On November 7, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published the latest in a series of industry draft guidance documents to help implement menu labeling and nutrient disclosure regulations applicable to chain restaurants (Draft Guidance).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Two sections of the Draft Guidance explicitly address alcohol beverages.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The Draft Guidance also: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

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts state trial court judge issued a decision in the matter of Craft Beer Guild LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild v. Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. The court upheld a decision by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) finding violations of Massachusetts’ trade practice laws by a large beer distributor. The case originated in the Fall of 2014, when a craft brewer alleged on Twitter that a Boston retailer had removed the brewer’s brands from the tap because suppliers and distributors were paying retailers in exchange for those retailers carrying their brands. The ABCC launched an investigation that culminated in administrative charges against Craft Beer Guild LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild (CBG) for violations of Massachusetts’ anti-price discrimination statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 138, § 25A(a)) (the Statute) and an ABCC regulation prohibiting inducements by licensees (204 Code Mass. Regs. § 2.08) (the Regulation).

After a hearing, the ABCC found that CBG violated the Statute and the Regulation based on its alleged implementation of schemes with multiple retailers and third-party management companies working on behalf of the retailers to provide payments in exchange for the retailers committing tap lines to CBG’s brands. The payments allegedly involved fictitious invoices issued by the third-party companies to CBG, as well as CBG’s payment of at least $120,000 to the retailers and/or third-party companies.

In lieu of a suspension, CBG paid a record-setting fine of more than $2.6 million to settle the violations. CBG then appealed the ABCC’s decision in March 2016. In June 2017, CBG filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The Massachusetts trial court held a hearing in September 2017, and then a few weeks later issued the order denying the motion, dismissing CBG’s complaint and affirming the ABCC’s decision against CBG. Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Upholds Record $2.6M Fine against Beer Distributor

On September 29, 2017, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued Ruling 2017-2, which updates and supersedes older agency guidance on allowable returns of beer and malt beverage products that contain “pull dates” or other indicators of product freshness.

The Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act includes a general prohibition on “consignment sales,” 27 USC 205(d). Congress believed that all transactions should be “bona fide” sales. Id. The intent was to prevent a wide range of unscrupulous practices that might occur if manufacturers and wholesalers furnishing alcohol beverages to retailers on consignment or with the right of return.

The FAA Act prohibition on consignment sales does not apply to “transactions involving solely the bona fide return of merchandise for ordinary and usual commercial reasons arising after the merchandise has been sold.” Id. TTB regulations provide an extensive list of reasons that a manufacturer or wholesaler can accept returns. 27 CFR, Part 11, Subpart D. Continue Reading TTB Issues Guidance on Application of Consignment Sales Regulations to Freshness Dating and Returns from Retailers

On Friday, October 13, 2017, a Texas Court of Appeals handed down the long-awaited decision in Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission v. Mark Anthony Brewing, Inc., No. 03-16-00039-CV.

The case involves Texas’ ban on private-label malt beverage/beer labels, which appear in regulations that are one aspect of the state’s comprehensive tied-house laws. Mark Anthony Brewing sought a declaratory ruling on those Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations after the TABC refused to approve the labels for Mark Anthony’s T.G.I. Friday’s branded flavored malt beverages. T.G.I. Friday’s is also, of course, a well-known retail chain. Mark Anthony produces the T.G.I. Friday’s line under a trademark license from the retailer, as governed by a trademark licensing agreement between the parties.

A Texas trial court ruled in favor of Mark Anthony, holding that the TABC regulations in question violate the First Amendment. The trial court further ruled that Mark Anthony’s sales of the product and the licensing agreement between Mark Anthony and T.G.I. Friday’s either did not violate Texas’ tied-house prohibitions or, in the alternative, those prohibitions were unconstitutional as applied to Mark Anthony’s sales and the parties’ agreement. Continue Reading Texas Court of Appeals Reverses T.G.I. Friday’s Label Decision

Today’s off-premises retail landscape is dominated by large chains that rely on practices generally known as category management to maximize the profitability of their stores. Some of the activities falling under the category management umbrella require close interaction between the retailer and the producers, importers, or distributors supplying them product. As a result of this interaction, the federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) last year issued a ruling indicating that industry members’ participation in category management activities could result in a violation of the tied-house provision of the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act and the TTB’s corresponding tied-house regulations.

Continue Reading

Originally published in The New Brewer, September/October 2017.

On July 20, 2017, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced a joint operation it conducted with the Florida Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (DABT) to investigate potential trade practice violations in the Miami, Florida area. According to a very brief press release issued by TTB, the investigation focused on alleged “pay-to-play” schemes. “Pay-to-play” is an industry term generally used to mean the provision of payments or other “things of value” by an upper-tier industry member (i.e., supplier or wholesaler) to a retailer to secure placement for the industry member’s products in the retailer’s premises.

Although neither TTB nor the DABT has released any specific details of the investigation or the parties involved, the investigation suggests that TTB is acting on prior announcements that it would seek to aggressively enforce its trade practice regulations. TTB’s 2017 budget included a $5 million earmark to enhance trade practice enforcement. As part of this effort, TTB transitioned 11 of its existing investigators to new roles focusing exclusively on trade practice enforcement.

The joint investigation also comes on the heels of other recent enforcement of trade practice laws and regulations—specifically involving allegations of pay-to-play activities—by state alcohol regulators. In just the last few months, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission initiated an enforcement action against an Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI)-owned distributor in connection with an alleged pay-to-play scheme. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control also recently settled an enforcement action against ABI wholesalers for alleged trade practice violations. Also, in June, a New Jersey beer wholesaler agreed to pay a nearly $2 million fine to settle trade practice allegations brought by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

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.

Yesterday, the en banc (full) Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the attached opinion in the case of Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, No. 13-56069.

As you may recall, the Retail Digital Network case concerns the legality of sections of California’s tied-house laws, California Business and Professions Code Section 25503(f)-(h), which prohibit manufacturers and wholesalers (and their agents) from giving anything of value to retailers in exchange for advertising their products.  Retail Digital Network (RDN), which installs advertising displays in retail stores and contracts with parties to advertise their products on the displays, sought a declaratory judgment that Section 25503(f)-(h) violated the First Amendment after RDN’s attempts to contract with alcohol manufacturers failed due to the manufacturers’ concerns that such advertising would violate these tied-house provisions.

The District Court found Section 25503(f)-(h) constitutional under a Ninth Circuit case from 1986, Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh, in which the court upheld Section 25503(h).  Then in January 2016, a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Actmedia is “clearly irreconcilable” with the Supreme Court’s 2011 opinion in Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc.  The panel accordingly would have remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings under Sorrell’s allegedly more restrictive First Amendment standard.  But the state requested an en banc (full court) rehearing, which the court granted.

Continue Reading En Banc Opinion Could Set Precedent for Tied-House Laws

Most brewers are at least somewhat familiar with federal and state laws regulating the interrelationships between members of the different industry tiers. The most well-known are the “tied house” laws, which prohibit or severely restrict brewers or beer wholesalers from owning retail establishments (and vice versa), and substantially limit the ability of brewers or beer wholesalers to provide money, free goods, or other “things of value” to retailers.

Until recently, the laws prohibiting consignment sales in the alcohol beverage industry received little attention. But in the past 18 months, the settlement of two federal investigations involving the beer industry’s biggest players has focused new attention on the subject. This article will explain consignment sale laws in an effort to prevent brewers from inadvertently violating them.

Read the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2017.