QR Code Regulations in the Beverage Alcohol Industry

November 15, 2022

By Robert M. Tobiassen, President of the National Association of Beverage Importers, Inc. (NABI) 

QR codes are not new to beverage alcohol labeling, but they’re seeing a rise in popularity as consumers become savvier to the technology. Once bars are restaurants reopened in the summer of 2022, QR codes became the virtual menu tool of choice. Walk around a major city today and you’re bound to see a black and white code on bus stops, store fronts and product packing. So, what considerations must you keep in mind when including a QR code on your label?

The major European trade association “spirits EUROPE” released survey results on the widespread consumer’s acceptance and use of QR codes. Digital labels are becoming a popular way to access a large volume of product information for consumers in Europe. Eight in 10 respondents are now used to scanning QR codes and over 95% of those who have used them on food and drink products find that they offer a useful way to get detailed product information. The findings are the result of a representative consumer survey conducted by market research firm Appinio on behalf of spiritsEUROPE across five European countries (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and demonstrate the need for policymakers to accept that we have to modernize and re-think the way we share product information with consumers.

In the U.S., the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) guidance on QR codes dates from a 2013 Industry Circular on Social Media section on “Links and Quick Response Codes.” In whole, TTB advised:

“Industry members may also enable consumers to access content by including a quick response code (or QR Code) on a label or advertisement. Consumers can scan the QR Code with their mobile device to access the additional content. Depending on the type of media that is linked to by the QR Code (such as the industry member’s webpage, mobile application, or blog), the relevant regulations and TTB public guidance documents will apply. If, for example, the QR code links to a document, such as a drink recipe using an industry member’s product, the recipe will be considered an advertisement because it is a written or verbal statement, illustration, or depiction that is in, or calculated to induce sales in interstate or foreign commerce. The regulations regarding prohibited practices or statements (in §§ 4.64, 5.65, and 7.54) also would apply to the additional content obtained by scanning the QR Code as they would for any other advertisement.”

(Note: since this blog was first published, the TTB issued a new industry circular (IC) 2022-2 on social media including QR codes, which supersedes IC 2013-1. Concerning QR codes, the new circular maintains the existing policy first announced in 2013. The new IC is valuable in confirming that this is still the position followed by TTB.)

Essentially, TTB evaluates it as a form of advertising. Additionally, allowable revisions to existing COLAs without requiring a new COLA application include the ability to “Add, delete, or change UPC barcodes and/or 2D mobile barcodes, e.g., QR codes or Microsoft Tags.”
Some NABI observations on QR codes:

  •  As more additional and non-mandatory label information moves behind the QR wall, there are less cluttered labels, thereby allowing label designers more flexibility and creativity.
  •  It is much easier for an industry member to “correct” details and information in cyberspace via the QR code than a product recall on prohibited information or representations on a printed label.
  • These are new ways to get a lot more information quickly to the consumer “who takes the initiative to check”—kind of an “I want it all and I want it now” outlook.
  •  From the regulator’s perspective, more information available to the consumer via a QR code makes policy decisions on mandatory elements of information more important because they must appear on the printed label and will attract the consumer’s attention immediately.

QR codes are a solid line of communication with consumers and even if consumers decide they do not like the product or agree with the information, at least they had the good intention of seeking it out and evaluating it. In Dr. Frankl’s view, the QR code is a stimulus that consumers, in turn, respond to in making their decisions. It expands their freedom of choice.

Robert M. Tobiassen is the President of the National Association of Beverage Importers, Inc. (NABI), Washington, DC, since October 2018. Prior to that appointment, he was the Principal at Tobiassen Consulting Plus Solutions LLC, after a 34-year Federal service career with regulatory, taxation and administrative and judicial enforcement experience with the domestic and global alcohol industry and served in the career Senior Executive Service (SES) as Chief Counsel, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Department of the Treasury. 

Mr. Tobiassen holds a B.A. in Political Science with distinction from the University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from the Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon where he served on law review, and a LL.M. in Taxation from the Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC. Among other awards, Mr. Tobiassen received the 2003 Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious SES Executives and the 2012 Distinguished Service Award from the Secretary of the Treasury.  

The views expressed in this article are Mr. Tobiassen’s views and do not reflect those of NABI. For more information about NABI and membership options, please visit bevimporters.org  

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