheat pastes have been used on the cask and no allergenic fining materials have been used within the cask.

We have shared some additional guidance at the end of this post, and would advise consulting an expert who can guide you through the labelling regulations for your product type and location. As professional contract distillers, we at Kettlesing Distilling are always on hand to help our clients navigate the labelling and allergen process.

So, that being said, what happens if alcohol brands don’t follow label regulations? Well, consequences can vary, depending on the nature and scale of the non-conformance, but can include:

  • Fines and penalties: the Food Standards Agency and The Portman Group are able to enforce compliance with labelling regulations, and those found in breach can be subject to fines or penalties imposed by these authorities.
  • Product recall: If a violation is deemed to be a risk to consumer health and safety, the product may be recalled from sale, resulting in financial losses, possible legal fees, damage to brand reputation and loss of customer trust.
  • Legal action: Misleading or deceptive labelling can incur legal action from consumers or competitors where it’s felt there has been a breach of safety regulations or even plagiarism that has affected the reputation of a competing brand.
  • Loss of licence: brands repeatedly violating labelling regulations may risk losing their Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme (AWRS) licence to sell alcoholic beverages. This could very well spell the end for the business.
  • Damage to reputation: any brand lives or dies by its reputation, so consumer and stockists’ trust is everything.

With consequences like these, it’s so important to regularly review your labelling process to ensure it remains compliant. Here at Kettlesing Distilling we ensure all labels that we affix to bottles through alcohol bottling are compliant with GOV UK Department of Health Regulations and the Portman Group Code of Practice. We also have a best-practice labelling guide which we have developed in-house, that we provide to our clients.

The Portman Group used an independent auditor to check how compliant this sector is with legislation, and it was good news – 95% industry compliance at the time of the survey.

Portman Group Infographic

This shows that while there are justifiably harsh consequences for breaching the rules, with the right support, compliance and safety is more than achievable.

We’ll round off with a couple of examples of incidents where companies were found not to be compliant, to give you an idea of the pitfalls to avoid when planning your labelling, packaging and promotion of your alcoholic products.

These examples are all taken from The Portman Group, where you can read about them in more detail:

Example One:

JG Drinks Ltd, trading as Copper in the Clouds

Copper in the Clouds had a range of gin featuring cartoon-like imagery, such as a tiger in a suit. The images were colourful, and the characters were anthropomorphic. The complaint was that these images would appeal to children.

Under Code paragraph 3.2(h), a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way have a particular appeal to under-18s.

In conclusion, taking into account the overall impression conveyed by the product, the Panel considered that the artistic representation of the tiger and a parrot with large eyes prominently displayed on the front of the bottle, and the gift-wrapped nature of the product, meant that that the product had a particular appeal to under-18s. The Panel therefore upheld the complaint under Code rule 3.2(h).

Action taken:

The company are currently working with the Advisory Service to ensure the product no longer appeals to the under-18s.

Example Two:

AU Vodka

AU Vodka packaged their spirit in a bottle that distinctly resembled a firearm. Under Code paragraph 3.2(b), a drink, its packaging or promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest any association with bravado, or with violent, aggressive, dangerous, anti-social or illegal behaviour.

The Panel acknowledged that not all ‘gun’ shaped objects were fundamentally linked to firearms, however in this case, the overall impression conveyed by the shape of the gun handle, the trigger and the mimicking of shooting a projectile, all created an indirect association with violent and aggressive behaviour because of the inherent similarities between the design of the money gun and a real-life firearm. Furthermore, the Panel stated that any association between a firearm and an alcoholic drink was wholly inappropriate. Accordingly, the Panel upheld the complaint under Code rule 3.2(b).

Action taken:

The product was discontinued.

Example Three:

Marks and Spencer PLC

The complaint in this case related to a range of light-up bottles of spirits. “One can imagine the ‘Do it again!’ cry from children, just as happens with a toy or Christmas decoration with a similar mechanism. These alcoholic drinks are being sold as a novelty which is against the principle of the Portman rules and are encouraging children to see them as a fun item.”

Under Code paragraph 3.1, the alcoholic nature of a drink should be communicated on its packaging with absolute clarity. Under Code paragraph 3.2(h), a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way have a particular appeal to under-18s.

Action taken:

Marks & Spencer worked with the Advisory Service.

If you would like expert support as you navigate bringing a spirit product to market, we’re only too happy to help. Just get in touch here to chat with us about your plans.