The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 2: The More Things Change…

Beware the endcap in the supermarket

Beware the endcap in the supermarket—no unit pricing.

Can we expect resistance to metric adoption from the food/supermarket lobbies?

Based on what I’ve come across so far, the answer would be “Yes.” Early on I had someone “in the know” tell me that grocery stores had been against metric adoption during our last push in the 1970s because they would get caught between metric units and consumers, as in “I can’t buy a kilogram of hamburger. What the heck is a kilogram?” But I think it goes deeper than that.

Uniform measures make it more difficult to deceive customers

Food manufacturers and supermarkets will continue to play games with us as along as it benefits them. In the 1967 copyrighted, The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray, (In chapter 3, “The Package as Salesman”), he points out that after World War II, the dynamic between the food retailer and consumers shifted as the public stopped going to local “markets” and started shopping in “supermarkets.” Without the human interface and a large array of products within a category (cereal again comes to mind), and with the generally high quality of most of the offerings…

Packaging is no longer merely a method of holding or containing the product for storing and shipping. It is now a major element in the advertising and promotional campaign. It is a full-fledged salesman. p.13

The author then includes a quote from a sales promotion manager:

Some food processors are actually in the packaging business rather than the food business. p.13

Fast forward almost 50 years and things really haven’t changed that much.

I started poking around in food retailing publications and came across this quote:

In the wake of multiple lawsuits around the use of the term “natural” (against Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, Goya Foods and others), it could be time for food companies to reconsider using it on labels and focus instead on new product design and more creative language.

Thus, food manufacturers are still under fire for misleading claims, promises and labeling. The article, “The Natural Debate: Your Consumer Is Your Regulator” was dated March 4, 2014 and was linked to from

Obviously, we’re still the target of manipulators as manufacturers try to get us to buy their products and stores try to sell us items with the highest profit margins.

Making easy cost comparisons when buying food—how prevalent?

I remember a time when I had trouble figuring out which food was the least expensive since the “unit price” amount didn’t always use the same base (as in “cost per ounce” for coffee versus “cost per pound”). A recent trip to my grocery store (Smith’s) revealed no such problem with the labels on the shelf. All were clearly marked and easy to compare. However, a little more digging revealed that application of unit pricing regulations is not uniform within our country. While my state does not necessarily adhere to unit pricing, apparently my supermarket chain does.

However, I was able to find examples of mixed unit pricing to show you on

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Flour2Note the two weights on flour sold in its site. In one the “cost per” is pound and other one lists ounce. Frankly, I can’t do that math in my head to figure out which is the best deal without a calculator.

How the metric system could help in the supermarket

If we were using the metric system for these things comparisons would become easier since larger and smaller amounts relate to each other by multiples of 10, 100, or 0.1, 0.001, so you’d just move a decimal point in one direction or the other and not have to deal with the crazy 16 ounces in a pound we use now.

I’m not saying we couldn’t get deceived when we’re buying food or other items once we’ve converted to the metric system but it should make our lives (and those of our children…) a little easier. Isn’t that worth a little hassle in the short term?



Note: My title references the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Originally from French (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it means that things don’t really change all that much.

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 1: A Little History

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Last Thursday (February 27, 2014) the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new nutritional labeling standards for packaging in the United States. The original law, called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, was put in place in 1990 in an effort:

  1. To clear up consumer’s confusion about food labels
  2. To encourage consumers in making health food choices, and
  3. To encourage product innovation so that manufacturers are given an incentive to improve the quality of the food and make more healthy food choices available to consumers.
                                            Virginia Wilkening
                                            Food and Drug Administration

It was probably less effective on the last point than the first two but let’s examine a little history.

Measurement and trade

Since people have traded with one another, sellers have tried to cheat their customers to their own ends. That’s one of the reasons why throughout history there has been resistance to setting measurement standards (the metric system included). The new  regulations adjust serving sizes (mostly upward) but also highlight the nutritional information on the labels.

Serving sizes

While researching this project, my contact at National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended a book called The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray. With a copyright date of 1967, it relates that after World War II, consumers (quaintly referred to as “housewives” throughout the book) were getting up in arms because, as they purchased more convenience foods, they started having problems figuring out how much product to buy because the serving sizes were not standard. Each company made isolated decisions regarding what an “average” serving size constituted.

To one manufacturer, a serving of peaches might be two halves; to his competitor, it might be one half or three halves. It is like buying by the hat—and using the seller’s hat as a measure. p. 92.

In case the problem with having non-standard serving sizes for food isn’t readily apparent, let’s apply that logic to something we deal differently with today: gasoline.

The scenario goes like this: You need some more fuel and there are two gas stations across the street from each other that have determined their own “serving sizes.” Lo and behold, the price of one of the serving sizes is less expensive than the other. Is it really a better deal or just a smaller serving size? Without further investigation, there is no way for the consumer to know and that’s exactly what was going on in the grocery stores. A glance at two, say, cereal boxes next to each other might seem like the one with more serving sizes for the same price is to be a better deal. But would that impression be accurate? At the time, the answer was “No.” Enter the federal government.

While the serving sizes have been fixed by the federal government since the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 (metric units were added to labels in 1992), there was plenty of resistance from the food industry according to the book since deception would become more difficult via that method.

And manufacturers still play games with us

Don’t worry about the food industry. They’re still finding way to take advantage of us today. You don’t have to read many issues of Consumer Reports to see an example where a reader has bought a usual item only to get home and realize the new box or bag contains less than when it was last purchased. Just because the manufacturer has adjusted the weight or volume in print (according to regulations) doesn’t mean they’re not trying to hide something. (When was the last time you saw a box emblazoned with “Now, less for the same price!”?) Yet it downsizes product contents all the time.

Let me tie in the metric system more closely: the labels will continue to be a mishmash of metric and U.S. customary measures (for new readers of the column, we don’t use Imperial units in the country, but our units are derived from them). In the example, the serving size is expressed in both customary and metric units but the nutritional content is only in metric units and thank goodness. If they were in fraction of ounces, you wouldn’t know if they were weight or volume (metric units only express mass—which relate to the gravity of the planet you’re on) or some other incomprehensible subunit. For instance:

Protein = 3 grams = 0.10582oz

If I tell you that a gram is roughly the same mass as a standard (that word again) paperclip, that’s fairly easy to imagine. Now, try to imagine a unit of 0.1 of an ounce. A bit tougher for most people I’d guess.

This post has run as long, or longer, than it should. Stay tuned. There’s more to learn.