US package labelling may be catching up

– but don’t hold your breath. One of our regular readers in the USA reports on the latest moves to permit metric-only labelling of packaging.

In the UK, metric-only labelling of packaging became possible from the 1970s onwards and is now the norm. This week, a report from a reader of Metric Views living in Washington State suggests that the US, the world’s last hold-out of pound/inch-only labels, may at last be falling into line with the rest of the world.

He begins his report with a link to an article on liquid medicine. Readers may not be aware that the liquid medicine in the UK went metric as recently as March 1969, only four years before we joined the Common Market.

Here is his report:

“Dear UKMA friends:

Yet another voice advocating using strictly SI when dealing with medicine here in the USA:

http://www.care2.com/causes/taking-liquid-medicine-you-better-know-your-metric-system.html

I don’t know how much influence the group that published this article has with anyone. Nonetheless, let’s hope the right people listen to what they have to say.

On another note some email traffic on the USMA list sounds like there is a move afoot to get the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the US Dept of Commerce to work with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to encourage them to come up with a ruling that would allow metric-only labeling on most products sold in the USA (i.e. those that are regulated by the FPLA, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which is administered by the FTC).

Note that those products not regulated by the national FPLA are regulated State-by-State with laws modeled on the UPLR, the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation. All states except New York have now adopted laws that allow metric-only labeling for products governed by state law.

Previous attempts to amend the FPLA in Congress to allow (not require) metric only labeling have been blocked by the FMI (Food Marketing Institute) using the specious reasoning that allowing metric-only labeling would increase both costs to the retailer and confusion among consumers (all of which is sheer nonsense). Finding a way for the FTC to rule that despite the current language of the FPLA metric-only labels are legal in the USA would be big win for us over here.

Stay tuned … I’ll pass along more info as I learn what (if anything) develops.”

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8 Responses to US package labelling may be catching up

  1. John Steele says:

    I believe the statement "the US, the world’s last hold-out of pound/inch-only labels, may at last be falling into line with the rest of the world" is a bit unfair. For items covered by FPLA, the law of the land is dual, neither inch/pound-only nor metric-only suffices. Most goods are required to be dual-labeled.
    (However, there are some items not covered by FPLA or exempt from it where one alone suffices. Wine and spirits must be metric, beer must be Customary. Items weighed at retail must be Customary. Seed packages under 7 g must be metric, over 7 g, ounces and pounds -- I can't fathom the logic of that one.)

    Since the law as passed by Congress requires dual, I think the FTC would be exceeding their authority if they claim dual means metric-only. Federal agencies are empowered to make rules to fill in the details so Congress doesn't have to, but they are expected to "color within the lines." I'd be delighted if they manage to pull it off, but I don't think they would, in fact, I don't think they would assert they could.

    Of course, Washington never fails to surprise. Sadly, they surprise and appall more often than they surprise and delight.

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  2. derekp says:

    Our reader in the US who provided the information for this article has added a comment:

    "As for John Steele's comments on Metric Views that the US courts will get involved if the FTC issues a ruling allowing metric-only labeling, I suspect he's right. I imagine the FMI (Food Marketing Institute) will ask the courts to prevent such a ruling to go into effect. It will then be interesting to see if the courts side with the FMI and their interpretation or with the FTC.

    I assume there must be some precedent for the FTC to act in the way being proposed despite the current language of the FPLA or else NIST and the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) would not have provided an official comment encouraging the FTC to issue such a ruling. Let's hope the FTC takes them up on that idea so we can see what the outcome is.

    Reading the whole comment is interesting, especially where they point out that surveys have shown that a large minority of packages that are "supposed to" have dual labeling are metric only. (I don't think they found any packages labeled only in US Customary units.) I believe there is a lot of pent-up demand on the part of manufacturers, vendors, etc. to switch to metric-only labeling so they can reduce clutter and have packages that can be sold world-wide. That will provide those of us here in the States who support metrication a jumping-off point for enhancing citizen awareness of metric. For example, with most packages finally only in metric, it will be easier to create math lessons in the school system that use only metric since that's a natural extension of the packaging the children already see in the stores and at home. This can create a real comfort level among a whole young generation of Americans with metric that will pave the way finally for us to metricate over here."

    The "comment" he refers to is a 24-page document from the NCWM to the FTC regarding FPLA.

    It is interesting that he refers to creating maths lessons in schools related to the packaging children see. Here in the UK there are suggestions that this process should be used to put back the clock. After forty years of metric-only education in primary schools, teachers may soon be asked to create maths lessons involving miles and other imperial measures because these appear on road signs.

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  3. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @derekp:

    A similar thing is happening in Canada - not because of road signs, but because of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). My son and daughter, educated in Ontario's education system in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, learnt only the metric system in school. But my grandkids, in the second decade of the 21st century, are having to learn imperial as well, in order, it is said, to facilitate communication (and trade) with the USA (even though NAFTA is supposed to be exclusively metric).

    Will the USA ever rectify what it's doing to the rest of the world in terms of measurement? Winston Churchill once said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else." Maybe - but when it comes to metric conversion, Americans are sure taking a long time about it.

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  4. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @derekp

    What a shame if maths lessons in the UK take a step backwards.

    Yet another nefarious result of the reactionaries in the government clinging to the outdated Imperial road signs. 🙁

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  5. John Smith says:

    So, due to the metrication movement of the '70s, Canadians are now learning a THIRD system, USC? That sounds messier than the system as it existed PRIOR to metrication. Nothing wrong with Imperial volumes.

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  6. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Given John's saddening comments about how Canadian education is taking a step backwards (as it sounds like the UK educational system is also) by reviving lessons in Imperial, I am all the more hopeful that the FTC will take the advice of the NCWM and NIST to basically announce to the business world that it will turn a blind eye to metric-only labeling and enforce fill requirements only on the metric indication on a package, effectively ignoring that part of the FPLA that required US Customary indications as well.

    I believe this will encourage many companies to switch to metric-only labels, which will certainly give a boost to awareness of metric in the USA. It will also encourage much more metric schooling here in the States since metric-only packaging will lend itself to using metric examples in maths lessons, etc. etc.

    At some point I think this will help turn the tide towards metrication over here although I fear we are still a good ways off from that. (On the other hand the swing to accepting same-sex marriage happened in almost the twinkling of an eye over here, so the same thing could happen regarding metrication in the USA.)

    The other interesting knock-on effect of a visible move here in the States toward metrication sparked by metric-only labeling of products is that it will cut the legs from underneath those in the UK who are resisting metrication (at least in government). After all, if it appears (even with some creative exaggeration 😉 that the USA has begun the move towards metrication, it will be very hard for those in power to make the case that resisting full metrication in the UK is a good idea.

    After all, what sense would it make for the UK to keep Imperial road signs or Fahrenheit in weather reports if the USA were on its way to becoming a metric country? It would be pure folly, of course.

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  7. John Smith says:

    Ezra: the point I was trying to make was that, because of a lack of support from the ten times larger population to the south, Canada now has TWO different variants of inch-pound, Imperial and USC in use, whereas before their incomplete push to metrication, it was mostly confined to SI and Imperial. Now bottlers use USC sizes, just labeled in milliliters in Canada. A lack of support for their own Imperial system not only didn't successfully kill it, it left the door open for an invasion of USC sizes, like the "355-mL bottle, and 3.78-L can."

    An incomplete push backfired on them.

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  8. Bob says:

    Here is the original letter from the US NCWM about the FPLA:

    ***************************
    http://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_comments/2014/05/00023-90217.pdf
    (Found at http://www.ftc.gov/policy/public-comments/initiative-554)

    "While the FPLA currently requires net quantity statements to be in both U.S. Customary and metric units, we strongly encourage FTC to use enforcement discretion to allow optional use of metric unit only net quantity statements. "
    ****************

    It also has other recommendations such as:
    * making it clear there is no need to translate "27.9 cm X 27.9 cm (11 IN X 11 IN)" as "27.9 cm X 27.9 cm (11 PULGADAS X 11 PULGADAS)" for non-English speakers.

    * ending the ban on exponents for non-metric units.

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