After years of debate and countless delays, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed labeling rules that would tell consumers a lot more than many beverage makers usually reveal about what is in their juice drinks, juice cocktails and even wine coolers.
As framed, the new regulations would force beverage makers to list on the side of their containers not only the total amount of juice in their products but specific percentages of each juice used in a blended drink.
The proposed rules would also crack down on existing labeling practices that allow juice makers to, say, advertise a raspberry juice drink as "100 percent juice" when it might consist of a small amount of raspberry juice and a large dose of less costly apple or grape juice that has been stripped of its taste and color.
The new rules will apply to everything from wine coolers and sparkling ciders to vegetable juice.
Orange juice products fall under existing rules of their own.
Consumer groups hailed the FDA proposal, which would enact a provision of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. After more than two decades of haggling with beverage manufacturers, the FDA rules would help consumers understand the contents of the blended juice products that have flooded the market.
But some FDA officials acknowledged this week that the proposed rules might reignite the old and often bitter debate over how much information labels should contain.
The proposal was disclosed late last week.
The beverage industry is invited to comment on the rules before the FDA makes them final.
"We knew that the industry would have some problems with this, but we thought it was fair to propose," said an FDA regulatory official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. "It may not be where the final regulation comes out."
In fact, beverage industry representatives were able to find a whole array of problems with the proposed regulations -- while zTC insisting on the public's right to know about its juice.
"Nobody's trying to hide anything," said Jeffrey Nedelman, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which has been closely involved in the genesis of the new regulations. "But I think we're rushing so fast that I think we're making mistakes, and consumers ultimately are going to pay for those mistakes."
Juice-drink makers conceded that some products might have to be renamed and some marketing campaigns muted. But they argued that the issue was not whether consumers should be allowed to know about what they were drinking but how much they really needed to know.
The manufacturers say that if labeling rules require them to list the percentages of each juice in a product, companies will not be able to protect their formulas from competitors. Nor will they ,, be able to modify their blends as the price and availability of some juices fluctuate -- at least not without changing their labels as well.
"There are certain people who have formulas they really like to keep to themselves," said John R. Cady, president of the Washington-based National Food Processors Association. "Now you're going to have to put your formulas out on the street. What good is that to the consumer? The added cost to the industry is going to be passed on."
Like the current regulations, the proposed rules would require stiff disclaimers like "contain no juice" on beverages that suggest by their names or packaging that they do.
The requirement is broadly framed, but excludes such products as soft drinks that have images of fruit on their packaging. Consumer groups argue that the added information should be of considerable use.
"These additional proposed requirements are in response to marketing ploys that appeared on the scene since the rules were first being drawn up," said Bruce A. Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science and the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
As an example, Silverglade cited the species of "juice blend drinks" that identify themselves by an exotic ingredient like guava, mango or passion fruit but may in fact depend for most of their liquid on plain old apple juice. Chemically stripped of its color and flavor, the apple juice may add nothing more than fructose and water; as the rules stand, the drink can still call itself "100 percent juice."