Fixed package sizes to remain for 5 years – EU compromise

The European Commission has proposed a compromise which would effectively retain fixed sizes for a limited number of prepackaged goods until 2013 or 2014. [article originally drafted by Robin Paice for UKMA News]

In 2005 the European Commission published a proposal which would have deregulated package sizes (aka “prescribed quantities” or “PQs”) for most goods, with the exception of wine and spirits, sugar and instant coffee. This proposal would have ended the nonsense whereby jam packed in the UK must be sold in the UK in multiples of 57 g (e.g. jars of 454 g), whereas jam imported from France may be sold in jars of 400 g or 500 g.

However, in February 2006, led by Conservative MEPs, and egged on by British tabloid newspapers, the European Parliament proposed a series of amendments which would have retained a range of fixed sizes for a variety of goods – notably the venerable “pint” of milk. The same newspapers portrayed this vote as a defeat for the Brussels Bureaucrats’ attempts to abolish the good old British pint – although actually the Commission’s proposals posed no threat to the pint.

Following a series of negotiations involving the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, a compromise has emerged which would achieve the Commission’s original intention of general deregulation (with limited exceptions) but with a delay of 5 years for milk, butter, pasta and coffee, and six years for sugar. It now appears that this revised proposal will be adopted by the three legislative institutions of the EU. For full details see http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/site/en/com/2006/com2006_0811en01.pdf

One of the Commission’s arguments for abolishing fixed sizes was that “unit pricing” (per kg, L, etc) enables consumers to compare value for money, and therefore fixed sizes are unnecessary. Unfortunately, neither the Commission nor the UK Government has attempted to explain or popularise the little understood concept of unit pricing – the small print which appears at the bottom of price labels. So whether the consumer will be well served by this decision is debatable.

In the meantime, the UK Government is now faced with a dilemma. In 2005 it proposed that the various Food Orders (as they are called), which regulate the sizes of packages which may be manufactured and sold in the UK, should be consolidated into a single Order – albeit without changing the content of the Orders. (These are the Orders which determine that, for example, jam must be sold in multiples of 57 g but instant coffee in multiples of 50 g).

Assuming that the Commission’s proposals come into force in 2008, and that the Food Orders also could not be revised until the same year, the revised Orders would only be in force for a maximum of five years – and only for the limited range of products listed above. This may not be enough to warrant the expense of churning out the necessary secondary legislation and occupying scarce Parliamentary time.

What about the pint of beer?

There remains, however, one minor but iconically important issue raised by the DTI in its consultation paper but not covered by the Commission’s proposal: the pint of beer. UKMA had proposed that draught beer and cider should be permitted (not required) to be dispensed in metric quantities, as long as the price per litre was displayed. As this would be an additional option and not a new and onerous regulation, there should be no problem about introducing this measure immediately.

In its response in September 2005, the DTI simply commented: “We will consider the options for revision of specified quantities for alcoholic drinks …., taking into account comments received.”

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