Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) official Susan Evans, the Executive Liaison for State and Industry Matters, talked about ways to streamline the federal label approval process at the June 2013 National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (NCSLA) that I attended in Honolulu. Speaking on a panel, she said that the TTB has experienced reduced staffing and declining budgets, which have slowed down two of its major functions: permitting and approving labels. 

According to Ms. Evans, nearly 25,000 permittees submit certificate of label approvals (COLAs) to TTB . Last year TTB received over 145,000 COLA applications. In the last two years, TTB has imposed fewer restrictions and qualifications, updated the COLA form to allow changes that may be made to labels without TTB approval, and established a virtual file room for processing paper applications electronically. 

In addition, TTB recently reviewed the label approval program and concluded the following:

  • Many labels never end up in the marketplace.
  • TTB spends too much time on minutia.
  • The current process does not ensure that the label on the container accurately reflects the product.
  • TTB resources would be better spent on labels and products that are currently in the marketplace.

Changes Under Consideration

In reaction to the study, TTB is considering several changes to the label approval program, including:

  • Labels with low risk for noncompliance would be automatically approved. This could include labels for products with Standards of Identity or no additional label claims.
  • Label images would not be submitted with these applications. 
  • Higher-risk labels would receive a traditional review.

As for enforcement against noncompliant labels, TTB suggests:

  • Increasing the sampling of products in the marketplace for compliance.
  • Establishing a noncompliance hotline and email address.
  • Taking action against noncompliant labels.
  • Tracking and reporting noncompliant labels.

TTB is considering a major change to preapproval for labels that will be more like the FDA’s and FSIS’s processes. Those agencies post the labeling regulations and require industry members to comply on a “self-certification” basis.

Audience Reactions

Several state representatives pointed out that most states have come to rely on TTB’s label approval process as a substitute for their own label review programs, and changes like this will put the burden on the states. Some industry members expressed concern that label enforcement will be mostly “complaint driven” and will result in action against only the most egregious examples of noncompliance. And many labels currently kept out of the marketplace will be used on products and sold to consumers. By the time TTB catches up to a company using noncompliant labels, the compliant company could have already lost significant market share. 

Ms. Evans acknowledged that the concerns were valid, and said that TTB is trying to make the best use of its limited resources while completing its missions. She concluded that nothing has been finalized, and that there will be opportunity for public input before any changes are implemented.