After many recent setbacks, it is pleasing to report a small but significant bit of progress in the long campaign to make the metric system (SI) the default system of measurement in the UK. This minor (but perhaps somewhat pyrrhic) victory concerns front-of-pack (FOP) labelling.
Examples are beginning to appear in the shops of FOP labelling such as the one illustrated below. This is in accordance with EU Regulation 1169/2011 approved in 2011 and shows energy content in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal).
Both package labelling and measurement units are matters of EU competence, and the European Commission consulted member states on new Regulations which would apply throughout the EU.
Unfortunately – and to their discredit – the UK government argued for FOP labelling to show “calories” only, with no joules. This was their comment in a response to their own consultation in 2012.
We recognise that the provision of energy information in two units of measurement may both restrict space available on pack and impact on consumer understanding of this information. The UK lobbied hard on this issue. However, the Units of Measurement Directive 80/181/EC (as amended) commits all European Member States to use internationally agreed units of measurement – for energy this is kilojoules. We could not secure derogation from the existing Directive during negotiations. The EU FIC therefore states that energy must be labelled in kilojoules as well as kilocalories.”
Note that, instead of explaining or defending the long term benefits of changing to a scientifically-based system, the UK document tries to blame the EU for overruling its attempt to undermine the Units of Measurement Directive.
Sadly, the UK Government were joined in their short-sighted and unscientific lobbying by the Consumers’ Association (Which), who wrote:
“When the energy content is provided, it is important that it is given as calories (Kcal) [sic] on front of pack and that this information is not confused by additional kilojoule (KJ) [sic] information. It is important that the interpretation of the EU Food Information Regulations allows for provision of Kcal [sic] and KJ [sic] information on back of pack, but that it does not over-complicate front of pack nutrition information. Providing energy in both units would negate the point of simplified front of pack nutrition labelling.”
[It is indicative of Which’s level of understanding that they cannot get the symbols right!]
The UK Metric Association (UKMA) had argued that the proper scientific measure, the joule, should be used exclusively and that the obsolete “calorie” should be discarded. Regular readers of MetricViews will know that the joule is part of the International System of Units (SI) and that it is directly related to other units, whereas the “calorie” is an anomaly as its value is determined by experiment (basically heating distilled water) rather than by definition. See this article.
The problem of course is that the “calorie” is deeply embedded in the public mind, in the media, in the food, health and weight-watching industries and in many otherwise wholly metric countries. Defenders of the “calorie” claim that since the general public is familiar with this unit, it would be confusing to try to replace it with a different measure. They also argue that giving both units would be even more confusing.
UKMA would agree that giving both units is undesirable – but for a very different reason. Experience in other fields (e.g. price marking and quantity indication in retailing) has shown that displaying dual units simply enables people to relate to the unit with which they are familiar – and ignore the unfamiliar unit. No progress is made in achieving the changeover to proper metric units. It is another example of the failed policy of “voluntary gradualism” that has bedevilled the UK’s metrication efforts for nearly half a century.
It is for this reason that UKMA favours a “clean break” with the obsolete units. If people can learn to cope with the internet, smartphones and DVD recorders, then joules should be a doddle. All you need to know is that the average energy needed by an adult is 10 000 kJ (10 MJ) per day (slightly more for a man, slightly less for a woman) – and relate your energy intake in kilojoules to that figure (obviously adjusted for your own personal lifestyle).
However, while we should be pleased that the European Commission has insisted on saving the joule, our pleasure should be tempered by the fact that the “calorie” has also been preserved indefinitely. In practice this may make it even more difficult to delete it in the future.