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Food and Nutrition

Vintage Wine and Application of Enhanced Allergen Regulations

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Health Canada has developed a position on the labelling requirements of vintage wines in preparation for the August 4, 2012 coming into force of the regulatory amendments to enhance the required labelling for food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites. Health Canada's position is that the new allergen labelling regulations should continue to apply to all non vintage wines and vintage wines with a year date of 2012 and later, but that vintage wines with a year date of 2011 and earlier can continue to be sold with their original labels.

Background

The enhanced regulations for the labelling of food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites were specifically developed to ensure that Canadians with food allergies, celiac disease and/or other sensitivities have consistent and understandable food label information to make informed food choices. Following the publication of the enhanced regulations for the labelling of food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites in the Canada Gazette Part II, Health Canada was made aware through consultations with the Canadian Vintners Association, of issues related to the application of the new enhanced labelling regulations and the manner in which they could affect the labelling of wine.

For standardized wines, there are two manufacturing practices that have been examined in detail because of their potential to trigger the enhanced labelling requirements: (1) the use of fining agents, and (2) the addition of sulphites.

(1) Fining Agents

Although wines may be manufactured using allergen- or gluten-derived fining agents, mainly ovalbumin (protein from egg), casein (protein from milk) and, to a lesser extent, isinglass (protein from fish), the enhanced labelling requirements are only triggered under the Regulations if the protein, or a modified protein, including any protein fraction, from an allergen source is present in the finished product.

After conducting a thorough review of the current available scientific information, Health Canada scientists have concluded that the use of allergen-derived fining agents does not normally result in any appreciable amount of protein from food allergens remaining in the wine, particularly when usual manufacturing practices such as filtration steps are employed. As such, the use of food allergen-derived fining agents in wine production, following good manufacturing practices, is not expected to produce wine that would pose a risk to egg, milk, or fish allergic consumers. Therefore, in most cases of allergen-derived fining agent use, the new labelling regulations for priority allergens would not be triggered. However, if the use of a food allergen-derived fining agent resulted in a wine which contained a significant amount of residual protein from the food allergen, such as a wine that was not filtered following the addition of the fining agent, then there could be some risk to an allergic consumer and the new allergen labelling regulations would apply.

(2) Sulphites

Unlike fining agents, sulphites may be added directly during wine production with the intent that they remain in the final wine product to prevent oxidation. In fact, most commercial wines have sulphites added to them during production. Therefore, the largest impact on wine because of the new labelling regulations arises when sulphites are added to wines and are present at levels of 10 parts per million (ppm) or greater. In this case, these wines would be required to declare sulphites on the label, either in the list of ingredients or as a separate "Contains" statement.

Canadian allergen labelling requirements were developed so that consumers can expect allergen information to be presented on prepackaged food labels in a systematic, consistent and understandable manner that will allow consumers to make informed food choices. Although it is generally believed that sulphite-sensitive consumers are aware that wines contain sulphites, and many manufacturers voluntarily declare the presence of sulphites, the consistent and systematic labelling requirement for sulphites in wines, when necessary, further improves the ability of sulphite-sensitive consumers to avoid sulphite-containing wines.

Assessing the Risks

Vintage wines are a unique product in that they can remain on the market for many years and there also exists a secondary collectors market where older wines are bought and sold at auction. Health Canada has considered the potential risk of wines which are labelled according to the rules that were in place prior to the enhanced labelling regulations. These wines could contain added sulphites without declaring them on the label. In rare circumstances, they could also contain protein from food allergens due to fining agent use, also, without indicating this on the label. While these vintage wines may have the potential to cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals, it is Health Canada's opinion that they are unlikely to represent a significant health risk for the following reasons.

First, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently tested 100 wine samples representing wines available on the Canadian market for egg and milk protein and none of these samples were found to be positive for either allergen. These results are consistent with related surveys involving commercial wines which have shown that the majority of wines treated with fining agents using Good Manufacturing Practices do not contain detectable residual protein.

Second, sulphites have been used as a preservative in wines for a very long time. As a general rule, standardized wines that do not have added sulphites have a much shorter shelf life, so any standardized wines that are stored for longer periods of time are likely to have been treated with sulphites. As such, it is reasonable to presume that the majority of standardized vintage wines likely contain added sulphites. Standardized wines have not previously been required to declare added sulphites in Canada, however most sulphite-sensitive consumers have learned to avoid commercial wine or to look for specific brands that they know are made without the use of sulphites. Because of the general practice of sulphites being added to the majority of wines, Vintners who have not added sulphites during the manufacture of their wines normally make it a practice to advertise this fact in some way by using descriptors, such as "100% Organic", "No added sulphites", or "Low Sulphite".

Health Canada's Opinion

Based on its review of this issue, Health Canada does not expect vintage wines with a production year date of 2011 and earlier to pose a risk to sulphite sensitive or food allergic consumers and is of the opinion that these wines can continue to be sold indefinitely without changing their original labelling with respect to the enhanced allergen labelling amendments. This opinion is also based on the fact that these products are destined specifically for adults who are better informed regarding the potential for allergens or sulphites to be present in wine. Furthermore, within a relatively short timeframe from the implementation of the enhanced labelling regulations, standardized wines dated 2011 or earlier will become less and less common on store shelves and the proportion of standardized vintage wines from 2012 and later will increase until only a very small percentage of vintage wines on store shelves will not be labelled according to the new regulations. Nonetheless, and as an additional risk mitigation tool, Health Canada will collaborate with food allergy associations and the Canadian wine industry to ensure that Canadians who are allergic or sensitive to sulphites are more aware that they need to consider the vintage date as part of their reliance on wine labels to obtain accurate information on the presence of priority allergens or added sulphites. This decision regarding the continued sale of vintage wines with a year date of 2011 or earlier has been developed in consultation and with the agreement of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The new allergen labelling regulations will apply to all non vintage wines and to wines with a year date of 2012 and later, but not to vintage wines with a year date of 2011 and earlier.

Following the implementation of the new labelling regulations, individuals with sulphite sensitivity in particular, as well as individuals concerned about the use of food allergen derived fining agents, should only consider consuming non-vintage wines or wines with a vintage year date of 2012 and later, which do not have the presence of any sulphites or allergens indicated on the label, since only these wines will require labelling which meets the new requirements.