The headline in the Houlton Pioneer Times (vol. 152 no. 42, published Wed, Oct 21, 2009) was definitely an attention-grabber, “Police caution consumers on alcoholic lemonade“. The story went on to read,
HOULTON – A Houlton store recently sold “Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade” to a minor who brought the drink to school where it was confiscated by the school’s principal. The drink contains 0.5% alcohol by volume, which is about the same as a “non-alcoholic” O’Doul’s beer.
The verdict is not back from the Maine Bureau of Liquor Licensing defining exactly who can sell and who can purchase the product. However, since any retail outlet can sell beverages with very low alcohol content without a liquor license, theis beverage is likely being sold in other stores in the County and perhaps the state. In fact, the distributor apparently told the storeowner that Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade can be sold to anyone of any age.
“This is unacceptable,” said Melissa Boyd of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse. “We cannot sell alcohol to children in any way, shape or form and we must make these manufacturers accountable for their action”
“In my opinion, this product meets the state’s definition of being an imitation liquor and thus should not be sold to minors,” Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin said. “Regardless of where the product is manufactured, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer and distributor to inform retail outlets of any restrictions on its sale.”
The chief declined to name the business that sold the product, “because the business was unaware of any potential sale restrictions on the product.” The sale happened several weeks ago. No charges will be filed in the matter.
Chief Asselin said educating consumers and storeowners on the matter was a high priority. “I think the main idea to get the word out to other merchants and parents that the product contains a minuscule amount of alcohol and that the packaging of the product could be construed as coming under the state’s definition of imitation liquor,” he said.
To further ensure that products containing alcohol do not end up in the hands of children, Community Voices and ASAP Coalition, both working to reduce underage access to alcohol in Aroostook County, encourage all to be especially attentive of products being purchased and sold.
“It is imperative that communities work together to safegaurd youth from the potential harms of underage alcohol consumption and protect our local retailers from unknowingly participating in unlawful sales of alcohol,” said Michelle Plourde Chasse of Community Voices.
Contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume
Ignition Point The Houlton article would be the match that ignited a state, national and eventually global debate. “Would you allow your child* to drink a beverage with less than 0.5% alcohol content?” (*Let’s assume a child is someone under 21 years of age, to be consistent with the definition of a minor as it relates to alcoholic beverage consumption.) The retelling of the Houlton incident and question would be posed on October 22 by The Bangor Daily News staff reporter, Jen Lynds, who originally received facts about the product from me. This article set into motion the blogosphere which began to weigh in on the matter. Most notably, Slashfood.com, on October 22, and Fark.com later that morning.
Where were people coming out on the question? The vast majority felt that it was OK for children to drink beverages with this low level of alcohol. But where does the federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration stand on the matter? According to section 510.400 of the FDA code, it states:
FDA Code relating to “Non-Alcoholic” Beverages
“Beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, and certain other flavored beverages which are traditionally perceived by consumers to be “non-alcoholic” could actually contain traces of alcohol (less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume) derived from the use of flavoring extracts or from natural fermentation. FDA also considers beverages containing such trace amounts of alcohol to be “non-alcoholic.”
Some examples of other beverages with less than 0.5% alcohol include Bundaberg Ginger Beer (also a fermented soft drink from Australia), Kombucha health beverages, Rubicon sodas (from the UK), and even major soda brands are purported to contain trace amounts of alcohol from the extracts and flavorings used to produce them. None of these brands, including Fentimans, adds alcohol to its products during production, but rather introduces the trace amounts via natural fermentation or the addition of ingredients that employ alcohol as a flavor carrier. At less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, the physiological impact of this amount of alcohol is negligible.
The story isn’t over, however. Word of this brouhaha spread rapidly throughout the US by a number of blogs and then was picked up by UK news organizations including The Newcastle Journal Live (10/28), The Telegraph (10/29), and The Guardian (10/29), with employees of Fentimans, Ltd. in northern England, including Eldon Robson, the great-great-grandson of Fentimans founder Thomas Fentiman, adding their own perspective, sometimes with biting wit and humor, which may not have sat well with the folks in Maine.
As news knows no boundaries, a reporter with the AP in London, Gregory Katz, picked up on the story in the UK and called up the Fentimans, Ltd office in Hexham Northumberland, then shared notes with his Portland, ME compatriot, Clarke Canfield, who called me today (10/29). His first words to me were, “What is your reaction to the State’s Attorney General (AG) determining that Fentimans Victorian Lemonade cannot be sold to minors.” I proceeded to tell him that I had not been informed of that determination by their office and would first like to verify it before I made a statement. What I did relate, was that the product was deemed “non-alcoholic” by the FDA and that the products were marketed as sodas and not adult beverages. Within an hour of the conversation, the story broke over the AP wire, Maine puts squeeze on low-alcohol British lemonade.
Later today, I talked to someone in our Burnaby, British Columbia Canada Headquarters that the AG had determined that the bottle could resemble a liquor bottle and since it intentionally contained alcohol, even though through natural fermentation process, it was considered an “imitation liquor” and could not be sold in the State of Maine to minors (those under 21 years of age).
We are still, very much, in the middle of this story and I have no idea how it will play out. What I know is that these stories have generated a great deal of interest both in the topic and in the Fentimans Botanically Brewed sodas. As a summary, here’s what I believe:
While Fentimans sodas technically are “non-alcoholic”, as defined by the FDA, Fentimans has always chosen to disclose to consumers that the product contains trace amounts of alcohol. Fentimans are time-honored, traditional sodas (we prefer this term over soft drink, pop or fizzy), rich in heritage and of impeccable quality. Though the more sophisticated taste of Fentimans (less sweet and dryer taste) may appeal more to adults than children, I believe it is important to know that our sodas have been enjoyed for generations by adults, youth, and children alike. For this reason, Fentimans North America continues to assure our trade customers (distributors and retailers) and consumers that they are completely safe, suitable for persons of all ages, and should be able to be sold through all channels of distribution. As for Maine, a polite and constructive discussion will follow.
PS – All Fentimans sodas contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, so all products will be affected by this ruling in the state of Maine. Here’s a photo of the line-up:
Curiosity Cola, Mandarin & Seville Orange Jigger, Victorian Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Shandy & Dandelion & Burdock