How Big Food Wants To Trick You Over Package Sizes

Australia's main food industry body wants labelling regulations changed so that the weight or quantity no longer has to be displayed on the front of packaging. Why is it seeking the change, and why is it potentially bad news for consumers?

Picture: Cory Doctorow

I wasn't aware of this suggestion until CHOICE put out a press release about the issue last week, but it turns out that it's been in discussion for some time. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) made a submission to the National Commission of Audit last November, and it has made similar proposals elsewhere. Amongst many suggested reforms, it canvassed what's technically known as "front pack measurement marking" -- the requirement that the size of packaged foods be clearly displayed on the front of the package.

The AFGC suggests that this is unnecessary and that Australia could adopt the looser European model, which requires the figure to be prominent somewhere on the package, but don't specify the front. It also argues that since large supermarkets are required to display unit pricing, consumers can use that to make comparison. (That's a crock, by the way: the size displayed on packages is much larger than the small print used for unit pricing, and research suggests we're not great at reading it anyway.)

Despite the benign-sounding name, the AFGC is the umbrella body for a $111 billion manufacturing industry in Australia. And, as this post at the Conversation explains in some detail, its stance is firmly anti-regulation. That's good for profits, but not necessarily for consumers or health.

So if you have to print the quantity on the packaging anyway, why does the AFGC care so much? The short answer: changing the rules will make it easier and cheaper to import foods from Europe or other markets which don't have those rules. Right now, any foods imported that don't meet those requirements have to be relabelled.

There's also a second and sneakier motive too. If the size isn't visible, then it's easier to reduce the quantity of food included in a package. We have examples of food companies doing this. For instance, last year Cadbury promoted the fact that its chocolate blocks had "gone up" in size from 200 to 220 grams -- but ignored the fact that they had previously been 250 grams. Removing the requirement to display the size would make that even less obvious.

We know that food manufacturers and supermarkets often resort to dubious tactics, and it doesn't seem sensible to make that kind of behaviour even easier. It seems Australians aren't big fans of the idea either; in a group of 3000 surveyed by CHOICE, 74 per cent were opposed. We'll have to see if the AFGC gets its way, but it's hard to see it as a beneficial development for consumers.

Lifehacker's Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


Comments

    That’s good for profits, but not necessarily for consumers or healthor your pocketThere’s also a second and sneakier motive too. If the size isn’t visible, then it’s easier to reduce the quantity of food included in a packageSupermarkets, and the industry in general, aren't it it to save you money or make life easier... they're in it for one reason only, shareholders, oh and let's not forget "Super profit". A world economy based on how much crap you buy, whether you need it or not people... Whether you need it or not..!

    Last edited 16/09/14 11:24 am

      And regardless of whether it is healthy or not, too.

        Their only motive here is to deceive consumers.
        It doesn't cost them more money to print the weight on the front of the pack than it does on the side or back of a pack.

        We already have a lot of imported food in our supermarkets which have stickers to comply with our regulations. Doesn't seem to be a problem.

        If importing was the real reason then they'd be asking to relax the rules on imported foods only, not originally intended for sale in Australia. But they're not.

    Cereal boxes vary in size and amount of contents all the time. Without unit pricing, it's very easy to get confused over apparent bargains. My response: stop buying them.

      we all know popcorn is one of the healthiest snacks for our kids.... And I have great news!!
      Riverina (who sell popcorn seeds at Coles/Woolies) have upped their packet size from 375g to 400g ... AND it comes in wonderful, shiny new packaging. It's only $2 a bag*... Bargain!!

      (* was $1.29 the day before they brought in the new packaging/size)

    I don't know how much I'm really worried about the size of packaging being reduced. I find I buy too much food because it's "better value", we eat too much as it is. Bad for families, good for singles?

    Last edited 16/09/14 12:11 pm

    How will I easily measure the steady decline in the amount of Doritos in a packet? It used to be 250, then 220, then 200, now 175. Price and packet size unchanged though. Bonus, I get more air for my money.

      if the air is Chinese, you really don't want it :)

      Which is actually good as it reduces breakage. Also the 'air' is not regular air but nitrogen. Although the air we breathe is predominantly (~78%) nitrogen it's the oxygen (~20%)that causes things to go stale. So equally beneficial there too.

    A good article Angus.
    Q: why can't they just put a sticker on the front of European packaging? As long as it's the correct weight, the problem is solved.
    Can't wait until Aldi arrives in SA. I'd prefer to support the Australian companies, but they're an abusive monopoly.
    Now where do those ingredients in the pack come from again? Hmmm...

      I daresay because they then need to label each and every package; a process that probably can't be automated, which then increases the costs associated with importing it.

    "Big food"? No, just...no.

    With the unit prices, this isn't that big an issue, and it'll definitely be good for imports. I wish the supermarkets made the unit prices more prominent, though. I tend to just look at the volume most times because it's quicker.

    I'm still cross about whisky bottles dropping from 750ml to 700ml. I don't recall a parallel price drop.

    It hadn't even occurred to me that all our packaging has the product quantity on the front, but really, where else would you put it when it's supposed to be read after being placed on a shelf?

    The aisles in European supermarkets must be clogged with people having to stop, pick up every item they're considering, and turning it around to see how big it is.

    I can manage my own weight and don't need less food for the same price to do it.
    This is inflation.

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