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Standards for alcoholic beverages: FSSAI continues with the adventure

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has come out with the proposed standards for alcoholic beverages. This draft is divided into six chapters—the first deals with general provisions, such as definition clauses, and the last with labelling. In the other four chapters, the draft lays down applicable standards for ‘distilled alcoholic beverage’, ‘wines’, ‘beer’ and ‘low alcoholic beverages’. Within these chapters, the beverages are classified according to various known types (brandy, whiskey and so on) and various sub-types within each type.
This very structuring is an area of concern. For each type of alcohol, the draft uses the phrase “(this spirit) shall be of the following types.” For instance, in the section governing ‘liqueur/alcoholic cordials’, there is a general definition provided for this type of alcohol. This is followed by the statement that “(liqueur/alcoholic cordials) shall be of the following types,” and thereafter lists nine sub-types. This may be interpreted to imply that only those subs-types exhaustively constitute ‘liqueur/alcoholic cordials’ and that other non-listed sub-types may not be covered even if they may fulfil the main definition. This structure is seen in many locations and the use of the word ‘shall’ in such context and implying a limitation in the varieties doesn’t serve any stated public purpose.
Old wine in new, broken bottle
The proposed draft has been mostly copied from the existing Indian Standards (IS) issued by the Indian Standards Bureau, though there are some interesting departures, such as proposed definition of brandy, which has been defined to be an alcoholic beverage “made from grapes and other fruits that possesses the distinctive colour, odour and taste of its own.” In the earlier IS, brandy could be made from grains also. However, a liquor made from grains alone would not fall within the definition of ‘brandy’ any more. If mixed with 2% grape brandy, it may fall under the scope of ‘blended brandy’.
Some strange modifications have been suggested and standards have not been updated. An example is the proposed draft incorporating threshold requirements of ingredients for various alcoholic beverages. Beverages like tequila, liqueur/alcoholic cordials and some kinds of brandy are missing from table-1, even though the draft requires such beverages to “conform to the requirements of table-1.” No characteristics are provided for several alcoholic beverages, adding to uncertainty. For example, while ‘grape brandy’ must be matured for at least one year in oak vats or barrels, ‘blended grape brandy’ need not necessarily be matured in oak vats or barrels; instead, a wooden vat or barrel may be used. With respect to liqueur/alcoholic cordials, the draft only mentions the use of fruit, cream, herbs and spices as flavourings. Other flavours like chocolate, coffee, nuts, schnapps, honey and caramel have not been mentioned, which may be construed as an implied exclusion of such other flavourings.
A major shortcoming of the draft is its lack of consistency and coherence. This starts right from the definition chapter where 18 terms have been defined, of which seven have not at all been used in the standards. The term ‘alcoholic distillate’ has been used in several places, but has not been defined. On the other hand, the term ‘fermented liquor’ has been defined, but has not been used.
While various standards have been prescribed for different types of alcohol, in several instances such as for wine, beer, low-alcoholic beverages, tequila, liqueur/alcoholic cordials, the draft makes no reference to the method of analysis to be applied or the tolerance levels allowed. For brandy and whisky, the draft makes a reference to the FSSAI Manual of Method of Analysis of Food 2015-Alcoholic Beverages and sets a tolerance limit of ethanol at +/-3%. The said manual itself does not contain any method of analysis or tolerance for all types of alcoholic beverages covered within the scope of draft regulations.
Chapter 6, relating to labelling of alcoholic beverages, presents its own set of problems. The draft clarifies it is in addition to the applicable requirements arising from the Food Safety & Standards (Packaging & Labelling) Regulations, 2011. The draft proposes additional information to be part of the label and clarifies some pre-existing issues. It refers to the need to include a statement of ‘standard drinks’, and for wines the label is allowed to carry the name of a grape variety, only if the wine is made using at least 75% grapes of that variety.
Under existing norms, alcoholic beverages are not legally treated as a single ingredient product and a list of ingredients needs to be printed in English or Hindi. This listing has to be in the descending order of composition and labelling must be such that it cannot be separated from the product itself. This has resulted in problems because alcoholic beverages from several countries do not always contain information on ingredients in the manner contemplated under Indian law and many are not in English/Hindi. Existing rules do not allow such information to be added as a sticker, post-importation in India. Unfortunately, these issues do not seem to have been remedied in the draft.
Given recent developments in the food sector, the efforts of FSSAI to develop such standards in a transparent and consultative manner is welcome. But the draft needs to get rid of errors and inconsistencies and provide a set of robust regulations for alcoholic beverages.
The author is joint partner in law firm Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan. Views are personal

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