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Warning: This wine may contain fish bladders Add to ...

Wine lovers could be in for a bizarre shopping experience when a controversial federal law comes into effect in summer 2012. Get ready for label warnings declaring that your favourite beverage contains - I kid you not - fish, eggs or milk.

As part of new Health Canada food and beverage regulations designed to protect allergy sufferers and people with severe food intolerances, alcohol producers will be required to list an array of odd-sounding "ingredients," things you'd expect to find on a plate next to your merlot rather than in it.

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Though I suspect most consumers are likely to recoil at the thought, animal-derived products have long been used in wine making as gentle clarifying agents after fermentation. Suspended particles become attracted to the substances, clump together and fall to the bottom of a tank or barrel. The clear wine is then separated from the sediment.

It's called fining and is often used prior to, or in lieu of, filtration. Many high-end producers avoid the more aggressive filtration step because the microscopic pores in filter barriers can strip a cellar-worthy Bordeaux or Napa cabernet, say, of the particles that contribute to flavour and longevity.

A derivative of sturgeon bladders (known in the industry as isinglass, though the rules require plain language, namely "fish"), egg whites and milk proteins are all part of the arsenal. So is bentonite, a form of clay, as well as gelatin, typically processed from the hide and connective tissue of livestock. Neither of those, however, is on the allergy list.

It's a stretch to call such substances ingredients, frankly, because they're used to manufacture wine. They're not mixed like preservatives or flavourings. I fear that, to the average Canadian consumer perusing a back label, they will sound like additives.

The otherwise laudable labelling requirements, which take effect Aug. 4, 2012, also dramatically lower the threshold for sulphites, compounds produced naturally during fermentation but also used to protect wine from microbes and bruising due to oxygen. Certain sulphites, also found in dried fruit, can be dangerous to some asthmatics.

Come next summer, wines will be forced to carry a "contains sulphites" declaration if added in concentrations higher than 10 parts per million. In Canada, the current cut-off is 70 parts per million, a level that has excluded most wines. That said, many bottles sold here already carry sulphites warnings, either voluntarily or because of stricter standards in other jurisdictions.

Despite years of lobbying with what they believe is the sober voice of reason, wine producers fear a new age of perplexing labels, paranoid consumers and painful laboratory bills is dawning.

"If you're going to regulate those particular allergens, take a look at the scientific evidence," said Dan Paszkowski, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Vintners Association. "If there's no protein left in the wine after the manufacturing process, including filtering, there's no need to label them because there is no negative impact on consumers."

Health Canada has eschewed setting allowable limits for fining-agent residues and sulphites. That's causing producers to break out in hives because they may have no choice but to re-label all their wines to satisfy liquor boards, which are expected to reject products that could run afoul of the law.

The problem: Today's commercially available kits for detecting fining-agent residues are essentially useless. They measure in milligrams per litre, says George Soleas, senior vice-president of logistics and quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Fining-agent residues in most wines are likely present in concentrations 100 times lower than can currently be measured by industry, he adds. In other words, whether or not a tree falls silently in the forest, winemakers will be forced to yell "timber!"

It's a strange state of affairs when you consider that the allergy threat from fining-agent residues in commercial wines is purely anecdotal - if it exists at all.

Dr. Soleas, who stressed the LCBO will fully comply with the regulations, is unaware of any scientific link. He even offers illuminating evidence to the contrary.

Between 2000 and 2011, the LCBO received approximately 700,000 bottle returns, most due to consumer displeasure. About 380 have been investigated for causing alleged illnesses and only one was related to an allergic reaction, due to quinine found in an Italian bitter called Ramazzotti.

Dr. Soleas's lab, the largest quality assurance facility of its kind in Canada, has never found that an allergy complaint was linked to fish, eggs or milk in wine - this in a jurisdiction with one of the most ethnically diverse, and thus allergy-prone, populations on Earth. "The risk to our consumers of an allergic reaction is extremely, extremely low," he said.

Ironically, Health Canada has granted a temporary exemption to - guess who? - the brewing industry. Beer contains gluten, a substance found in barley, wheat and rye that cannot be tolerated by people with celiac disease. That sound you hear? It's not a tree falling in the forest, it's the belch of a powerful Big Beer lobby. At least that's my guess. If you believe Health Canada, celiac sufferers already knew to stay away from Coors Light and Labatt Blue.

Many spirits, too, are made using barley, wheat and rye, notably whisky, gin and many vodkas. But most are unlikely to be caught in the allergy dragnet, unless they contain flavourings added after distillation, such as cream, as in the case of Baileys, or nuts. That's the position of Spirits Canada. The association argues that ingredients going into the still do not turn up in the final product. "[Allergen-causing]proteins don't carry over from the distillation process," said C.J. Helie, Spirits Canada's executive vice-president.

Meanwhile, wine producers and liquor boards say they'll continue talks with the government, hoping to hammer out more sensible rules. Mr. Paszkowski wants Health Canada to exempt wines produced according to accepted best practices for fining-agent use so that residues never exceed a level that would place allergy sufferers at risk.

If that doesn't work, it could add up to one big headache for the wine industry.

 

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