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.