Will EU-US trade agreement bring in metric-only labelling in the US?

A key point of President Obama’s State of the Union address on 13 February was the proposed EU-US trade agreement, which has been under preliminary discussion for the past year. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/13/state-of-the-union-free-trade-europe).  As this agreement is supposed to remove regulatory barriers to trade, there should now be a serious opportunity to remove the US ban on metric-only labelling of most packages.

The problem is that the EU and the US have conflicting labelling requirements.

The EU’s Units of Measurement Directive requires metric labelling of packages, but following lobbying from both American and European exporters, an amendment in 2009 permitted a “supplementary indication” in non-metric units, provided that the supplementary indication was no more prominent than the legal, metric indication.  Thus, the metric quantity is mandatory, but the non-metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK).

However, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the US requires that goods that are regulated at the federal level (i.e. most foodstuffs and some household goods) must be labelled with both metric and US Customary measurement units. (US Customary is similar to British “imperial” for mass (weight) and length, but differs for volume). Individual States may allow metric-only labelling for the minority of goods regulated at the State level, and all except New York have done so.

The one-sided result is that, as far as measurement units are concerned, US packaging and labelling is accepted in the EU, but EU packaging and labelling may not be accepted in the US.  Consequently, any European exporter is faced with the choice of either (a) establishing a separate production line for export goods or (b) dual labelling all goods so that they can be distributed to either the home or the US market.

The reasoning behind the 2009 amendment to the EU Directive was that, if the amendment had not been agreed, exporters would have had to produce separate packaging for the two separate markets. It was claimed that this would be a significant additional business cost and hence a non-tariff barrier to trade, which would be illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.  Rather than insisting on an immediate reciprocal concession from the US, the European Commission decided, as a gesture of good will, to concede the point in the hope that the US Congress would relent and allow labelling that was legal in the EU to be imported into the US.  So far, however, this has not happened as it is opposed by powerful industrial interests that are influential in Congress.  The ostensible – and illogical – basis for their opposition, is that if metric-only labelling were allowed, manufacturers would have to change their package sizes to rounded metric quantities – e.g. 500 g rather than 1 pound (454 g), and this would entail major investment in packaging machinery.  Since there would obviously be no such requirement, one can only conclude that the real basis of the opposition is protectionist.

The significance of all this for metric advocates on both sides of the Atlantic is this.  If metric-only labelling were permitted in the US, then it would be possible for European manufacturers to dispense with supplementary indications completely.  This would be particularly beneficial in the UK, where the ubiquitous presence of imperial units is a constant drag on adapting to metric units, as well as being a reminder that the process of metrication – begun 48 years ago – is still far from completion.  In the US the increasing presence of metric-only labelling would provide an incentive for American consumers to visualise and familiarise themselves with the metric units that they may have touched on at school but have long since forgotten.

There are of course many other aspects of package labelling (such as specifying chemical contents and nutritional information) that may need to be resolved in the forthcoming talks, but metric-only labelling would be an easy win that it should be possible for the parties to agree.  Indeed, as it will be several years before any new trade agreement comes into force, it would be nice if the US Congress could agree the necessary amendment to the FPLA without further delay.

24 thoughts on “Will EU-US trade agreement bring in metric-only labelling in the US?”

  1. If the original Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the US and Canada (and followed by NAFTA which includes Mexico) is anything to go by, do not expect the US to yield anything they don’t have to (and even things they do). I know we have many American friends who support us on this website, but the facts are there. For example, Canada and the US had a long-running softwood lumber dispute, in which the US accused Canada of subsidising its forestry industry, as forestry lands were Crown owned.

    After going to the dispute panel (which consisted of two Americans and one Canadian, and therefore already stacked in America’s favour), the panel actually ruled in Canada’s favour – yet still the US ignored the panel’s rulings, and continued to slap duties on Canada’s exports of softwood lumber. While NAFTA has benefitted Canada in many ways, the US received far greater benefits – this even includes priority access to Canada’s water supplies in times of emergency, even to the exclusion of Canada’s own citizens.

    The EU should not have made the concessions it did as a gesture of goodwill – it will get nothing back, but instead will face a long uphill battle just to get the playing field level.


  2. Hopefully, the EU will push hard on this as no one else seems to be pushing.

    I am not sure our fractious, divided Congress could agree the sun is likely to rise tomorrow. The principal (perhaps only??) opposition seems to be the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) which includes retail grocers and the food producers. The opposition seems to come from the retail side over the (incorrect) fear that it will somehow mandate round metric sizes which they vigorously and irrationally oppose. The food producers supposedly quietly support it but refuse to come out and advocate for it. NIST seems reluctant to take it to a divided Congress in the face of ANY opposition. The amendment has languished since 2002, with a few attempts to slightly revise the wording to mollify FMI. It has never been proposed to Congress.

    There are also a few odd product categories (regulated by other Federal agencies) where Customary is required, and metric is optional. Bottled beer is an example; that might be important to the Germans. The EU should push for a general cleanup, not just the FPLA.

    I am not sure the food producers see it as very important. They don’t need a whole separate production line, just an alternate labelling station at the end of the line. US nutrition label requirements are also quite different (analysis must be for a “serving size” in some cases a mandated size and almost never per 100 g or 100 mL). So metric-only net contents doesn’t really solve their unique label requirements. However, it would be important step in US metrication.


  3. I would like to see the rules on labelling extended to advertising. A particular bugbear of mine is seeing electronic screens described in diagonal inches. This is so stupid. I think the best measure of screen size would be the actual area of the screen. Leaving that aside, however, the measure should at least be given in metric measures.


  4. USMA continues to work for the FPLA permissive metric-only labeling amendment’s progenitor, which is the permissive metric-only labeling provision of the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation (UPLR). This 1999 addition to The National Conference on Weights and Measures’ set of model state regulations proposes to legalize the dropping of the non-metric units on certain products regulated at state level, i.e., not regulated by the FPLA. Since 1999, the metric juggernaut of states has been happily relentless and gratifying. We are very near unanimity of the 56 U.S. weights-and-measures jurisdictions on the UPLR amendment. We at USMA are generally of the opinion that, if metric-only labeling is allowed unanimously among the “states united” (UPLR), then it cannot be continue to be denied to the United States (FPLA). We will keep you posted on our efforts.


  5. @Michael Glass
    Inclined to agree. It is surprising though that retailers don’t give the dialogonal in cm rather than inches, as it would involve bigger numbers.


  6. Do you mind if hijack this topic slightly, particularly with reference to Philh’s last comment. John Lewis are advertising a product here: http://www.johnlewis.com/microsoft-surface-tablet-with-windows-rt-touch-keyboard-32gb-wi-fi-quad-core-tegra-3-10-6-/p231836601.
    For some reason, they had insisted on using 0.37 inches to describe its depth,as well as inches to refer to the other dimensions. This is very unusual for John Lewis who usually use mm’s. I have emailed them about it and they say they will get around to it, but three months later they are still using inches to refer to the item. At the bottom of the page, there is a feedback button. Can I ask anyone who wishes to to click on this and tell John Lewis that you want to see their descriptions in metric.

    Lets see if we can get this changed!




  7. @michduncg
    With ref to the John Lewis website – I’m happy to oblige. I posted negative feedback with the following comment:-
    Your product dimensions are shown in inches. In the UK we have all been taught metric-only for decades. This makes your site seem very old-fashioned and puts me off using it. Please use the standard units (mm or cm) that all other respected retailers use.

    I also agree with a previous comment about screen sizes for laptops, TVs etc. With almost universal adoption of metric dimensions for items on shopping websites (e.g. Argos, Amazon) it’s illogical and annoying that screen sizes are described in anything other than cm.

    I’ve decided that I will give feedback wherever possible to continue to raise awareness of the metric issue and try to change behaviour. I recently responded to a tweet from @BBCStargazing. When asked what would I like to see them do in their next TV series I replied “Stop using non-metric units in your broadcasts. We’ve all been taught in SI for decades”.
    To which, I received the response “You’re not the first to mention this. We’ll pass it on.” Given it’s the BBC I found this encouraging, but I’m not holding my breath!


  8. Hi all ! Regarding Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation (UPLR) and the FPLA:
    I hope that they can be brought uniformly with each other which effects State and Federal guidelines. I think that with metric- only labeling, the concern is that EU and other countries would over number US produce and other US made items in the market place. Maybe the only compromise is to get labels to predominately place SI units with USCU less showy. This maybe a way for the United States to save face or honor.
    Also saving face may be part of the reason to keep inches on monitor dimension.


  9. @ Ed the Yank

    Could you explain what you mean by “over number US produce”? In what way is your suggestion a compromise? It would be helpful to understand what your concern really is.


  10. @ Erithacus and all,
    What I was trying to say “Regarding The reasoning behind the 2009 amendment to the EU Directive” to allow Metric only labeling were the supplementary units are not as prominent as the SI unit.” In contrast “US requires that goods that are regulated at the federal level (i.e. most foodstuffs and some household goods) must be labelled with both metric and US Customary measurement units.” It is my hope that Regulations on State and Federal level as well as between Weight and Measures, USDA, and Food and Drug Administration can be made more uniform. Also, the statement “amendment had not been agreed, exporters would have had to produce separate packaging for the two separate markets.” and “It was claimed that this would be a significant additional business cost and hence a non-tariff barrier to trade, which would be illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organization.” my thought is the reason is without dual labeling required this would allow produce and other items to flood the US market and be a barrier to US made items! Which I admit is protectionist. So my proposal that “compromise is to get labels to predominately place SI units with USC units less showy.” into US regulation would be a way to keep dual labeling, and uniformity until full metrication is achieved.
    Side-note: I admit placing inch measurement among SI for monitor screens is a way of showing un-yeilding strength to the rest of the world, childish as this my be.


  11. @Ed

    The present FPLA (and accompanying agency regulations) require the metric and the Customary to be equally prominent (same size font, apart from an exemption for non-ascender, lower case characters where required by SI). If we are going to change the law, the easiest change is to go all the way, and NOT require the “non-preferred” system of measurement.

    The proposed amendment could certainly change in passage but the way it is currently worded, the Customary would become optional. However, if it is present, I think it would have to remain equally prominent. The detailed requirements for the Customary don’t change if it is present, it is simply no longer required. You can erase it, but you can’t fudge it.

    Hopefully, having to meet all the detailed requirements would deter some from “optionally adding it.”

    On the TVs and monitors, I would only comment that the vast majority are NOT made in the United States. In the US, they are all advertised in inches but the specs in the owners manual are dual. Also fakery is “allowed” by adding the word “class.” Apparently a “55 inch class” TV only needs a diagonal in excess of 54.5″. Thus a 139 cm screen is 55″ (almost). In the specs, the centimeters are usually round, the inches are given to the nearest tenth, and the screen is not quite the advertised size. The question is why do foreign manufacturers who are metric use inches. The answer is probably market size. However, in the only inch market, they “confess” to us the true size in centimeters, so why are they marketed in inches in Europe? Beats me, talk to your retailers.


  12. Since the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) seems to be the major obstacle to amending the FPLA, I thought it would be useful to see the arguments that they have used against the amendment. I couldn’t find a link on their website, so I have reproduced below a letter written by FMI to NIST as long ago as 2002. Readers will see that it is full of misconceptions, notably that permitting metric-only labelling will require US manufacturers to change either their labels or their package sizes. The misrepresentation is so obvious that one can only conclude that it is deliberate and disingenuous. I wonder what attempts have been made to expose it.

    “November 7, 2002
    Mr. Ken Butcher
    Office of Weights and Measures
    National Institute of Standards and Technology
    100 Bureau Drive, Stop 2000
    Gaithersburg, MD 20899-2350

    Dear Mr. Butcher:
    Re: Metric-Only Option for U.S. Food Manufacturers
    On behalf of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI)1, I am pleased to provide the following comments on a metric-only option for U.S. food manufacturers of consumer goods. As you know, any change to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act must be made by an act of Congress. FMI does not support the use of metric-only. Metric-only would not be of any value to the U.S. retailer community or to most consumers in America. Below is an outline of numerous points of concern that FMI has regarding the metric-only option:

    * The majority of consumers do not understand metric measurements. Moreover, consumers are not demanding that their food products be packaged and labeled using the metric system.
    * Value-comparison between similar products of various sizes may be difficult to determine for consumers if some manufacturers use the metric-only option and others use inch/pound.
    * Retailers will be faced with consumer complaints when value-comparison cannot be determined.
    * International interpretations of metric requirements would likely result in package size changes.
    * Changes in package sizes will make certain display cases, such as the dairy case and push-in display racks obsolete.
    * Metric will also impact other types of equipment in the grocery store, including bakery pans, scales, scanners, computers, and other types of measurement equipment, requiring costly conversion or replacement.
    * Shipping cases will even have to be replaced if metric-only is an option.
    * A metric-only option may conflict with domestic feeding programs.
    * Packagers may change display-only in metric units and that will require changes in unit pricing labels.
    * There is a cost for the retailer associated with label changes, including design cost and plate changes (plates can cost in the neighborhood of $1,000).
    * Retailers typically keep a label inventory of about 50 weeks.
    * Retailer’s operating companies forecast what business might be like in the future (ex: tomatoes) and make future labels accordingly (thus, more label inventory).
    * In addition to unit pricing, a metric-only option will also impact UPC codes and price advertising as well as nutrition information and recipe programs.

    As outlined above, converting to metric is more than simply changing labels to make metric the primary method for declaring net contents on a package. Compliance costs necessary to convert to metric are significant, exceeding $1 billion for the food industry. These costs will be passed on to consumers, including food stamp, WIC recipients and the elderly, who will see their purchasing power dramatically reduced when buying groceries, with no added value. As you know, the federal government attempted to convert to metric in the mid-1970’s, and the metric experiment was a dismal failure. There is no competitive advantage to be gained by mandating or allowing for a metric-only option for consumer products that are bought, used or consumed in the United States, especially food products. If a manufacturer needs to label a product metrically to be globally competitive, the company will do so.

    Thank you again for your consideration of our views.
    John J. Motley III
    Senior Vice President
    Government and Public Affairs

    1. Food Marketing Institute (FMI) conducts programs in research, education, industry relations and public affairs on behalf of its 2,300 member companies — food retailers and wholesalers — in the United States and around the world. FMI’s U.S. members operate approximately 26,000 retail food stores with a combined annual sales volume of $340 billion — three-quarters of all food retail store sales in the United States. FMI’s retail membership is composed of large multi-store chains, regional firms and independent supermarkets. Its international membership includes 200 companies from 60 countries.
    655 15th Street, N.W.
    Washington, DC 20005-5701
    Tel: (202) 452-8444
    Fax: (202) 429-4519
    E-mail: fmi@fmi.org
    Web site: http://www.fmi.org


  13. Hi everyone,
    The letter to Mr. Butcher from John J. Motley III is very telling of views towards metrication and concerns. I can see more clearly why the state of Alabama and New York follow NIST Handbook 130 regulation and defer to Federal regulation on State level for dual unit, avoiding FPLA and metric only labeling regulation.


  14. I see the use of that favourite term the USA likes to bring up – ‘non-tariff barrier’ – in creating an objection to the use of metric-only labelling, or at least labelling that is different from what a US manufacturer would use in its home market. Sorry, but this is NOT a non-tariff barrier! A trade barrier under WTO rules, whether a non-tariff one, or in the form of a tariff or import duty, etc, exists when an importer has to meet a requirement, or pay some kind of duty, that a home manufacturer does not. Metric-only labelling, as long as all food producers are free to comply with the same rules, is not a non-tariff barrier.

    The US tried to use the non-tarriff barier objection when Canada legislated daytime running lights on vehicles. It was pointed out that Canada was free to do so, as long as ALL vehicles, whether made on Canadian soil or whether imported from the US, Japan, Europe or anywhere else in the world, had to adhere to the same legislation. It was not a non-tariff barrier under WTO rules.


  15. @Erithacus
    Disingenuous? Sir, you are too kind. They are either liars or illiterates. Their position paper demonstrates remarkably little reading comprehension of the proposed amendment.

    If my memory serves, they had this or a slightly updated version on their website circa 2005. Several people critiqued their position and they took it down or put it behind the firewall (most of their info is members only). If the bullets on page 2 are numbered 1-13, they are easier to respond to.

    1) Consumers aren’t clamoring, but the metric is already there. There is no real resistance on products which have already entirely or primarily migrated to round metric sizes (soda, bottled water, fruit juices, olive oil, many personal hygiene products) and they are spoken of in those metric sizes. I believe no one would care if the Customary went away.

    2) No products use ONLY inch-pound. That would be illegal. All products currently have both. If some products had only metric, the metric on the dual products would serve as a basis for comparison. Since #2 is wrong, #3 is dismissed.
    4) NIST has made clear that the amendment does not require round or standard metric sizes. A 1 lb/453 g package could just be labelled 453 g. However, over time, manufacturers might prefer a rounder, more sensible size., whether 400, 450 or 500 g.

    5) Manufacturers fight for shelf space. They would work with their retailers in deciding the physicals of a proposed new package. They change sizes all the time now and the world doesn’t end. The “pound” of coffee shrank to 13 oz, then 11 oz. The “half gallon” of ice cream shrank to 3 pt. There are clearly some logical metric sizes within the range of Customary size changes that no one bats an eye at. This would also negate #7.

    6) The law requires no size or unit change. However, if metric-only became widely accepted, the store might eventually have to change units on random weight and weighed-at-retail items. That would take years and they could decide the timing, probably just order new equipment that works in either unit system.

    8) Can’t comment except they should develop details and demand Congress fix it if they can really substantiate their concern.

    9) Unit pricing law allows unit pricing choice of one or two Customary and one or two metric units in all cases. “Like product” in the same store must all make the same choice. Retailers could switch to metric unit pricing now or in anticipation of the law. However, if they wish, they could make their lives hard and take on the burden of converting units.

    10, 11, 12) Oh bull. My store changes prices every week, and responds to other stores price changes. No way do I believe this is all known and planned 50 weeks in advance. This claim boggles the mind.

    13) If the package size is not changed, since it is already labelled in metric and Customary, erasing the Customary changes nothing. As new sizes are gradually introduced, some changes will be required. Where the public already refers to round metric sizes (2 L soda), the stores advertise that way, NOT as 67.6 FL OZ (2 QT 3.6 FL OZ) although all three are on the bottle.

    We all know they are lying. We don’t know if they talk their Congressman into voting against the amendment.


  16. @ John F-L

    I am not sure that you are right about the definition of “non-tariff barrier to trade”. I couldn’t find a definition on the WTO website. Have you got chapter and verse?

    I googled it and inter alia found this: http://www.scribd.com/doc/14749241/Examples-of-NonTariff-Barriers.

    I would say a non-tariff barrier to trade (NTBT) is anything (other than a tariff) that tends to restrict imports. Surely the legal issue is (or should be) whether a NTBT can be justified objectively on non-protectionist grounds. Thus, some health and safety requirements may be justifiable if they are genuinely necessary to protect H & S, but a minimum quality or price condition probably could not be justified. Labelling requirements are more complex, since some labelling information genuinely protects consumers, but I think it would be difficult for the US to argue convincingly (pace FMI!) that omitting the USC from labels (so that they are metric-only) is harmful to consumers. The principle has already been conceded for state-regulated products in 48 states, and for some federally regulated products including wine and spirits, so there isn’t really an arguable case.

    However, I hope all this is academic since it should be negotiated in the forthcoming EU-US trade talks.


  17. Regarding TV screen measurement given in diagonal inches: Keep in mind we are dealing with aspect ratio.
    You might want to consider tyre diameter given in inches. In fact, all automobile reviews in UK MSM are a total mishmash, because the Liberal Arts journalists used simply haven’t a clue on applying the metric system. But in UK, Ignorance is Brit.


  18. To the above commentator, I would say it doesn’t help promote understanding and usage of the metric system to criticise people who have followed a certain type of higher education or who are engaged in a particular profession. If you google ‘liberal arts’ you will find that liberal arts courses include a very wide range of subjects, including the sciences sometimes. We know the media in the UK fall short when it comes to using metric units but we cannot lay the blame at the door of journalists. Some newspapers have a pro-imperial policy which their staff are forced to follow. We live with the mess created by a piecemeal approach to metrication and the politicisation of the issue in recent years. It makes more sense to highlight the nonsense of the situation that has been created in the hope that the subject will be addressed by those who are in a position to do something about it.


  19. If the Americans would care to visit supermarkets in the UK, they would find butter in 227 and 250 gram packs and beer in 500 and 568 mL bottles, all of which are labelled only in metric. They would also find a lot of other products with metric-only labels that are not in rational metric sizes. They must know that permissive metric-only labelling will allow manufacturers to make exactly the same products and just omit the USC unit on the label. The metric quantity is already on the label.

    NIST recommends permissive metric-only labelling. Opposition from industrial interests (e.g. the Food Marketing Institute) is irrational and their arguments are just nonsense. I suspect that their anti-metric arguments are just naked protectionism to try to keep out rival products from foreign manufacturers. They are just using specious arguments to cover up their protectionism.


  20. @Ronnie Cohen,

    Certainly agree FMI is irrational, but I don’t think that is it. It is mostly manufacturers who have an interest in protectionism. FMI seems dominated by the retailer side (although manufacturers can also join). Some of the manufacturers (like Proctor and Gamble) favor metrication, but don’t wish to come out and advocate for it. But, it is mostly multinationals who favor it.

    The argument FMI advances is so specious that it is unclear to me what their real issue is. I think they have avoided disclosing it for some reason.


  21. Protectionism maybe one reason but it is also the case that food retailers have a vested interest in trying to obscure price comparison.

    On a recent occasion shopping at a UK supermarket I was confronted with tomatoes being priced each (perfectly legal under latest price marking rules) in a pack of six next to another variety being sold loose per kg. The unit price on the latter was considerably more than the pack price of the former. So out of curiosity I weighed one of the packs on customer scales nearby and found the price/kg considerably greater than those sold loose even though the weight included the packaging.

    Obvious then why the supermarket chose that price startegy!

    So when FMI object on the grounds that metric-only will make comparisons difficult I’m afraid I have to look upon that with some cynicism.


  22. @Jackthesmilingblack: You’re certainly right that the aspect ratio does make a difference. Screen height is actually the more important quantity, I think: the sides of the screen tend to have less useful content than the middle (not least because broadcasters still acquire content where the ‘shoot and protect‘ area is 4:3 for Sky, and 14:9 for the BBC, ITV, C4 and C5). I think area would just be confusing.

    Tyre sizes are a combination of different measurement systems: for example my car takes 195/55 R16 tyres. The first number is in millimetres and is the width of the tread. The second is the sidewall height and is a percentage of the first number. Finally, the third number is the approximate diameter of the wheel in inches. There is also a load rating, which is a number to look up in a table, and a speed code which is one or two letters to look up. For the horrible detail see the Wheel & Tyre Bible.


  23. America is falling behind and like a car crash the rest of the world is just standing and watching.

    Around 58,000 manufacturing plants have closed in the US since 2001, no doubt all manufacturing is done using equipment that uses Metric International (SI) and all work manuals would be done using SI as well. American workers would not be able to cope with either so the jobs have been moved into countries using SI .

    Within a couple of years China will be the number one economy in the world with the US as number two, and by the end of the century it is thought that America will be the number three economy. This is when Americans will eventually realise that they are being left behind. By 2020 every country in Asia will have China as its largest trading partner, and of course all these countries use SI.

    Asian tech companies, such as Samsung, ASUS, Sony etc. use SI but Americans tech companies are trying to use imperial measurements in other countries, this is probably why Samsung is now the number one and Apple is now the number two. I have no idea how big an inch is so there is no way I am going to buy Apple or Hewlett Packard tech products.


  24. Trying to convince America to switch to metric would be like convincing Americans that Christianity is flawed.

    As much evidence as there is to support your case, they’ll still believe what they want to believe…


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