The (Not So) Little Things

The U.S. EPA’s recently finalized E15 label addresses color, wording influence on consumers
By Kris Bevill | July 22, 2011

When it comes to labeling fuels, does it really make a difference if the label is bright orange or peach? Well, yes, actually, it does. So does one single word placed across the top of a label. These and other details were the subject of several months of scrutiny by the U.S. EPA and stakeholders following the agency’s initial E15 label offering last fall. Their conclusion? Less is definitely more and orange is a color best used at Halloween.

The EPA’s proposed E15 label featured a bright orange color to draw consumers’ attention to the label. The color and the word “CAUTION!” were meant to mitigate potential misfueling. But after reviewing more than 80 comments submitted in response to the proposal and consulting with Federal Trade Commission “label experts,” the agency issued a revised, final label on June 23. This muted label follows the color and wording scheme of other FTC labels and is meant to inform consumers. “We believe that the final E15 label provides consumers with the key information they need about the appropriate use of E15,” the agency stated in its final rule, adding that the prohibition against misfueling should further incentivize proper use of the fuel.

According to the EPA, comments were split on whether the use of “CAUTION!” was too harsh or not effective enough. The ethanol industry strongly opposed that portion of the proposed label. The EPA cited comments suggesting that any kind of warning would result in undue skepticism from consumers. Others suggested using stronger warning words, such as “STOP,” in order to provide adequate liability protection for retailers. The agency settled on the word “ATTENTION,” which the EPA said “strikes the right balance.”

Other significant changes to the label included the wording of the text used to identify which vehicles are legally able to use the fuel and what risks are posed to those who do not follow the law. The text on the proposed label was found to be too wordy, based on FTC advice. Consumers are not likely to read detailed labels when performing routine activities such as filling their vehicle with gasoline, the FTC cautioned. Therefore, labels need to be as concise as possible in order to get the point across quickly. Based on this information and other submitted comments, the EPA streamlined the language used to identify approved vehicles, which left enough room to add explicit instructions warning consumers not to use E15 in boats or other unapproved equipment.

Comments had suggested the use of icons to further simplify which motors are compatible with E15, a method that could also help to inform non-English speakers, but the EPA determined that there is simply not enough room on the label to include those items. The agency said it will allow retailers to submit alternative labels for approval, which could include icons, other languages and/or minor changes in shape and size as long as they adhere to the required components of the label.

The move to E15 has arguably been the most hotly contested issue in ethanol’s recent history. The American Petroleum Institute and others filed multiple lawsuits in response to the EPA’s approval for the use of E15 in vehicle model years 2001 and newer, arguing that testing conducted on E15 was not thorough enough. Meanwhile, the ethanol industry expressed disgruntlement over the partial approval, but for opposite reasons.

Ethanol producers claim there is no evidence to suggest potential problems stemming from E15 use in any model year vehicle. The EPA briefly addressed the ethanol industry’s claims in its final label rule, explaining that it will uphold its misfueling prohibition because comments that said E15 would not have adverse consequences on older vehicles did not present information or analysis to support their claims.

While the final E15 label is a much-anticipated step toward final approval of the fuel’s sale, multiple issues remain to be resolved before retailers can begin selling the fuel. In a presentation delivered to attendees of the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in June, Renewable Fuels Association Technical Director Kristy Moore highlighted the “to-do” list, which includes: fuel registration, state regulatory issues, octane certification, automaker warranties, and safety and emergency response procedures. 

—Kris Bevill