This is the Laverstoke Park Farm label that drew the complaint

This is the Laverstoke Park Farm label that drew the complaint

This month, Larry Nelson has spotted a flaw in the drinks industry's regulation of its own products.

Some of the older folk amongst you may be familiar with the name Jody Scheckter, especially if you know anything about racing cars. Scheckter rose to fame as a fixture in Formula 1 during the 1970s, culminating in a world championship in 1979 for Ferrari.

Today, Scheckter is a practitioner of organic and biodynamic farming at Laverstoke Park Farm in the south of England. From Laverstoke comes forth a wide variety of products, including organic ale and lager brewed from barley and hops grown on the farm.

Admirable stuff, certainly, yet improbably Scheckter finds himself in a fight over alcohol labelling; a fight that he has already lost, with an outcome that highlights the flaws of self-regulation.

Here are the facts of the matter. All products from Laverstock feature a label with a drawing by Scheckter’s then four year-old son of how he saw his father as a farmer. This image of ‘Mr Laverstock’ is central to the farm’s products, including their beers from launch five years ago, since when tens of thousands of bottles have been sold.

All was well until last year, when a single individual complained to the Portman Group - the UK drinks industry body that encourages responsible marketing of alcoholic products - claiming that the Laverstoke labels could appeal to underage children. The complaint was referred to Portman’s Independent Complaints Panel, which found that the labels were in contravention of its Code of Practice. Subsequently, Portman issued a bulletin to retailers, alerting them to the code violation and requesting they cease stocking Laverstock Ale or Lager with the existing packaging.

Normally, in these instances, the drinks manufacturer either withdraws the product or works with the Portman Group’s advisory service to redesign the packaging.

Scheckter, however, did not go quietly into the night. He launched a legal challenge, arguing that the labels were so child-like in their nature that they would be highly unappealing to self-conscious teenagers. The court refused an injunction and sided with the Portman Group’s interpretation of the Code of Practice, that labels should not appeal to children of any age, not just adolescents. 

After racking up substantial solicitor’s fees, this month Scheckter has thrown in the towel on possible legal remedies; the Portman Group has reissued its retailer bulletin.

All of which has left Scheckter, who had no intention of or desire to have his product appeal to underage drinkers (something recognised by the Independent Complaints Panel in its decision), fuming in a statement over the outcome:

“What the Portman Group has done has nothing to do with responsible drinking and in particular under 18-year-olds drinking," he said. "They admit that our beer does not attract teenagers and their hypothesis that a four-year-old possibly pick up an open bottle of beer from the kitchen table is absurd – like we have a problem with four-year-olds drinking in the UK – it is ridiculous. Never mind the beer having been on sale for five years, with just one complaint.

“I have spent GBP30,000 (US$46,450) on legal fees to date, so I have decided to stop fighting as we are up against a well-funded organisation who is not accountable to any regulations or controls. It’s disgraceful how they are allowed to get away with this. However, putting all this aside, I would feel much worse having to abide by such an unjust act.”

Scheckter is pretty much on the money here. There’s no way that any adolescent looking for street cred would willingly badge a beer sporting a child’s crayon creativity. And, if paragraph 3.2(h) of the Code of Practice does pertain to children of all ages, keeping youngsters from alcoholic drink is a matter of parental responsibility – keep the booze under lock and key, or place it on the top shelf, for heaven’s sake - rather than blame the drinks industry.

With this logic, there’s potentially a problem for dozens of alcoholic drinks. Try this: toddlers and pre-teens familiar with fruit juice drink boxes may well be tempted by beer bottles prominently sporting lemons, oranges and other fruit. Should the branding of these beers be reconsidered in light of the Code?

They won’t, and here’s why. You’re probably wondering why it has taken so long for the Portman Group to act over this clear and present danger to underage drinkers. The answer is amazing: Portman and the ICP only spring into action when a complaint is received from the public. It is a reactive organisation.

Five years, and thousands of units stocked, displayed and sold without a whisper of concern.

Keep in mind that a number of these stockists are signatories to Portman’s Code of Practice, who have pledged to uphold its rules, yet find nothing threatening about Laverstock’s branding.

And, a solitary complaint has led to the scales falling from the eyes of the drinks industry’s self-regulatory machinery and the probable end of a perfectly inoffensive beer brand. This is an absurdity: one voice should not count for more than that of the many who, in purchasing the beer, signalled they had no concerns with its packaging.

Yet, what the Portman Group does is of value: have a look at its website, which lists past rulings made by its independent complaints panel. There are plenty of clear-cut abuses that have been ruled in violation of the Code of Practice, such as packaging for shots that required all the contents to be swallowed in one go.

In some instances, what is, or isn’t, a packaging problem offers the complaints panel considerably more shades of grey to consider than the 50 of nowadays. Consider a complaint brought against supermarket giant Tesco’s range of own-brand, 'Everyday Value' alcoholic drinks. A complainant asked if ‘Everyday’ on the packaging, especially for spirits, acted as an enticement to excessive drinking. In this instance, the complaint wasn’t upheld, with the panel debating at length the various definitions of ‘everyday’. 

Could the Portman Group be more proactive? Should any self-regulatory body be able to initiate action against clear-cut offences? In one sense, the organisation already is, offering an advisory service regarding code compliance for brand owners looking to launch products. More of this type of servicemight be desirable.

As for Scheckter, he’s willing to keep producing and selling Laverstock beers if he can find stockists willing to buy, and he notes an enormous amount of support from social media. 

“I think the smaller companies will buy it; the bigger companies that have signed up for [the Code of Practice] just can’t take a chance from public perception” he told Brewers’ Guardian. “Nobody in their right mind believes that my beer is encouraging under-18s to drink. Nobody in their right mind is doing that.”