Yesterday, Customs & Border Protection (CBP) issued Guidance on the alcohol excise tax provisions contained in the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (Tax Act). Key points

  1. Importers must continue to pay the full excise tax rate (not the rates reduced by the Tax Act’s lower rates or credits) upon importation.
  2. CBP and TTB are working on regulations to allow CBP to issue refunds retroactively.
  3. In anticipation of the new regulations, CBP advises importers to file protests on liquidated entries where a reduced rate or credit may apply.
  4. CBP will not process refund requests any earlier than January 15, 2019.
  5. The Guidance includes a detailed list of information an importer will need to provide in order to substantiate its eligibility to receive reduced rates and/or credits.

Please let us know if you have any questions about this development.

On Friday, March 2, 2018, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued its next round of guidance concerning the alcohol excise tax provisions of the recently enacted tax law (Tax Act). TTB has not yet addressed some of the biggest ambiguities contained in the Tax Act, such as (i) how foreign producers can assign excise tax credits to US importers and (ii) how the “Single Taxpayer Rule” will work. Nevertheless, TTB continues to make incremental progress in interpreting the Tax Act.

The March 2 guidance features the following:

  1. A new TTB Industry Circular, No. 2018-1 (March 2, 2018), announces the creation of a temporary “alternate procedure” (aka, variance) allowing wine producers to tax determine and tax pay wine of the winery’s own production stored untaxpaid at another bonded wine cellar as if the wine were removed from the producing winery’s bonded premises. Prior law allowed wineries eligible for tax credits under the small winery tax provisions to transfer their credits to another bonded winery. So, for example, an eligible small winery could transfer bulk wine in bond to a larger bonded winery for bottling without losing the tax credits. The new tax law does not contain a similar transfer provision, leading to the prospect of small wineries losing their tax credits because they transferred the wine to a bonded winery that already used up its tax credits available under the Tax Act. The alternate procedure permits a winery to tax pay the wine as if it were removed from the producing winery’s premises, allowing it to take the tax credit. The temporary alternate procedure authorized by Industry Circular 2018-1 expires on June 30, 2018.
  2. Beer, wine and spirits removed from a brewery, winery or distillery but received in bond from elsewhere can benefit from the Tax Act’s reduced rates and/or tax credits only if the taxpaying brewery, winery or distillery “produced,” “distilled” and/or “processed” the beer, wine or spirits in question. Exactly what processing qualifies the taxpaying facility for the reduced rate or tax credits will depend on specific facts and the commodity at issue.
  3. TTB further qualifies the produced/distilled/processed requirement by indicating that any production process should be made “in good faith in the ordinary course of production” and not done for purposes of obtaining a tax advantage.

Please let us know if you have any questions about these developments.

Two sections of Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) that were dropped from the 2017 federal tax reform law were subsequently added to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law by President Trump on February 9, 2018.

The new law mandates a temporary (two year) change in tax recordkeeping requirements for domestic breweries to eliminate duplicate reports and accounting obligations for breweries that have pub and sampling areas. The intent of the new law is to allow brewers to keep one set of books covering (a) beer removed from brewery for sale for distribution to retailers and (b) beer sold or provided for sampling to consumers at a brewery. Existing regulations and policies led to unnecessary complexity in accounting for brewers and for auditors from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). While the recordkeeping changes are required for calendar years 2018 and 2019, TTB may be able to make changes in regulations and policies that will provide permanent relief from unnecessary administrative burdens. Continue Reading 2018 Federal Budget Legislation Provides Breweries with Administrative Relief and Acknowledges 21st Amendment

Early this morning, both houses of Congress approved the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” complex legislation that includes important modifications to an arcane law known as the “rum cover over,” which is an important revenue source for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI).

The temporary excise tax relief provided to distillers in the 2017 federal tax reform law will not diminish the amount of federal excise tax revenue covered over to the treasuries of Puerto Rico and the USVI. The 2017 tax reform law included a two year reduction in the federal distilled spirits excise tax rate from $13.50 per proof gallon to $2.70 per proof gallon on the first 100,000 proof gallons of distilled spirits, and $13.34 per proof gallon on the next 22,130,000 proof gallons produced by each distillery or each controlled group of distilleries. The 2018 Budget Act treats all rum subject to the rum cover over as if it is subject to the full $13.50 per gallon excise tax rate. Continue Reading Additional Rum Cover Over for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands Approved in 2018 Budget Legislation

This post does not constitute tax advice. It summarizes changes in alcohol beverage excise tax laws to assist industry members in planning to implement the changes. Excise tax calculations and liability must be determined for each taxpayer based on numerous variables.

The new tax law formerly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, provides a temporary reduction in alcohol beverage excise taxes for US brewers, winemakers, distillers and beverage importers. Temporary tax relief is available for beer, wine and spirits removed from a US manufacturing facility or released from Custom’s custody after January 1, 2018, and prior to December 31, 2019. Several provisions of the new law will require the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to quickly promulgate new regulations. Continue Reading Excise Tax Relief for Breweries, Wineries and Distilleries

On November 7, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published the latest in a series of industry draft guidance documents to help implement menu labeling and nutrient disclosure regulations applicable to chain restaurants (Draft Guidance). FDA guidance documents are advisory in nature and represent the views of the FDA at a given point in time. Accordingly, guidance is subject to change, but is useful for developing a compliance plan for retail establishments covered by the menu labeling regulations. Changes are usually incremental and based on agency experience and input from regulated industry members.

The FDA established a 60-day period for comments on the draft menu labeling and nutrient disclosure guidance. The comment period ends on January 6, 2018.

The current compliance date for menu labeling and nutrient disclosure regulations is May 7, 2018.

Implementation of federal menu labeling and nutrient disclosures by chain restaurants is a study in modern American political and administrative processes. For those who already tried to comply with the formal FDA regulations and prior guidance, an explanatory note about delays in the administrative process appears at the end of this post.

Two sections of the Draft Guidance explicitly address alcohol beverages.

  • Guidance is offered for beer lists on menus and the discussion has broader application to wine and spirits products and cocktails that are standard menu items on chain restaurant menus.
  • Sources of nutrient information for beer, wine and spirits are also discussed to provide an alternative to expensive laboratory testing for each brand that a manufacturer offers.

The Draft Guidance also:

  • Includes several plain-language explanations of key terms in FDA regulations with useful distinctions between regular menu items and season or special items;
  • Displays a number of graphics designed to assist retailers with standardized formats to communicate calorie content of various foods to consumers and to distinguish menus from marketing materials;
  • Directs manufacturers and retailers to reliable sources and methods to prepare and display compliant nutrient disclosures; and
  • Provides information on presentation of mandatory standard menu notices alerting consumers to the federal government’s recommended 2,000 calorie diet and availability of nutritional information for standard menu items upon request to a server or manager at a retail establishment.

The FDA guidance and the formal regulations use subjective terms about legibility (e.g., contrasting, clear and conspicuous). Those terms aim to ensure that information is consumer-friendly, but they could lead to nuisance complaints from regulators. FDA regional personnel and local inspectors under contract with the FDA will monitor compliance with menu labeling regulations. Since chains will, by nature, have locations in multiple jurisdictions, consistency in enforcement poses a challenge to industry and government.

To mitigate regulatory risks, a conservative approach is advisable to mandatory disclosures. All aspects of calorie and nutrient disclosure should be reviewed by counsel or a knowledgeable compliance professional. The review should start with the manner used to ascertain calories and nutrients and continue through preparation and publication of new and easy-to-read menus and nutrient disclosures. While the regulations will inevitably lead to a standardized portion of chain menus, the Draft Guidance does not inhibit traditional point-of-sale marketing materials, graphics and other creative elements in a menu or associated marketing materials.

Why has menu labeling taken so long?

  • Menu labeling and nutritional disclosure requirements for chain restaurants are mandated by Congress in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (better known as Obamacare).
  • A four-year rulemaking process on menu labeling ended with publication of a final rule on December 1, 2014. That rule is unchanged as of November 2017, and is found at 21 CFR 101.11.
  • A protracted debate occurred over the complexity of the rule and practical issues for food retailers who are responsible for compliance.
  • In 2015, Congress enacted an appropriations bill, which included a “policy rider” ordering the FDA to not to spend money on implementation and enforcement of the final rule until one-year after publication of a guidance document. Because appropriations bills deal with funding and not substantive policy, Congress provided no additional guidance to the FDA to clarify issues raised in the rulemaking and public controversies surrounding menu labeling.
  • The FDA published a “final guidance document” on May 5, 2016, with a new compliance date of May 5, 2017. Controversy continued, and the FDA extended the implementation date again to May 7, 2018.
  • The November 2017 draft FDA guidance document discussed above could be revised again following the 60-day comment period.
  • The compliance date remains May 7, 2018 unless extended again by the FDA or delayed by additional Congressional action.

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge granted beer wholesaler Craft Beer Guild, LLC’s (Craft) motion to dismiss a civil suit, Shelton Bros., Inc. v. Craft Beer Guild, LLC d/b/a Craft Brewer’s Guild, brought against it by beer importer Shelton Brothers, Inc. (Shelton) in connection with Craft’s alleged breach of its distribution agreement with Shelton. Craft distributed beer imported by Shelton throughout Massachusetts.

In November 2016, Shelton filed a complaint alleging that Craft breached a 2009 oral agreement between Craft and Shelton by failing to follow through on its promises regarding pricing and providing two dedicated sales people to support Shelton’s brands. In its complaint, Shelton alleged that sales of its products were in “steep decline” by 2011 due to Craft’s discriminatory pricing of Shelton’s products in the market. Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Dismisses Brand Owner’s Suit against Wholesaler

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of alcohol beverages have been a hot topic in the alcohol industry for the last two decades. The wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past 15 or so years, most dramatically by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald. Today nearly evert state—plus the District of Columbia—allows wineries to ship wine across state lines directly to in-state consumers. The same cannot be said for spirits.

There are, however, a few avenues distillers may consider to get their products delivered to consumers around the country. Further, an initiative is underway to pursue litigation to secure DTC rights for spirits. Although it is far too early to speculate about the outcome of any such litigation, the current effort suggests the potential for interstate distiller-to-consumer sales in the coming years. Of course, lingering ambivalence toward spirits (as opposed to wine) by the public, lawmakers, and alcohol regulators makes the prospect for any legal change uncertain.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, July 2017.

In mid-April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent out 90 letters to advertisers, celebrity endorsers and influencers who use their fame and the power of digital advertising to help promote products.  The facts in each letter vary, but the FTC’s message was a strong reminder that clear and conspicuous disclosure is required if a “material connection” exists between and endorser and the marketer of a product.

Typically, the marketer is a manufacturer, importer or an advertising agency that establishes a relationship with an endorser.  In 2009, the FTC created endorsement guides to ensure that consumers are on notice that an endorser or influencer is being compensated by a marketer.  In 2015, the FTC published an Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements.  Those sources provide straightforward guidance to inform consumers that an endorser is acting on behalf of a marketer and to differentiate advertising from truly independent news or reviews of products.

Throughout history, producers of consumer goods marketed their wares with endorsements from famous people and “satisfied consumers.”  Social media provides an enormous boost to the most ancient form of marketing, “word of mouth.”  An image of your product with a celebrity or the perfect “ordinary consumer” in a creative setting can quickly go viral to millions of consumers or receive hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook.

All ads should be truthful, targeted appropriately, and compliant with industry codes.  If appropriate, ads should also be clearly identified as paid endorsements or advertising material to reduce the risk of consumer deception.  These principles are especially important in the digital domain where viewers tend to move rapidly from one destination to another.

A successful ad that includes use of celebrities or influencers should meet the FTC’s standards to avoid future enforcement initiatives.  The reputation of the advertiser and endorser as well as the integrity of the brands should not be placed at risk by the failure to include clear and conspicuous notices or disclaimers.  Congress granted the FTC broad jurisdiction to police deceptive ads.  The FTC’s guidance has now been around long enough to be on the checklist of every advertiser—particularly those under pressure to publish the next iconic image on Facebook or Instagram!