As expected the Business Department has refused to permit sales of draught beer and cider in convenient metric measures – but its reasoning is bizarre.
Background – fixed package sizes
In October 2008 the then National Weights and Measures Laboratory (then part of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) consulted on “specified quantities” – that is the practice of requiring goods to be packaged or dispensed in fixed quantities (such as 227 g for jam and honey). Also included within the consultation paper was the issue of fixed quantities for draught (but not bottled or canned) beer and cider.
The first issue – fixed package sizes – has now been resolved, and the necessary Regulations implemented. With the exception of wine and spirits, fixed sizes have been abolished, so that the consumer is now protected only by the requirement that medium and large shops (but not small shops or market traders) must display the “unit price” (per kg, or 100 g, or litre etc) as well as the package price. However, there was no Government publicity to explain this fairly significant change, nor did consumer groups such as the Consumers’ Association (aka “Which?”) offer any helpful advice.
Draught alcoholic drinks
The renamed National Measurement Office, now part of the merged Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), has now published its response to the consultation on whether draught alcoholic drinks should be dispensed in fixed quantities and, if so, what those quantities should be. Predictably, they have resisted any moves toward permitting metric measures for beer and cider, but to the astonishment of many, they have announced an intention to permit an additional permitted size – the 2/3 pint.
The UK Metric Association, in its response to the consultation had argued that optional metric sizes should be permitted (not required), provided that the quantity and the unit price (per litre) were clearly indicated. Our arguments were:
- It would allow wider choice for both customers and pubs and restaurants in the quantity they buy and sell. Pubs that wish to continue to sell in traditional measures would be free to do so, and pubs and restaurants that wish to experiment with different quantities could also do so. This could be of particular interest to Austrian or German “theme pubs” or Spanish-style tapas bars and restaurants, who may wish to dispense draught beer in convenient metric measures such as 500 ml or 300 ml.
- It would be consistent with the availability of non-prescribed quantities (e.g. 500 ml or 330 ml) in bottles and cans in supermarkets and off-licences and even the same pub, and, especially if the unit price is displayed (as we propose), it would thus facilitate more transparent price comparisons and better information for consumers.
- The main current control on beer glass sizes – the “crown stamping” of brim measure glasses – could easily be replaced by a regime of lined glasses indicating the quantity dispensed. This would also have the incidental advantage that drinkers would be able to verify whether they were receiving the quantity of liquid that they had ordered.
- The use of metric quantities could have important benefits for health. If it were permitted to dispense beer and cider in metric quantities it would be easy to calculate the quantity of pure alcohol being consumed. For example, if the “alcohol by volume” (ABV) of a beer is 4%, then it is easy to calculate that the alcoholic content of a 300 ml glass is 0.04 x 300 ml, i.e. 12 ml, which is 1.2 “units” of alcohol. Similarly, a 175 ml glass of wine at 12% ABV contains 21 ml of alcohol (2.1 “units”). Such relatively simple calculations are much less easy with imperial measures.
- Deregulation would enable customers to order smaller quantities than the current minima (currently, 125 ml for wine and 189 ml for beer and cider), for example if they want to sample small “taster” quantities of “real ales” without becoming excessively intoxicated.
According to the BIS document, “the vast majority of those who responded to this question supported the retention of prescribed quantities for non pre-packaged alcoholic drinks.”
It continued: “Most supported retention based on fair trade, consumer protection and health and road safety arguments. In particular, respondents commented that prescribed quantities allow consumers to manage their alcohol intake and that it was important for consumers to know how much they were drinking for both health and road safety purposes.”
The following, somewhat confused points were made:
- “Where non-prepacked goods are concerned, prescribed quantities have a greater role to play in ensuring fair competition between trader and trader; this also allows for a balanced equity between trader and customer; it allows for clear price comparison by a prospective customer between traders.” (Trading Standards Institute). [but this ignores “unit pricing” – and they didn’t apply this reasoning to the sale of tomatoes in the street market]
- “Abolition of prescribed quantities would prevent consumers from accurately assessing which pubs offer the best value for money thereby undermining price competition.” (CAMRA) [again, this objection ignores the obvious remedy – that the unit price (per litre) would be displayed]
- “Deregulation will confuse rather than aid the promotion of health messages around alcohol which are based on alcohol units in beverages.” (Alcohol Concern) [but it is much easier to calculate “units” – i.e. centilitres – of alcohol if quantities of the drink are measured in millilitres]
- “Existing prescribed quantities are well known by consumers and bar staff and their removal could cause confusion.” (Scottish Licensed Trade Association) [but if customers order half a litre of heavy, why would they be confused?]
Unfortunately, and to their discredit, the BIS has chosen to side with the irrational majority, with their innate conservatism and unwillingness to contemplate change – rather than giving serious consideration to the arguments. This is their response:
“The Government’s view is that there remains a strong case for the retention of prescribed quantities for non pre-packaged alcoholic drinks served in licensed premises. We agree with those respondents that argued for retention based on consumer and health protection grounds.
“Whilst there is an argument for unit pricing to be extended to non prepackaged alcoholic drinks, the Government’s view is that this is likely to increase costs for business, and may cause confusion for consumers who are familiar with the existing measures. [How can unit pricing cause confusion?! Does it cause confusion in the supermarket?]
“The Government has no plans to extend metric measures to the sale of draught beer or cider. The Government believes that there are strong grounds for treating alcoholic drinks differently than other products and for that reason proposes to retain the regime of prescribed quantities for non prepackaged alcoholic drinks with the amendments set out below.” (These related to deregulating quantities of wine less than 75 ml, requiring the smallest prescribed wine glass size to be available, and – bizarrely – prescribing a new 2/3 pint size for beer and cider).”
Comment on the BIS response
The BIS response defies logic.
- The consumer protection argument clearly favours displaying the unit price (i.e. the price per litre), but BIS reject this on the specious grounds that it would increase business costs.
- Similarly, the health argument favours metric measures since this would make it easier to calculate the number of “units” (i.e. centilitres) of alcohol being consumed. Yet BIS supports those objectors who claim that it would be “confusing.”
- As to the 2/3 pint, this proposal was fairly comprehensively rubbished by the majority of respondents (it is in fact only 95 ml – one large gulp – more than half a pint). However, BIS says it would be optional and would increase choice (without being “confusing”), and it has therefore supported the proposal. They appear not to realise (or admit) that the same logic would apply to a half litre or 300 ml size.
Above all, the BIS appears to have overlooked the fact that it is part of the Government. According to the Science Minister, Lord Drayson (not to mention former Prime Minister, Tony Blair) the longstanding policy of all UK governments since 1965 has been “to move to full metrication in time, but at a pace that recognises that a significant proportion of consumers are still more comfortable with using imperial units.” Here was an opportunity to take a small step towards that goal – a step that would be entirely optional, would permit pubs and drinkers to carry on using pints, would impose no significant new costs on businesses, would reinforce consumer protection, and help drinkers to calculate their alcohol consumption. But the BIS cannot or will not see it.
As the proverb says, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”