On everything we eat and drink? This is a very real possibility in the near future. Today I was reading this article in Fortune Small Business about the push to add nutritional labeling to restaurant menus. This resonated with me because of the push to get the TTB to mandate “nutritional” labeling on alcoholic beverages – wine included (1, 2, 3, 4).

The gist of the FSB article is “embrace the trend” or more like, “roll over and give in to the inevitable”. Personally, I believe “nutritional” labeling to be a misguided notion on so many fronts, with a clear caveat – people who may die from allergies to specific foodstuffs and additives absolutely must know what’s in what they are eating. Short of avoiding the risk of death, however, whose interests are served?

I’m not an expert in the area of government nutritional policy, so the attentive reader should take my selection and presentation of the following information with the proverbial grain of salt. Also please note that I use “food” as a term to cover what we drink as well as what we eat.

Nutritional labeling as we know it has a fairly brief history. The Federal government started to allow voluntary nutritional labeling of foods only in 1972. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, this was meant “to address concerns about hunger in America and promote consumption of adequate amounts of key nutrients.”

By the mid-1980’s there was a push in a new direction by public and private interest groups to make labeling mandatory, “with the intent of helping consumers to modify their eating habits to prevent or delay the onset of” chronic diseases where research suggested a causal relationship to elements of dietary intake.

Mandatory labeling for most processed and packaged foods was codified and signed into law with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. It was another 10 years before FDA got close to mandating nutritional labeling on fresh foods, particularly meats, poultry and fish. It appears that to date these regulations have not been enacted – any labeling you see on these products is voluntary.

The big change in policy direction occurred in 2004 with the publication of a couple of reports commissioned by FDA: one entitled “Calories Count: Report of the Obesity Working Group” and the other from the National Academy of Sciences on the “Scientific Criteria To Ensure Safe Food“, plus the signing of the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.

The first report identified obesity as a target to be addressed by nutritional labeling policy. The second reinforced Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) as the FDA’s approach to food safety – the same approach FDA uses to ensure drug safety. The new law “requires the labeling of any food that contains a protein derived from any one of the following foods that, as a group, account for the vast majority of food allergies: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.”

Today there is a push to mandate these directives for everything we ingest – including a meal prepared at a restaurant, and the wine served with it.

The TTB has proposed rulemaking on revised content and nutritional labeling of alcoholic beverages. This proposal has generated significant comment during the public review period. Leaving aside the question of whether TTB has statutory authority to regulate wine as a food or a drug, or whether FDA has authority to regulate alcoholic beverages, my guess is that we will see new labeling rules somewhere around 2010 – given the historical 10-year cycle.

As I stated above, I believe nutritional labeling is misguided on many fronts, especially for hand-made “artisanal” products. First, I reject the notion – implicit in the current direction of FDA policy – that food must be treated as “medicine”. Imagine the traffic stop of the future: “OK buddy – license and registration, and I’m going to need to see a doctor’s prescription for that Burger™ you’re eating.”

I believe this idea that food is medicine is a peculiarly American concept, rooted in a pernicious Puritan ethos that has permeated our culture from its outset. Throughout history humankind has eaten to live, and done fairly well. It is only recently in human history that the focus has shifted such that we must eat to be “healthy”. I propose (and I don’t think I’m alone here) that the shift is a consequence of the increasing availability of heavily processed and commoditized food.

Second, it’s my opinion that mandating nutritional labels to address the public health problem of obesity is patently ludicrous. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, if nutritional labeling could curb people’s eating habits we should be seeing rates of obesity decline. They certainly are not.

I think it is clear that as a culture we consume too much. The nutritional labeling mandates embody the explicit assumption that the informed consumer will consume less. This is a Pollyanna fantasy, that completely discounts the huge commoditized food industrial complex which spends billions on marketing in order to get us to consume more.

In a dystopian world (I call it the “Food of the Eloi” scenario) we would all consume huge quantities of doctor-approved, highly processed, tasteless, odorless, barely nutritive and properly labeled pap – very expensive pap – and live for hundreds and hundreds of years on it. But in the real world I believe (and there’s plenty of good research to back me up) we would all be healthier – and somewhat thinner – if we choose to eat and drink smaller quantities, and less processed products.

In general I support the idea that we all should know what goes into our food. But I also believe that the idea of nutritional labeling can be taken too far, and for specious reasons. I believe that some of the proposed rulemaking crosses that line. I do support full disclosure of what goes into our wine, but I’m not convinced that a complicated data panel added to each sales unit is a smart way to go.

I like the idea of expanding the concept of the NutritionData website, streamlined to work on mobile devices like cell phones. That’s what I’m gearing up for, whether or not TTB mandates a nutritional panel on each bottle.