EU Court Sloshes Labels Touting Healthful Wine

     (CN) – German winemakers cannot market wine with health claims like “wholesome” and “easily digestible,” Europe’s highest court ruled Thursday.
     Deutsches Weintor, a winegrower cooperative in Rheinland-Pfalz placed labels on bottles of their wine with the word bekömmlich, meaning digestible, wholesome, or nourishing. Alcoholic beverage regulators objected to the use of the word, since EU law prohibits companies from making health claims about alcoholic products.
     Deutsches Weintor turned to the German courts, arguing that bekömmlich refers only to general well-being rather than health.
     The EU Court of Justice stepped in to clarify the scope of EU law with regard to wine labeling and, if necessary, weigh in on the winemakers’ fundamental rights to choose an occupation and conduct business.
     The Luxembourg court’s adviser issued an opinion in March saying that the regulation excludes alcoholic beverages, even if scientific evidence supports their benefits, to avoid any positive health-related connotations that might encourage the consumption of alcohol leading to abuse and addiction. The court agreed Thursday.
     “In the present case the description at issue, which suggests that the wine is readily absorbed and digested, implies, inter alia, that the digestive system – and thus a part of the human body – will not suffer, or will suffer little as a result, and that the digestive system will remain relatively healthy and intact even after repeated consumption, and thus accumulated amounts, over an extended period of time, given that that wine is characterized by reduced acidity,” the decision states.
     “In that, the claim in question might suggest a sustained beneficial physiological effect consisting in the preservation of a healthy digestive system, contrary to other wines, which are presumed to result, after being consumed a number of times, in sustained adverse effects on the digestive system and, consequently, on health,” the judges added. “In the light of the foregoing considerations [EU law] must be interpreted as meaning that the words ‘health claim’ cover a description such as ‘easily digestible’ that is accompanied by a reference to the reduced content of substances frequently perceived by consumers as being harmful.”
     Even if Deutsches Weintor’s wines are bekömmlich and good for one’s health, the EU’s prohibition on marketing them as such doesn’t violate the basic freedoms to choose an occupation or conduct business. The protection of public health is of equal importance, according to the court.
     “It must be pointed out that in view of the risks of addiction and abuse as well as the complex harmful effects known to be linked to the consumption of alcohol, in particular the development of serious diseases, alcoholic beverages represent a special category of foods that is subject to particularly strict regulation,” the court wrote. “In that regard, the court has already recognized on several occasions that measures restricting the advertising of alcoholic beverages in order to combat alcohol abuse reflect public health concerns and that the protection of public health constitutes … an objective of general interest justifying, where appropriate, a restriction of a fundamental freedom.”
     “Thus, the European Union legislature was fully entitled to take the view that claims such as that at issue in the main proceedings are ambiguous or even misleading where they relate to an alcoholic beverage. By highlighting only the easy digestion of the wine concerned, the claim at issue is likely to encourage its consumption and, ultimately, to increase the risks for consumers’ health inherent in the immoderate consumption of any alcoholic beverage. Consequently, the prohibition of such claims is warranted in the light of the requirement to ensure a high level of health protection for consumers.
     “Consequently, restrictions may be imposed on the exercise of those freedoms, provided that those restrictions in fact correspond to objectives of general interest pursued by the European Union and do not constitute, with regard to the aim pursued, a disproportionate and intolerable interference, impairing the very substance of those rights.”
     The case now returns to the German court for final ruling.

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