A beverage with alcohol by volume greater than 1.1% is considered an alcoholic beverage under the Food and Drug Regulations. The Regulations describe alcoholic beverages by their “common name” – which is another way of saying the category of liquor the beverage falls into (e.g. beer, wine, whisky).
The Regulations set out a “standard of identity or composition” for most alcoholic beverages. In more simple terms that means the government has defined the fundamental criteria: ingredients, method of production and characteristics, for the most common types of alcoholic beverages.
If an alcoholic beverage meets one of these standards then that “common name” must be used to describe the beverage if it has been imported, or is intended for interprovincial trade (most liquor in Canada falls into one of those two categories). If your brewery makes an alcoholic beverage that looks and tastes like beer – then it only makes sense that it should be labelled “beer”. The Regulations ensure that if a consumer picks up a can marked “beer” they have a pretty good idea of what is inside.
But what if you operate a distillery, and you make a unique product that is not easily classified? The Regulations can’t possibly contain definitions and classifications for every possible alcoholic beverage imaginable. In these instances alcoholic beverages that do not meet a prescribed standard must be labelled with the name by which the liquor is generally known, or “a name that describes the true nature of the product.”
Generic names such as “beverage”, “drink”, “cooler”, “spirit” or “liquor”, as appropriate, are accepted common names of alcoholic beverages that do not have a prescribed standard composition.
So what does all of this mean? For consumers the Regulations serve a valid purpose: when you walk into a liquor store and buy a bottle labelled “Irish Whisky” you expect that the whisky you are about to enjoy was distilled in Ireland. The Regulations are in place to ensure that is the case. Not only do the Regulations serve this informative purpose (some bottles are so decorative and heavily branded it can be tough to know what liquor is actually inside) but they also prevent less scrupulous manufacturers and distributors from holding out spirits as say “Bourbon Whisky” when the whisky inside is nothing of the sort.
This past week it came to light that people were dying in a slum of Mumbai, India, from drinking “tainted” moonshine. Over 150 people are suspected of having consumed the illicit methanol-laced liquor, and at the time of writing 94 people have died. Methanol, or methyl alcohol, is a highly toxic form of alcohol (sometimes used as anti-freeze or fuel), that is often added to bootlegged liquor as an easy way to increase the alcohol content. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is the name of beverage-grade alcohol.
The incident in Mumbai brings into focus the significance of many of the rules and regulations that surround the import, manufacture and service of liquor in Canada. While the licensing and taxation of liquor in Canada leaves much to be desired – it is easy to take for granted the existing infrastructure and regulations that ensure the beer, wine, and spirits we consume are safe and properly labelled.
The laws in British Columbia that prohibit barrel-aged cocktails, and limit bartenders’ ability to mix drinks in advance of being ordered or out of the customer’s sight, are all examples of requirements that ensure patrons are aware of the liquor they are about to consume, which in turn keeps illicit liquor out of the distribution chain.
In Canada every level of government plays a role in food safety, with the federal Food and Drugs Act forming the foundation of Canada’s food safety system. Yes, under the Food and Drugs Act “alcohol” and “alcoholic beverages” are considered “food.” Health Canada is responsible for establishing standards for the safety and nutritional quality of all foods (liquor) sold in Canada. Health Canada’s authority is provided in the Food and Drugs Act and it pursues its regulatory mandate under the Food and Drug Regulations. The ongoing success of the Canadian food safety system depends not only on the close working relationships between various federal and provincial ministries, but also the active participation of industry groups.
The conditions established in the Food and Drug Regulations regarding safety, quality and composition apply to breweries, wineries and distilleries just as they would to manufacturers of other food and beverage. The idea is that this uniform regulatory standard allows Canadians to be confident in the safety of the products they purchase and consume regardless of where they come from.
The standards for food health and safety created by the Food and Drug Regulations, as well non-health related safety regulations such as the packaging, labelling and advertising of food is enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA works with the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch and the other provincial liquor boards to ensure that the beer, wine and spirits produced in the province adhere to the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act.
The requirements and restrictions the Food and Drug Act and the Regulations place on liquor manufacturers are sweeping: composition, container size, alcohol content and product description are all regulated. Additionally the the Consumer Packing and Labelling Act, also enforced by the CFIA, contains further liquor labelling requirements as well as prohibitions against “false and misleading information” regarding a product’s origin, quality, performance, net weight or quantity. These requirements also apply to imported alcoholic beverages.
Despite the forgoing, in December 2007 when nutrition labelling became mandatory across Canada for most pre-packaged food products, alcoholic beverages were exempted.
If your business needs assistance navigating Canada and British Columbia’s Byzantine maze of health and labelling regulations you should contact counsel familiar with this area of the law.