Will 2009 bring metric-only labelling to the USA?

The coming year may see progress in this area. MetricViews offers a guide for the novice.

The most commonly used system of measurement in the US today is the “English” also known as “US customary” or “standard” system, which in part pre-dates the War of Independence. That said, in 1866 the US Congress made the metric system legal although not obligatory. In 1875, the US signed the “Convention of the metre”. In 1889, it received metre and kilogram standards from the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), and in 1893 these prototypes were declared the “fundamental standards of length and mass” for the USA. The yard, the pound, and other measures were then defined in terms of these metric standards.

So in practice, the US now has two systems of measurement, both of which are legal, but not obligatory, for most purposes. However, the position on labelling (as distinct from measurement) is more restrictive. Indeed, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), which is a federal law covering many foodstuffs and some household goods, requires that labels on many consumer products include both metric and “English” measurements.

Hitherto, it has been argued that metric-only labelling of products in the US depends on agreement with the EU. The importance of this is underlined by recent comments from a member of the US Metric Association:

“I think our biggest hope for action on metrication is amending the FPLA to allow packages to be labeled with metric-units only or with dual units. Before work on that can begin we need a vote from the EU to modify Directive 80/181/EEC so that producers can have the flexibility to use either metric or dual units on product labels. .?¦ business interests have blocked action on the FPLA amendment. However, some of the very powerful companies and trade associations have said if the EU vote is favorable they would be willing to withdraw their opposition as long as the amendment allows companies to use metric units only, at their option. They oppose a deadline for labeling their products with metric units only”

This position is summarised in the following table:

Jurisdiction US EU

Legal measurement metric, *metric system(s) and ‘English’

Proposed allowable metric only, metric only, units for labelling OR dual OR dual

(metric and ‘English’) (metric and #sup. unit)

# sup. unit means one or more supplementary units, or ‘supplementary indications’ in EU parlance, which supplement the primary metric unit. It could, for example, be an ‘English’ unit.

* A limited number of imperial units may be used in the UK and the RoI as primary units (for road signs, draught beer and cider, doorstep milk and precious metals). This does not affect labelling of packaged consumer products.

Readers may have noticed that there are two absentees from the table, namely “English only” and “Imperial”, and that the proposed allowable units for labelling can be the same in both the US and the EU, thereby avoiding substantial additional packaging and marketing costs for manufacturers operating in both markets.

All the EU institutions have now voted in favour of modifying Directive 80/181/EEC in the manner outlined above. Because both issues of labelling and the continued use of certain imperial units are covered by the changes to the Directive, the recent vote in the European Parliament was reported in the UK in mid-December 2008 under such headlines as “Government saves the pint and mile”.

The Directive now awaits signing into law (expected early in 2009), after which the UK Government will need to amend UK regulations to allow the current situation on ‘the pint and the mile’ and on supplementary indications to continue after 31 December 2009.

Thereafter, the initiative passes to the US Congress.

There are many points of difference between the Imperial and “English” systems of measure, for example “ton” and “hundredweight” have different meanings and the “stone” is unknown in the US. However, thanks to an agreement in 1959, the Imperial and “English” pound and inch are identical. So if agreement is reached now on labelling, where does this leave Imperial measures, in particular the units of liquid volume which are unique to Britain, Ireland and Canada? Perhaps readers of MetricViews will be willing to speculate.

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9 Responses to Will 2009 bring metric-only labelling to the USA?

  1. With the labelling of food and drinks, it’s not just the units used for weight and volume that are important. Nutritional information is often shown on food and drink labels.
    For energy values I hope these will be prominently shown in kilojoules (kJ). It’s probably far too optimistic to expect that calories (kilocalories) will be shed. The calorie is an obsolete and unnecessary unit, which should be phased out as quickly as possible.

    Philip Bladon / SI Metric-Matters http://www.simetricmatters.com

  2. dygituljunky says:

    Wait, am I reading this correctly?! Are large corporations blocking the FPLA modification in order to get the US to pressure the EU to remove the metric-only deadline?

    This sounds bizarre to me. I would think that large corporations would pressure the US to allow metric-only labeling so that the corporations could meet the EU metric-only deadline.

    Well, then again, maybe this isn’t so bizarre. Corporations want to continue to be able to use the most confusing mix of measures possible so that consumers will stay confused about how much they are consuming.

    We’ve seen enough corporate delay tactics on this and global warming. Why do we continue to allow corporations to run things in North America and in Europe?!

  3. John Frewen-Lord says:

    At first, I thought this was looking like a retrenchment as far as the EU was concerned, in that metric-only labelling was now going to be changed to metric-only or dual labelling. But dual labelling actually exists anyway (legal or otherwise). Our local Lidl shop carries many products (food and non food) that are obviously intended for the European ‘home’ market, yet are dual labelled. These are products that will not be found in UK shops or supermarkets.

    So I don’t actually see any change from a European perspective – but we will see a positive change from the US perspective. Although there has apparently been some resistance on the part of US manufacturers, some may welcome it, as it makes for a common package size between US and Canadian markets. But still not a common label – all Canadian packaging must carry French and English language labelling. I can’t see too many US consumers relishing learning the French wording on their morning cornflakes while having breakfast!

  4. Martin Vlietstra says:

    dygituljunky says:

    “January 2nd, 2009 at 00:06
    Wait, am I reading this correctly?! Are large corporations blocking the FPLA modification in order to get the US to pressure the EU to remove the metric-only deadline?”

    No, I believe that they are trying to restrict foreign competitors from entering the US marketplace.

  5. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Regarding the language used on packaging in North America, many such packages have used so-called “NAFTA” labeling for quite some time now where everything is printed in English, French, and Spanish.

    As for the units used, typically the English text uses US Customary units while the French and Spanish parts usually (though not always) use metric (or dual units).

    With the advent of voluntary metric-only labeling (once the FPLA is amended), I suspect many manufacturers will switch to metric-only (whether multi-lingual or English language-only). A number of US manufacturers have anticipated this development by changing their packaging to “rational” metric sizes and by placing the metric units in first position (with the US Customary units in parentheses). Years ago it was just the opposite.

    Those products not regulated by the FPLA are regulated by the individual states, which all have regulations that conform mostly to the model UPLR (Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulations). The latest revision of the UPLR permits metric-only labeling and all but two states (New York and Alabama) have adopted this change (and New York is currently considering adopting the change).

    With the FPLA amended and the UPLR adopted by all 50 states and US terroritories and possession, I suspect we will see a fairly swift transition to metric-only labeling for pre-packaged goods. What happens with items sold loose is a whole ‘nuther kettle o’ fish …. only time will tell!

  6. Dave Brown says:

    Since the American pint is a little less than 500 ml; and the imperial pint is a little more than 500 ml, perhaps a new “mid-Atlantic” pint could be devised for use in both the USA and the UK. This “pint” could be exactly 500 ml and would pave the way for full metrication in both countries. (Then perhaps the Americans would get the blame for reducing the size of a beer measure, rather than Europe for a change.)

  7. Marcus Berger says:

    This is a very sad day for all of us. Everyone knows that once a deadline for a transition to metric-only is lifted US businesses will IMMEDIATELY start flooding global markets with “dual” labels! They just can’t care less, if the price for them to pay is dual labeling, they’ll be more than happy to oblige. When will people finally wake up to the fact that the REAL issue is the PRESENCE of Fred Flintstone units in labels?? We all know what happened with the Highway Departments transition fiasco in the US. Bottom line? Lift a requirement to standardize on a SINGLE set of units (metric, obviously) and NO progress will EVER emerge. This is reality check, folks. Therefore, the ONLY lasting solution would still be to insist on metric-only, period! The goal is to *eliminate* ancient units, not to legalize its being present in consumer product labels ad infinitum. How can anyone expect that this would be accomplished by *allowing* dual labels, please explain that??? Anyway, I’m sorry but I’m afraid to say that we, SI (metric) supporters, lost the war!!!

  8. John Steele says:

    Obviously, 2009 didn’t bring it. Perhaps 2010 will. NIST has released a press release advocating permissive metric only (manufacturer can still dual label if he prefers). The press release is starting to be used on some food industry related sites.
    http://www.foodproductdesign.com/news/2010/06/nist–proposes-metric-only-labeling-for-some-products.aspx

    I don’t know what NIST’s plan is for bringing it to Congress. As the law is quite clear in requiring dual at the moment, it would exceed the authority of any agency to grant permission for metric-only. Only Congress can amend the current law.

  9. Ezra Steinberg says:

    It is true that only Congress can amend the FPLA. It is also true that certain items have their labeling regulated by the UPLR rather than the FPLA; it is the individual States in the USA that can adopt the provisions of the model UPLR as they see fit.

    So far, 48 of the 50 states have adopted the provision of the latest UPLR that allows for voluntary metric-only labeling on those items governed by UPLR-based legislation.

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