ASDA downsizes strawberries – brilliant publicity stunt

Reports in the tabloid media suggest that Asda has reverted to selling strawberries in “pounds”.  So what has really happened?

The Sun got the story first on Friday, 27 May, and ran it as follows.

ASDA is going back to pounds and ounces on fruit and veg for the first time in 16 YEARS.

From tomorrow shoppers can snap up a 1lb punnet of strawberries after customers asked for the return of imperial measures. Under EU laws, that would be 453.39 grams.

Asda said seven in ten shoppers still get confused by metric weights.

Buyer Andy Jackson said: “We have a steady stream of people asking us to put imperial measurements back on packs. We have taken a common-sense approach.”

The EU rules came into force in 1995. Sunderland greengrocer Steven Thoburn was hailed as a metric martyr for his long campaign to continue selling bananas by the pound.

Asda will get round EU regulations by displaying metric measures next to the old imperial ones. A spokeswoman said it may extend pounds and ounces to other fruit and veg if the strawberry trial is successful.

Belatedly, on Monday, 30 May, the Mail and the Express joined in.  This was how the Express reported it:

Strawberries sold by the pound in EU snub

ASDA is selling punnets of strawberries in pounds and ounces for the first time in 16 years from today.

The supermarket has ­become the first major UK retailer to ignore a 1995 EU directive ordering shopkeepers to sell fruit and vegetables in metric grams and kilos or face the threat of prosecution.

Warwick Cairns, of the British Weights and Measures Association, said: “This a victory for common sense.” Asda said if the trial with strawberries was successful, imperial measures could be displayed on other goods.

It has got round the EU law by displaying metric measures in small lettering alongside the imperial.

Asda strawberry buyer Andy Jackson said: “Customers had been badgering us to sell our fruit in pounds and ounces.”

Daily Express columnist and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said: “I still ask for things in ­imperial measurements­.”

So what (if anything) has actually happened?

The above reports are so garbled and inaccurate that it is difficult to know where to start first.  The legal background (UK law – not EU) is as follows:

  • Shops can package goods in any size they like (apart from wine and spirits).  However, the package must be labelled with the contents in metric units, with the option of a “supplementary indication” in other units.  Any supplementary indication must not be more prominent than the legal, metric indication.
  • If goods are sold by weight, the “unit price” per kilogram or 100 g must be displayed –  either on the package or on an adjacent shelf label.
  • There are a number of exemptions, such as “countable produce” and open containers (relevant to genuine punnets of strawberries found in small shops and markets).  In these cases, the “unit price” need not be displayed.

A visit to my local ASDA revealed that they are complying fully with the law.  Strawberries are currently on sale in 454 g sealed packets (labelled  454 g/  1lb e), and the nearby shelf label gives the price per kilogram ( £4.41/kg) (see pictures).

All that seems to have happened is that ASDA has reduced the size of its packages from 500 g to 454 g.  Whether they have also reduced the price per package by a corresponding 9% (or whether this wheeze conceals a hidden price increase) – is not stated.

A trawl through the internet revealed that Sainsbury and Ocado (and possibly other shops) also sell strawberries  in 454 g or 450 g packages.

Conclusions

  • ASDA are acting perfectly legally and have not “ignored an EU Directive” or “got round EU law”.  In any case it is UK law.
  • ASDA have a brilliant publicity department.
  • Tabloid journalists are gullible and prefer to reprint press releases or recycle each others’ inaccurate stories rather than check the facts.
  • This is a non-event

Recommendations

  • Always check the “unit price” (the small print on the shelf label) before you buy.
  • The Government should help shoppers by publicising and explaining the benefits of “unit prices”.
  • Beware of fruit sold in open punnets.   Unless the trader is prepared to weigh the contents and quote the unit price (per kilogram), you don’t know whether you are being ripped off.
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64 Responses to ASDA downsizes strawberries – brilliant publicity stunt

  1. Ezra Steinberg says:

    While this posting is most informative, it is alas quite wrong in one respect by calling this a "non-event".

    Technically, the laws are being complied with, yes. But the whole dust-up is yet another clear sign that large portions of the UK public are still more comfortable in certain areas of daily life with Imperial that with metric. The entire publicity stunt also reinforces in the minds of the British public that metrication is an EU plot to deprive the UK of its sovereignty and impose a "foreign" way of dong things (as if a decimal currency is not "foreign" compared to the old currency!).

    Unfortunately, we've had the same problems here in the States where a very modest reform of our private health insurance system was called by the nay-sayers "socialized medicine" in order to frighten the public into opposing it. Lies and distortions are the favorite tools of those who wish to manipulate the masses.

    The lack of political will (or vision) on the part of successive UK governments has kept the country mired in this muddle. I fear it will emerge from this muddle only if a new lot takes power in Westminster (or the USA finally gets its own "new lot" and has the vision to announce a program to convert to metric!).

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  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I forgot to mention that since ads (either in the media, online, or in the store) are not required to display metric, the shopper will effectively see only Imperial in all the announcements about how the strawberries are being sold. Only the shelf label (which many ignore) and the label on the container will have metric. But with the Imperial displayed first and just as prominently as the metric (using some weird oddball number like "454") the entire shopping experience will essentially be Imperial only.

    This reminds me of the situation for automobiles sold in the USA. Yes, all of the engineering, design, manufacturing, tools, etc. are metric. But the American consumer sees advertising and dashboard instruments that use only "Imperial" (actually US Customary), so their consumer experience of the product completely hides the metric reality underneath.

    And who was it that said perception IS reality when it comes to the public? Quite so, I'm afraid.

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  3. Brian Capon says:

    What an awful retrograde step. The backward island nation rules supreme. On the credit side, we have no ASDA, Sainsbury nor Ocado (never heard of that) in our area so I am not affected.

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  4. Ken Cooper says:

    I hope that Erithacus will allow me to add a few further points to his explanation of the legal position.

    Most reports I have seen imply that Asda have reverted to packing the strawberries in imperial and that the metric marking is purely an afterthought added to satisfy the “EU Law”

    This is a total misrepresentation of the actual situation. If you check the pictured packaging, you can see that the strawberries are marked “454 g 1 lb e”
    The “e” mark tells us quite a lot about this package. Firstly, it tells us that the package has been made up in such a way that it satisfies the 3 packers’ rules set out in the UK Packaged Goods Regulations 2006.

    To satisfy this requirement, the packer must use appropriate equipment. Obviously, today, that equipment would be metric. So, effectively, the only difference between a package marked “454 g e” and one marked “454 g 1 lb e” is that the packer has used slightly more ink on the second label. Even though it has a supplementary imperial equivalent marked, it is still packed to a metric amount on metric equipment.

    However, just for the purposes of this exercise, let’s imagine that it’s summer 1994, and our packer has the choice of using imperial equipment.

    Even in 1994, I could have told by the labelling that this particular package was packed to a metric amount, as 454 g is a larger amount than 1 lb. Conversely, had the pack been marked 453 g 1 lb, I would have been able to tell that it was packed in imperial, as the imperial amount was larger. (Please note – this does not apply in 2011 – the metric is always primary nowadays)

    However, this simple historical fact helps to demonstrate why metric is the superior system for weighing and checking pre-packed goods. Anyone with a long memory will recall that far more packages were marked “454 g 1 lb e” than “1 lb 453 g e”. This has nothing to do with compulsion and everything to do with practicality.

    In simple terms, to use the average weight provisions of the Packaged Goods legislation, the packers have to work out figures based upon the average weight of their product and upon percentages of product below two specified error allowances. This can often involve the use of standard deviations and other statistical methods.

    Now, consider which is easier to work out – the average and standard deviation of 452g, 458g, 448g, 456g and 468g or the average and standard deviation of 15 and 15/16oz, 1lb and 1/16oz, 15 and 13/16oz, 1lb and 1/8oz and 1lb and ½oz. No wonder the packers all went metric!

    Erithacus also questions whether Asda are using this new package size to hide a price increase. If you read last year’s Asda press release at http://your.asda.com/2010/7/2/come-on-andy-murray-fans-enjoy-asda-strawberries-as-they-wait-for-big-match-at-wimbledon, you will see that a 300g pack of Elsanta strawberries was priced at £1 in Summer 2010.

    The photo taken by Erithacus today would appear to show that the price has remained constant, yet the pack size has reduced by nearly 25% to 227g!

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  5. philh says:

    Shoppers should be thankful that metric labelling is required. That way ASDA cannot hide the fact that the new quantity is smaller (assuming the allegedly confused customer can count and knows the difference between 500 and 454).

    Furthermore they should be grateful for metric unit pricing. Consider an example I came across recently. Heinz baked beans are being sold in 1 kg fridge packs and my local Waitrose had them on display, priced at £1.69 (if memory serves), next to the 4 x 415 g tin packs. The unit price label for the latter was marked 13.3p / 100 g. Now I reckon Waitrose were trying to play down the fact that the fridge packs were so dear by using price /100 g instead of price/kg but thanks to both the metric system and decimal currency it is quite easy to see that 13.3p/100 g is the same as £1.33/kg!

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  6. michduncg says:

    I work for Waitrose, and I am not surprised by Asda's stance here. As they are owned by Walmart, it probably means that they are able to cut costs even further by buying the same size 'punnet' containers. Being Asda of course, the thousands of Daily Mail readers will probably complain about quality of the product, sales staff etc. I have posted on the comments column of all 3 of the newspapers you report as well as on Asda's Facebook page -- if anyone else gets a chance can they go and do the same as well as giving 'thumbs up' on the Daily Mail website.
    We will of course have to see what stance the rest of the UK supermarkets take. Co-Op have already reintroduced Imperial weights and prices alongside metric on their fresh veg and meat. Annoyingly, for metric cooks, they also seemed to have reintroduced imperial quantities on their meat, selling 454g as a standard pack size of chicken breasts for instance. At Waitrose, we reintroduced Imperial price marking back on loose Fruit and Veg only. But is this huge publicity stunt on Asda's part likely to bring about any further change? Well Lidl and ALDI are very popular with the older generation and being German owned there is little chance that they will follow suit. Tescos have more interests in Europe than their disastrous foray in the US, and so I presume that they will be more metric focussed. I wonder what Sainsburys will do?
    Of course, what is more worrying is that there is still a demand for this in first place! And reading the columns on the newspapers concerned, its fairly vocal! Is it really the case, as Asda claim, that 70% of people don't use metric? That is very worrying! 40 years on and we seem no further forward.

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  7. Andrew Ferguson says:

    I agree that the worrying thing with all this is that there is still a lot of anti-metric feeling amongst the public. And in a lot of cases it seems to be based purely on gut feeling rather than any real life difficulties. I mean realistically you don't even use measurements for fruit and veg, you simply pick up the qauntity you need so the idea that there are really people who have daily difficulties due to measurements is simply ludicrous. I'm fairly confident that if the supermarkets switched overnight to Martian units, I'd still come back with the right amount of food.

    In any other country the government, the supermarkets and the media would all be pulling in the one sensible direction. If the government had the guts to tell people that we are going metric for our own good, then the tabloids wouldn't be able to peddle these stupid myths

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  8. Henry says:

    One of the recommendations is:
    'The Government should help shoppers by publicising and explaining the benefits of “unit prices”.'
    1. It's the job of every Local Authority Trading Standards Service to educate consumers about unit prices. Sadly most don't, and it's not considered to be a priority.
    2. I cannot recall seeing an article about unit pricing and metric labelling in Which? magazine. This magazine is published by the Consumer Association; sadly it doesn't appear to consider metrication important.

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  9. derekp says:

    The British Weights & Measures Assn web site has several examples of 'metric downsizing'. This Asda story is clearly an example of the imperial equivalent. It shows how, by retaining two systems of measurement and by regularly switching rational pack sizes between them, supermarkets and food companies can confuse customers and thereby increase prices. Buyers beware!

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  10. Andrew Ferguson says:

    exactly.

    which is why magna carta required a single set of measures and why every other country in the world uses one system or the other.

    After god knows how many years we are showing no signs of even moving in the right direction! As incompetance goes, you couldn't make it up, you really couldn't. Don't get me wrong, there are more important things than metrication, but what I find most incredible is not that progress is slow, but that there are NO PLANS to ever finish the job! Official plans are for the UK to retain a dual system and that is just unbelievable!

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  11. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Most of the comments in the Daily Express to this story can be summarised by a bunch of sheep shouting “Sod the EU” without paying any regard to the harm that having two systems of measurement is doing to the country. How many of those who are vocal in supporting the imperial system can add up a set of measurement quoted in pounds and ounces, yet alone find their average? Try using a calculator – it is even more difficult.

    The real irony of the matter is that it is the EU that has dragged the United Kingdom kicking and screaming into the twentieth century (yes, I meant twentieth century), otherwise we would have an even bigger muddle than we have now.

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  12. John Steele says:

    No, Andrew. The US is worse. We REQUIRE dual measure on most goods. We are trying to amend the relevant legislation so the metric is required and the Customary is allowed as a supplemental option -- basically what you have now. The Food Marketing Institute has opposed this since at least 2002, with the result that it has never gone to Congress for a vote.

    As a result, we have some product in round metric sizes, and other product (or the same product from another manufacturer) in round Customary sizes. It actually can be worse, and we are the example of where it is worse.

    In our dual system, metric and Customary are on equal footing and either can be the primary. I have nothing good to say about such a system and wouldn't recommend it to Iran or North Korea, much less an ally.

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  13. John Frewen-Lord says:

    As ASDA is owned by American giant Wal-Mart, that may also have something to do with it. For example, does ASDA have to report everything back to Wal-Mart and in the process have to convert it all to Imperial units? Having it already 'converted' would help Wal-Mart, if not ADSA's customers.

    The sad part of this is that virtually the whole WORLD is metric. We in the UK just don't seem to get this simple fact. Why do we choose to swim against the tide and make our lives more difficult for ourselves, simply because it's 'our heritage', 'the US hasn't metricated', etc. The present government has stated it wants to try and re-instate the UK's once prominent position in the world. This is not the way to go about it. Instead, it will doom us to perpetual mediocrity. Perhaps that is what we really want.

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  14. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Further to my previous comment, I just checked the 'Your ASDA' website where there is an article ('Pounds or kilos...'). There were six comments there - 5 against going back to imperial measures, and one for (and the one for offered no practical reason, just that it's part of our British values, which is meaningless). If that is a realistic cross section of the population as a whole (and I admit that 6 is hardly statistically valid), then ASDA may have just made a big mistake here.

    Naturally I added my own comment there, adding to the 5 against ASDA's 'initiative'.

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  15. Andrew Ferguson says:

    I disagree John. The US is NOT worse because they basically use a single system, which is understood by everyone. We might be further down the line than them in terms of metrication, but thats no good until we complete the switchover. Being caught between the two is in my view the worst situation.

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  16. John Steele says:

    Andrew,
    Where we agree is that both our countries are stuck in the middle.

    In the US, the dual is required by law, and the manufacturer has the choice of whether to use a round metric or Customary fill. Blueberries from Costco (especially if imported or also intended for Canadian markets) are sold by round metric weight (in standard weight, sealed packages). At my supermarket, by round dry measure (dry pints, dry quarts). Some supermarkets have abandoned dry measure and sell by Customary weight. Try comparing that.

    Virtually all olive oil is sold in round metric fills, virtually all other vegetable oil, canola, corn, soy, safflower, sunflower) is sold in round Customary fill. Wine vinegar (and other "fancy" vinegar) is sold in round metric fills, "plain" vinegar is sold in Customary fills.

    Admittedly in these cases, the dual units are present and I admit I understand Customary well enough to shop. I feel VERY uncomfortable using Customary in engineering calculations and would only do the simplest calculations without converting to metric. My entire professional career (and for that matter, my engineering education) were entirely in metric. There are certainly Americans who only use Customary and don't understand metric at all. There are many others who continuously straddle the fence, and wish we could move on to one system -- metric.

    The exact points of mess vary, and it is certainly debatable who has the greater mess, but we have PLENTY of units mess, and have to be considered a contender. 🙂

    We also have special cases where only one set of units are required and the requirements vary. Wine and spirits must be sold in metric amounts. Beer must be labelled in Customary (although supplemental metric is permitted, but rarely seen). Random weight packages of meat, produce, etc, must be sold by the pound, while standard weight packages must be dual. So 2 kg of apples is OK in a standard weight package, but not if they were loose in a bin and weighed out.

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  17. A question: is it a bad thing, as a general rule, for a country to use more than one system, or does this apply just where measurements are concerned? Languages, for example - should a country like Switzerland have three official languages, or should it convert everyone to just one? And should that one be English, which is fast becoming the international language? It would make things cheaper and simpler and more modern, and would avoid all sorts of confusion. Or on the other hand, should people be allowed to use whichever system or systems they damn well please without the state telling them what to do?

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  18. Erithacus says:

    @ Warwick

    Your analogy is false. In Switzerland when a German-speaker converses with a French-speaker, they agree at the outset which language they are going to use (normally the language of the one who starts the conversation). In my experience most Swiss people speak at least two of the languages - and often perfect English as well! They certainly don't each speak in their own first language. As far as measurement is concerned, in Switzerland everybody uses metric units.

    In Belgium, also a trilingual country, it is a legal requirement that Dutch should be used for all official purposes (including road signs) in Flanders, French in Wallonia, and German in the eastern borderland with Germany. So there again it is only one language at a time.

    Competing systems of measurement in the same country at the same time with no agreement on which one to use are obviously "a bad thing".

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  19. John Frewen-Lord says:

    To Warwick Cairns: I would like to test you as regards your real agenda. You state that you favour choice (even though choice has never been an option since the days of Magna Carta, as others have stated). But let us assume that, as any sensible country would legislate, there is to be NO choice in what measuring units you use - it's just one system or another (and I mean NO CHOICE - either all metric, or all imperial).

    In which case, what would be your answers to the following questions:

    Would you wholeheartedly support that the UK revert solely to imperial meaurements and ban metric units? Yes or No?

    Would you wholeheartedly support that the UK complete its metrication by allowing only metric units and banning imperial units? Yes or no?

    I would be very interested in seeing your answers to both of the above questions.

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  20. Jake says:

    Warwick says English is fast becoming the international language and quotes Switzerland as as example to ask if the people there should not convert to using English as that would make things cheaper, simpler and more modern. I think the people of Switzerland would have to answer that question themselves, but to me it seems highly undemocratic to expect people to have to read the law of their land or defend themselves in a court of law in their own country in a foreign language, however well many of them may speak English on a conversational basis.

    But what we are discussing here is measurement, not language. There can surely be no doubt that the metric system *is* the international system of measurement. If Warwick wants to make things cheaper, simpler and more modern, surely he would not want to perpetuate the current situation we have in the UK of two incompatible half-systems running side by side. By any account that is more expensive, more difficult for everyone concerned and certainly not more modern.

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  21. Andrew Ferguson says:

    To Warwick:

    I sympathise to an extent with your points about freedom of choice, but there are examples all around us in the UK of people who don't understand measurements. Maybe you argue that it doesn't matter if people understand measurements, but allowing freedom of choice is clearly having a detrimental effect on education.

    Banning things is never ideal, but allowing the two systems to exist alongside each other just prolongs the confusion and ultimately is just a lazy cop-out.

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  22. Peter K says:

    It is a fallacy to believe that freedom of choice is possible when it comes to measurement units. Whose freedom? Whose choice?

    If a trader chooses to price his produce using non-standard units, it denies my freedom to compare prices easily.

    As an individual, there is no way that I could ever be able to choose for a trader to use metric scales and for all his produce to be labelled in metric units one day, and then to choose for everything to be in ounces the next. Or for everything to be in dual units one day and single units the next. Or for me to invent my own measurement system and for shops to use it whenever I choose.

    Likewise it is no more possible for me to choose the units used on road signs at any particular time than it is for me to choose which side of the road to drive on.

    Ultimately, a consensus has to be arrived at, and everyone abide by the decision.

    Using dual or multiple units is not a solution either. In addition to causing confusion and reducing clarity, it completely contradicts the wishes of everyone who wants to be able to use one simple system of measurement units.

    There is no analogy between bilingualism and dual unit measurements such as labelling a product 454g(1lb). People (Les gents) don't speak (ne parlent pas) two (deux) languages (langues) at the same time (en même temps).

    As far as freedom is concerned, this can only come when one single measurement system is used for all purposes. Only then will we all be freed from the necessity to learn hundreds of different measurement units, and only then will we be free to easily compare prices, and be free from the consequences of errors made when converting between different units.

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  23. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Given the spotty holdover usage of Imperial and the lack of essential understanding of how Imperial units relate to one another that the younger generation has, I would liken the current situation in the UK less to bilingualism and more like a native tribesman's use of pidgin.

    Not worthy of a great nation and a former international power.

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  24. philh says:

    Completing the process of full adoption of the international metric system in Britain is not analogous or even remotely similar to the global adoption of a (hypothetical) universal language.

    The international system of measurement actually exists and has been developed and maintained by the international community (albeit with Britain taking a leading role) so opting out makes no sense. All we ask here on this forum is for the simple well precedented step of moving to the exclusive use of that system as most other countries have already done.

    English may well be the most widely spoken language but that alone does not make it the best choice for a universal one if the international community decided to adopt one. Furthermore there is no traditional language that could be heralded as more logical or superior to any other. Clearly the world has a long way to go before any agreement could be reached on such matters, though I would acknowledge that there is a growing need for some common language everyone can learn and use even if not exclusively.

    This contrasts sharply with the situation regarding measurement. Most people are probably capable of learning more than one language that they can use alternately but I doubt the same could be said of measurement systems. The metric system is demonstrably better and easier to learn than imperial or any other traditional units so the case for choosing it as a common system is indisputable.

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  25. In answer to your questions:

    Would you wholeheartedly support that the UK revert solely to imperial meaurements and ban metric units? Yes or No?

    Emotionally, yes. But rationally and practically, no. I believe it is right to respect others' choices, even though I may disapprove of them.

    Would you wholeheartedly support that the UK complete its metrication by allowing only metric units and banning imperial units? Yes or no?

    No.

    What I think is right, and what I want to see, is freedom of choice. Which is to say, a return to the situation which existed in Britain for over a century before 2001, where both imperial and metric were legal for trade purposes. It worked.

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  26. John Steele says:

    @Warwick,

    How would you settle a dispute between buyer and seller if one wants metric and one wants traditional units? There are only two ways to settle such a dispute:
    *One must be the default if seller and buyer can't agree on units. Which would it be?
    *The buyer and seller refuse to deal, and buyer looks for another, more flexible seller.
    I suppose there is a third, buyer surrenders and lets seller bully him into seller's choice; I must admit that is not a natural choice for me and didn't occur to me until I almost finished the message.

    If one (preferably metric) were established by law as the default, I could live with traditional being used where seller and buyer have mutually agreed. Since the government (in the US and UK) clearly has the authority to establish the units of trade, I'm not sure the government should assume any responsibility for certifying measurement instruments in the non-preferred units. The responsibility would fall on the buyer to be sure the seller isn't cheating him (or be cheated).

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  27. Andrew Ferguson says:

    It only "worked" when imperial units were both the units learnt in schools and the units used exclusively in trade, the media etc.

    It stopped working when we began to teach metric over imperial and started to mix and match units depending on the application.

    I can sympathise with the argument to go back to imperial if that is your preferred system. But the use of both together has no advantages other than the fact that nothing needs to be done. Peter K explains very well the reasons why a mixture of units doesn't work.

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  28. Ken Cooper says:

    @ Warwick

    You claim to prefer "the situation which existed in Britain for over a century before 2001, where both imperial and metric were legal for trade purposes. It worked."

    I beg to differ.

    If it worked, why were the authorities still trying to prosecute traders for using old Scots measure in my local area in the early 1900's? Where do you draw the line as to which measures can legally be used, or do we just have a total free for all?

    If it worked, why do US manufacturers appear to have abandoned the ounce and often use decimal pounds for prepacked average weight products? I touched on the unsuitability of imperial for average quantity purposes in my posting above - I can explain exactly why (in long and tedious detail) if you wish. Packaging and shopping habits have completly changed within the last 30 years, never mind the last century.

    If it worked, how can you compare prices, often in the same shop? Pre-2000, I can recall 500g bags of carrots sitting beside loose carrots priced only in pounds. There was never a requirement to unit price in both systems. How do you solve this problem without requiring the trader to dual mark (thus raising his costs)

    If it worked, it was partly to do with the UK system of "prescribed quantities", which ensured that packages were in familiar sizes. Prescribed quantities have been abandoned, due to pressure from the supermarkets. Do you want to reintroduce prescribed quantities? If you do, would those prescribed quantities be in imperial, metric or both?

    I could go on, but I think I've already asked enough questions to show why a free-for-all won't work. I would be interested in hearing your proposed solutions, though.

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  29. Jake says:

    I can drive along a road and see the fuel prices at petrol stations and I can compare them directly because they are all in the same unit of measurement. I can immediately see who has the better price and can make my judgement accordingly as to where to fill up. But if I am looking at produce priced legally per kg or 100 g in a supermarket while the street traders in the local market outside are still pricing in imperial units, I cannot make a direct comparison of price and need to resort to sometimes quite tricky calculations. Not everyone can do this, I'm not very good at doing it myself and I certainly couldn't convert the price to the nearest penny without the use of a calculator and knowledge of certain conversion factors. Is this a normal way of buying and selling in a modern civilised society? The argument is not about freedom of choice, it is about protecting the consumer, including the weakest in society, not about those who wish to bend the law according to their will. Why is this so difficult for Warwick to understand?

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  30. michduncg says:

    Warwick

    Do you think that it is wrong that there is one nationally preferred system of weights and measures that should be applied across all aspects of everyday life?

    Do you think that it right that a Government should have the role of choosing and enforcing this system in the interest of consumer protection and business protection?

    For my own part, I am as passionate about metric as you are about Imperial. I have a good working knowledge of the basic Imperial measurements and I am lucky enough to be able to manipulate and convert easily between the two. I was proud to be told in the 70s by teachers that Britain was getting modern and going metric. We were promised that we wouldn't have kids being left behind in maths and science because they couldn't get to grips with complicated and antiquated measurements that no one used anymore. Of course we know now what has happened. While children leave primary school happy in their maths and measurements, they get confused when older folk start talking to them in Imperial measures of which they have little concept.

    I work for a large retailer and meet a lot of people - staff and customers. What is obvious is that there is a lack of in-depth knowledge of EITHER measurement system. I have customers who ask for measurements in Imperial and when I tell them the answer eg 4'6'' some of them will ask what this is in inches! Younger folk talk about their height and weight in imperial measurements as that is what they are surrounded by. But if you probe a bit deeper then you will see that they don't have an in depth knowledge - they can't convert from inches to feet, or stone to pounds. And as for feet, yards and miles - no idea! They don't have much more knowledge of metric either, but can usually hazard an educated guess. Every year I go skiing. Every year, the travel reps have to 'remind' everyone that they will need to know their weights and height in metric to pick up equipment. And every year, I hear the mutterings as people struggle to convert.
    Its all very well Warwick saying that people should have a choice and in principle I agree. But that choice is only valid when people have a full understanding of what they are talking about in the 1st place. In the meantime we are turning out a workforce of that is generally unsuitable to for purpose - and that should be a cause of concern for everyone.

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  31. John Steele says:

    @Ken

    In the US, the decimal pound is used even more for random weight packages, produce, meat, deli. I don't think I have ever seen ounces used and the clerks would give you a blank look if asked.

    However, on prepackaged goods, the decimal pound (for amounts over 1 lb) is allowed and is the shortest alternative. The law allows either decimal pounds or pounds and ounces. If pounds and ounces are used, "all up" ounces are allowed, encouraged, and commonly used as additional information. As an example, a package of pancake/biscuit mix (the bisquits would be scones to you) could use either "2.5 LB" or "2 LB 8 OZ (40 OZ)" for the Customary marking. The decimal pound saves room, but this manufacturer uses plan B. The metric is 1.13 kg in either case. A Customary fill must be rounded down in conversion and is limited to 3 digits; if he fills in metric, he would have to add a bit more to meet 2.5 LB.

    In your carrot example, our unit pricing laws would allow the grocer to choose either Customary or metric units (which makes it hard to compare different stores) but requires him to use the same unit across all "like product." It might be up to an inspector to argue "like product" (is a parsnip like a carrot?) but carrots are carrots, regardless of packaging. The possible lack of comparison between stores is certainly an issue in our law; it would be better for the consumer if more prescriptive. The present arrangement is geared to the seller who wishes to obsfuscate ("choice" in this context always is).

    Prepackaged goods in the US are a mixture of round metric and round Customary fills. Nobody seems too bothered (of course they are all marked in dual units). People here manage to choose between 500 mL of olive oil and a pint of canola oil without difficulty (or numerous other examples). The opposition comes mostly from the Food Marketing Institute. If we tried to get serious about completing metrication, I think the opposition would come mostly from FMI, not the consumer. I frankly find it amazing (and unbelievable) that the British consumer is still confused after 15+ years; you have to put on blinders and refuse to learn.

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  32. John Frewen-Lord says:

    To Warwick Cairns: Although you did answer my questions, you introduced the obfuscation of choice, when I specifically said No Choice. Otherwise you essentially answered No to the first question - and No to the second, which is contradictory.

    Others have said there should be no choice, for good reason, when it comes to measurement units used in the legal and commercial life of a nation (and indeed the world). I will give you 4 examples:

    1 The world of air travel. All pilots and air traffic control have to use English. You may be a French pilot flying an Indonesian plane landing in China, and you will use English. Likewise when flying at altitudes and speeds instructed by control towers - all units are in feet, nautical miles and knots - imperial I know (except in Russia where metric is used, or was), but that is because the Americans got there first and imposed imperial units on the rest of the world. One system, one language, for our safety.

    2. The world of medicine is all metric. Again, one system for our safety.

    3. Our road signs - still legislated in imperial, but only imperial allowed (and then very specific). Would our safety be improved if one county used mph, the next m/s, the next km/h, the feet/min, etc? Not really. One set of measures, for our safety.

    4. The construction industry uses a Standard Method of Measurement (SMM) - for good reason. There was huge fraud and dishonesty in the industry until the SMM was introduced a century and a half ago. It provided (and still provides) transparency and protection for contractors and clients alike. It uses only one system of measurements and one way of measuring for any particular item of work. So successful has it been that forms of SMM are used throughout the world (except America - need I say more?).

    If only ONE set of measurements (and language even) is prescribed and deemed best for the physical and financial safety of the above four sectors of our society, then it follows that only one set should be prescribed for any other aspect where the public has to deal with either the lawmaker, standards-setter or the commercial world. And today, "rationally and practically" (your words), that has to be metric - you yourself said so.

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  33. Richard Ational says:

    Taking "freedom of choice" to its ultimate position is equivalent to condoning anarchy and the collapse of rational and enlightened society. For example, if I choose to drive at twice the legal speed limit, why shouldn't I, it's my choice ! Murder, rape etc. may quickly follow.

    Thus using "choice" as an argument is a non starter. Neither in my opinion is introspection and sentimentality. If the UK is to diversify its income portfolio in a global market place then it needs to trade, end to end, in the units demanded by the majority and be competent in doing so. Confusing school leavers with a mixture of arcane antediluvian measures and those understood globally borders on insanity if we are serious about the UK being a global player in the 21st century and beyond..

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  34. You may be interested in something I wrote for the Mail re. the Asda strawberries issue:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1394311/The-rebirth-imperial-measures-Why-pounds-weigh-back.html

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  35. derekp says:

    No marks to Asda for originality - Tesco ran this publicity stunt long ago.

    On 14 July 2000, Tesco issued a press release that included the following:

    “Imperial weights and measures are to be introduced and highlighted in a move designed to help confused shoppers.

    Tesco will reintroduce price per lbs on product packs, imperial weights will be enlarged on shelf labels and metric will be dropped from point of sale material.

    New posters and point of sale labels are being rolled out to all 650 Tesco stores. These will headline prices in imperial units. However to remain legal, all shelve edge labels and labels on products will carry both metric and imperial unit pricing.”

    As you would expect, the usual suspects chorused their support. Jeremy Titford, then Leader of UKIP, is quoted as saying: “Tescos (sic) announcement is a vindication of my Anti-metrication Campaign.”

    Clearly, Tesco’s move to dual pricing would have carried an ongoing cost, and this would have to be justified by a resulting increase in sales. I rarely shop in Tesco, but I have a feeling that Tesco has moved on. Perhaps the failure of its venture in the USA and its success elsewhere in the world gave it food for thought.

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  36. Jake says:

    If metrication had been properly completed in the 1970s and there were now a call for some kind of limited return to imperial measures, I'm sure Warwick Cairns would have been arguing just as forcefully not to put the clock back and to stick with metric measures because that is what he would have grown up with. His argument for maintaining the present confused state with part metric and part imperial is nothing other than sentimentality for what has been around him all his life. I am very sentimental about certain things myself but I know that things which serve no modern function and indeed are hindering the development of our nation have no purpose in a modern society. Imperial measures fall very clearly into that bracket.

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  37. Peter B says:

    Warwick Cairns (from the Daily Mail):

    It is with pleasure and astonishment that shoppers have found 1lb punnets of strawberries back on the shelves of Asda for the first time in 16 years...

    Not for this 38-year-old shopper.

    most people in this country still feel more comfortable buying food in pounds and ounces

    They may "feel more comfortable", but as a maths teacher I can assure you that most people are better at manipulating weights and volumes in metric, when tested. And that means they are better protected against unscrupulous retailers.

    But what of the young who have been indoctrinated into the metric system?

    They have been taught the metric system. That is no more "indoctrination" than teaching them imperial would be. Metric is taught because it is much simpler to use. I am lucky enough to be very good at mental arithmetic, and I'll do it in a base-16/-14/-8 (or base-12/-3/1760) hybrid if you insist, but I'm much quicker in base-10, and so would the majority of people who aren't maths geeks like me.

    Italians signed up to the metric system in the 1860s, but still do as they please in markets and kitchens, measuring in tazzas (about an espresso cup), bicchieres (a wine glass) and countless other traditional sizes.

    I've just come back from a holiday in Italy. Le tazze are a pretty reliable size wherever you go, but if there is a standardised size, it will be in millilitres. Similarly for i bicchieri. And at markets, butchers, bakers and supermarkets, I saw and heard nothing except requests and weighings in metric.

    All the traditional measures have roots in the distant past. Neolithic farmers would calculate the length of fields in paces, and the height of cattle using hands.

    We're not in the Neolithic; tractors don't pace (I note the John Deere UK brochure quotes their operating speeds in km/h), and cattle are these days weighed in kilograms. Or so my friend who is a farmer tells me.

    But the right system for complex laboratory calculations is not the same as the right way to buy fruit for the family.

    Bald assertion. I've spent several years in the lab doing "complex laboratory calculations" (which are usually very simple in metric) and that's exactly why I prefer using it. It's a highly scalable system: just pick the appropriate prefix. Unless your grocer is using standard notation, or demanding that you buy sugar by the mole of sucrose, I can't see what the problem is.

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  38. John Frewen-Lord says:

    In today's papers (2011-06-09), ASDA had large full page adverts for various pre-packed fruits, each for £1. The cherries, the raspberries, the plums, etc were all in rational metric quantities (250 g, 500 g, etc). The strawberries were labelled as 227 g. No imperial units. Have ASDA had a rethink?

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  39. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Please keep us posted on how ASDA advertises their pre-packed fruits. I certainly hope they have had a re-think (and that no other large chain of stores tries Imperial-only or Imperial dominant advertising).

    Now what to do with the small traders is a whole different kettle of fish ...

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  40. Tony says:

    I hope our consumer champions will be suitably critical of ASDA's moves to confuse consumers by making their sizes and prices inconsistent with competitors. Sadly Which? seems fairly unconcerned: http://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/a-kilo-of-strawberries-or-would-you-prefer-a-pound/

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  41. BrianAC says:

    As I have spent most of my working life outside UK (now well into retierment) I find the Impurial system very hard to take in my daily life. I was shocked to see the amount of pro-Impurial comments v the few pro-metric comments. I too commented, and got the requiered thumbs down votes in return.
    Some comment it is just another language, it is not, there are about a dozen (sorry, ten) different viable world languages, there is only one viable world measuring system, no choices. In my view 454g may be factually metric, but is not a really a metric unit, it is a conversion from the French lb (Livre Ballast I guess), 500g is metric, which is what the French call a pound. 1.136l may be factually metric, but is just a conversion for 2 pints. At the end of the day we buy by what we need, not by what it weighs nor costs, so we come back to the ability to compare like with like. I do not want to buy 1 pounds worth of ham, I want to know if I pay more or less if its packed, processed or cut differently, then buy what I can use before it goes off, and when to re-stock. For that I need round measurements that my small old brain can deal with and that is not lbs, ozs, pints, galls, 1760yds, ft nor ins. Oh how I hated those and links, chains, furlongs. How can anyone say they don't want to get rid of them once and forever? I can only assume it is the same people that never bother (or don't have to) work anything out.

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  42. BrianAC says:

    I would like to add a bit to the American v UK debate if I may. I have worked with UK, American, Japannese and various European pre and post EU standards worldwide and find this interesting. One advantage the Americans have over UK is that metrication aside, they are fully conversant with decimalisation. In that respect I feel that US will go metric a lot faster than UK. In US you have always used decimal currency for example and you use decmal pounds, not ounces. At least that ghost is not there.

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  43. John Steele says:

    @BrianAC

    True, decimals are our friends. That has both a good and bad side.

    In the USA, by using decimals, and picking one unit and sticking with it, we avoid much of the complexity of Imperial. We survey in decimal feet and want nothing to do with yards, rods, chains, or furlongs; eventually we switch to miles. Non-metric industry machines in decimal inches to thousandths or ten-thousandths; common fractions are for carpenters. As you point out, we do random weight packages in decimal pounds, and a deli clerk probably couldn't fulfill an order in ounces.

    The downside: Eventually, the decimal feet of the building lot interact with the decimal inches of the building. The machinist has to talk to the carpenters. The modifications we have made do not create a coherent system, but they push the problem to the background and lower the apparent need to metricate.

    Note: Occasionally, old surveys do have links and chains. Fortunately a link is 1/100 of a chain, and it can be written as decimal chains rather than use mixed base units.

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  44. John Steele says:

    I guess I would have to describe this as a surprisingly unbalanced article from the Birmingham Mail.
    http://www.birminghammail.net/news/top-stories/2011/06/13/walsall-market-traders-back-ukip-campaign-to-resist-metric-measures-97319-28868686/

    It certainly looks like the ASDA decision will be used to open a can of worms.

    To the market stall whiners, I would say:
    *Nobody can ask for a litre of beer because idiots made it illegal to serve (draught) beer in litres or half litres.

    *What drives your big cards is your insistence on posting Imperial as a supplemental indicator when only the metric is required. It seems very unlikely you will get a decision to use Imperial alone. If you want smaller cards, why not give up and use metric.

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  45. David says:

    Asda have an article on their "Your Asda" blog about their decision to dual-label strawberries, and while this may have generated them some publicity, it doesn't really seem to have made them many extra friends: there are a lot of comments on the Asda blog from (relatively) "younger" people (ie, under 40!) who, like me, have never learned, and don't understand, the 'random-base' measurement system.

    Ultimately, a punnet of strawberries is a punnet of strawberries of whatever size it is, but if the punnets were always a round size such as 500 g (like grapes), it would be much easier to work out and compare the per-kilo prices with, say, premium strawberries or organic strawberries etc, to see which was the best deal (and sometimes the premium product can actually be the better deal on any given week!).

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  46. derekp says:

    An article entitled ‘A world of work’ published in New Civil Engineer on 9 June included the following:

    “In China and India and other parts of Asia the growing cities all need metros …

    They are building them on a staggering scale; Shanghai alone has had nearly 100 tunnel boring machines working on its system in recent years and since the first line opened in 1995 has expanded its network to 11 lines with a total of 434 km of track. Another 400 km of track is being added to what is already the world’s largest subway system …

    Guanzhou had 60 machines working last year and Kunming in the west is taking delivery of 12 tunnelling machines.”

    So while China is gearing up for the twenty-first century, Asda/Walmart and the market traders in Walsall can’t yet decide whether they wish to be in the nineteenth or the twentieth century.

    Yes – the Act permitting the use of the metric system in the UK was passed in 1898.

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  47. John Steele says:

    Based on the comments in David's link, ASDA must have VERY selectively targetted the customers they surveyed to get 70% in favor of pounds. The comments look about like the reverse to me.

    Hey ASDA, here's a marketing tip: There is a short future in targetting older customers and alienating younger customers.

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  48. BrianAC says:

    @John Steel*What drives your big cards is your insistence on posting Imperial as a supplemental indicator when only the metric is required.... You just opened a big sore there John.
    My metric crusade here started last year when I bought a bearing extractor tool for my car and had to try to find 5/16 or 3/8 UNC bolts (never did find out which) in order to actually use the thing. An E-mail to my MP got me a very polite reply with a written question sent to the minister of whatever. I now have even got a letter from some minister on the matter, at least I can say officially nothing is going to change either way, any time soon. To back up my E-mail I started looking around the stores at things I really did not want and was horrified to see M10 bolts etc. sub-labeled with impurial equivalents. Talk about confusion! Were they M10 or were they 3/8? In fact 10mm is nearer 25/64ths or 51/128ths, but that would be confusing, wouldn't it? Threads imply a specification of dia, pitch, angle and other details. They CANNOT be dual sized. That really is the pitts and for some reason that upset me a lot. At the end of the day we can do little about it when even the ministers don't seem to think it matters. Simple equation, more confusion equals more profit equals more tax. Now to the point that 90% (at least they used percent and not 9 out of ten) ask in Impurial measure. Well, I can hardly ask for a demi of beer at the pub, its in pints. Elsewhere it is as much as anything just a figure of speech, it does not mean the customer actually wants to be served in Impurial.

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  49. John Steele says:

    @BrianAC

    You are correct. Threads can NEVER be dual dimension. You may need to go to a better class of hardware store and not a wreck-it-yourself big-box store. Of course I don't know the UK market. Our better (old fashioned) stores have good selections of metric and Unified Thread hardware and keep them well separated; Home Depot and the like, not so much. The only dimension that ever matches "well enough" is across the flats on a few sizes where a wrench (spanner) would work on close imperial and metric sizes.

    If the store that sold the bearing extractor doesn't sell the bolts required, I would think you have a case for return (of course, that leaves your bearing stuck, unextracted.

    A quick Google search turns up enough British fastener companies explaining UNC and UNF thread that I would think someone must still make them.

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  50. michduncg says:

    @Brian - keep up the good work! My local MP is a certain Mr Cameron and isn't too bothered about the whole metric argument.

    Isn't it ironic that in the week ASDA and it looks like UKIP grab headlines on the tired (and of course factually incorrect) argument about the EU's involvement etc, that the British Car industry has had a huge capital investment from two metric overseas owners. Given Walsalls' reliance on similar employers, I would be more worried about their future job prospects of my children by confusing them with old world Imperial twaddle.

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