Anheuser-Busch waters down beer, lawsuits claim

St. Louis Post-DispatchFebruary 27, 2013 

Beer drinkers, in several lawsuits filed across the U.S., are accusing Anheuser-Busch InBev of watering down its top brands, but the global brewing giant says the claims are all wet.

Lawyers representing consumers in California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey filed the lawsuits in the past week, alleging that the brewer’s St. Louis-based U.S. unit, Anheuser-Busch, dilutes some of its most popular beers and lists a higher alcohol content than the beers actually contain.

In one of the lawsuits, filed Friday in San Francisco, Nina Giampaoli and John Elbert of Sonoma County, Calif., claim they regularly purchased Budweisers that were labeled 5 percent alcohol by volume.

The lawsuit alleges Giampaoli and Elbert recently learned that the 5 percent alcohol by volume claim on Budweiser labels was overstated. The suit didn’t say how they learned of the alleged misrepresentation.

According to the lawsuit, Anheuser-Busch uses Anton Paar meters to gauge the alcohol content in Budweiser and several other beers, then adds water and carbon dioxide in a final step that waters down the alcohol content by between 3 and 8 percent in a cost-saving move. Budweiser ranks third in beer sales in the U.S.

The suit, which seeks a class action status, alleges Anheuser-Busch dilutes other beers, including Bud Ice, Bud Light Platinum, Michelob, Michelob Ultra, Hurricane High Gravity Lager, King Cobra, Busch Ice, Black Crown and Bud Light Lime.

“There are no impediments – economic, practical or legal – to (Anheuser-Busch) accurately labeling its products to reflect their true alcohol content,” the lawsuit claims. “Nevertheless, (Anheuser-Busch) uniformly misrepresents and overstates that content.”

The lawsuits claim the alleged mislabeling violates the laws of several states.

Anheuser-Busch denies adulterating its beers.

“The claims against Anheuser-Busch are completely false, and these lawsuits are groundless,” said a statement from Peter Kraemer, the vice president of brewing and supply.

“Our beers are in full compliance with all alcohol labeling laws.”

Josh Boxer, an associate attorney with the Mills Law Firm in San Rafael, Calif., which is the lead law firm, said the litigation relies on statements by former Anheuser-Busch plant workers who support the plaintiffs’ claims.

The plaintiffs, however, did not independently test the alcohol content in the beer to confirm whether this was indeed true, Boxer said.

A lack of independent testing should be viewed as a red flag to the veracity of the lawsuit’s allegations, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of industry publication Beer Marketer’s Insights.

“Right now, I’m skeptical,” Shepard said. “Brewers and other large companies are often the targets of class-action lawsuits, and AB wouldn’t have had its vice president of brewing, Peter Kraemer, come out with their statement if they weren’t confident in their standing.”

Similar lawsuits were filed this week in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and more will soon be filed in Ohio and Colorado, among other states, Boxer said. The three lawsuits that have already been filed seek damages of more than $5 million.

Beer labels are regulated by the federal government for ingredients and other listing requirements, but listing the percentage of alcohol by volume, or ABV, is voluntary and not a federal requirement. Brewers list the ABV level to differentiate their products.

Even so, Boxer contends that consumers are not getting their money’s worth and misstatements on labeling violate state consumer protection laws.

“Consumers are paying good money for beer that they think has a certain quality and characteristic that it doesn’t have,” Boxer said.

The lawsuits ask the courts to compel Anheuser-Busch to run a “corrective advertising campaign” to remedy the alleged mislabeled products.

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