DTI claim that removing supplementary indications will be a barrier to trade

Britain’s department for trade and industry (DTI) has recently published a letter advocating continued derogation on using supplementary indications.

[Article by Roddy Urquhart]

The reason for doing so is stated to be “The Government believes that the removal of the permission to use supplementary indications after 2009 could create a barrier to trade and increase costs for UK businesses wishing to export to the US”. Furthermore they state that “the Government intends to support the continued use of supplementary indications after 2009 for an indefinite period”.

But are supplementary indications really so vital for trade with the US?

As a lover of hot spicy food, I regularly purchase chilli sauces. Tabasco sauce is not only a very successful product in the United States but is successfully exported to Europe. I have seen it in restaurants from Penzance to Helsinki. However, Tabasco sauce demonstrates that supplementary indications are not necessary for trade. Consider the photos below…


On the left is a bottle of Tabasco sauce produced by McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, Louisiana. This bottle is 12 (US) fluid ounces (355 ml) and was purchased in a supermarket in Austin, Texas in June 2006.

On the right is a bottle of Tabasco sauce produced by McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, Louisiana. This bottle is 350 ml and was purchased in a cash and carry in Reading, Berkshire 2006.

Although the amounts involved (355 ml and 350 ml) vary by a mere 5 millilitres, McIlhenny apparently has no problem producing one bottle for the US market and another for the European one. There would have been nothing to stop them using the same bottle and filling to slightly different levels. In this case if supplementary indications were phased out there is clearly no threat to the business as metric only labelling is used today.

The Government’s recommendation is for a blanket and indefinite authorisation of supplementary indications. This would be very bad for the British consumer. Weak regulation already means that mixtures of metric and imperial units in the retail sector can confuse consumers. The DTI proposal would permit this muddle to carry on indefinitely. If there are cases where supplementary indications really are needed, then they should be permitted only in very exceptional cases and where a case is proven that transatlantic trade would be adversely affected. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases this would not be the case.

Author: UK Metric Association

Campaigning for a single, rational system of measurement

10 thoughts on “DTI claim that removing supplementary indications will be a barrier to trade”

  1. The strangest part is that US and UK Imperial units are not even compatible. Case in point gallons and fluid ounces.

    That doesn’t even mention the hundredweight and ton and all the long/short mess that surrounds them both.

    The problem only arises because the US has *still* not allowed metric-only labelling level at a federal level, though this is highly likely to be addressed in the next year or two (or not, depending on how much congressional interference comes from short-sighted US retailers – but with a democratic congress it is likely to progress better than otherwise).

    A permanent derogation is frankly, absurd, in this context. The US ‘problem’ is a very temporary one hopefully, and as you say, allowing a wholesale authorisation of supplementary indications infinitely is certainly cracking the nut with a hammer.

    I shall be writing to my MP and the DTI itself regarding this. I urge everyone else to – a few well written letters can seriously affect the interpretation many MPs and civil servants have to the popularity of metric.


  2. I just took a look in my kitchen and found 3 items clearly imported from the USA. All three items had labels on them showing supplementary indications, but interestingly the labels were printed specifically for the UK market showing, amongst other things, the importer’s name and address. That in my mind proves that this should not be an issue… especially having seen instances in the past where manufacturers put stickers over things to cover mistakes or changes in existing labels.

    You could actually argue this in the opposite direction – the UK is the only country left that drives right hand drive cars but have to have imperial speedometers… surely this is a barrier to trade because only cars made for the British market have to have these and they’re not so easilly changed (as many Irish drivers will have no doubt discovered in the last couple of years). It’s the UK consumer who ends up having to pay for these derogations in the longer term!


  3. I do not fully understand why the EU wants to remove this permission. The requirement appears to the lay-man to be draconian and bureaucratic. Without some explanation, it’s easy to see why the man-in-the-street sees metrication as being imposed on UK by force.

    What would be really useful would be if someone could write a short, concise statement of why supplementary measures are bad, and how we benefit from not having them. Armed with that information, I’m sure I could write a coherent letter to my MP. Without it I’m not sure I could do so.


  4. The easiest reason for opposing supplementary indicators is that they discourage consumers from thinking metric, which is the official system of weights and measures here and in most countries around the world. They also introduce younger consumers to a system in which they are largely unfamiliar, and which the US has, at least in theory, decided it will move away from.

    Consider the sale of petrol in the UK. When fuel was changed from being sold by the gallon to the litre, supplementary indicators were given at fuel pumps, but these were fairly short-lived and as a result consumers quickly got used to one system, and now no one can honestly say they think of fuel by the gallon. Yet, temperatures are still routinely given in Fahrenheit thus acting as a disincentive to learn one system.

    Then there is a practical issue involved. Over recent years, food labelling information has become more intensive, with ingredients, health analysis per serving, and now possibly environmental travel impact information all being given on the label. Adding old measurements on top of this really would leave the consumer overwhelmed.


  5. If you bought a can of lager labelled as 473 ml / 1 pint, and you used the supplementary indication as a guide to its contents, you might have an unpleasant surprise when you poured its contents into a glass when you got home. Whereas if it was labelled soley as 473 ml, there would be no possibility of mistaking the fact that the can contained less than half a litre.

    Many people are unaware that not all the measures used in the U.S. are the same as their imperial namesakes, a US pint being nearly 20% less than a UK pint.

    There is also more room for mistakes to occur when goods are labelled in dual units. I have seen several cases where the price of loose meat has changed but the shop assistant has forgotten to correct the imperial price when altering the metric unit price. Again, the presence of supplementary indications allow deceptions to arise, however innocently, where none would be possible if a single measurement system was used.


  6. I can back up what Martin said. I have seen mistakes in carpet shops where the price per metre of a runner carpet is divided by 1.21, not 1.1. This is because the staff are so used to dividing the price per *square* metre by 1.21 to get the price per *square* yard.

    I am not sure where things would stand under the Trade Descriptions Act, though I am sure that if you pressed your case to use the cheaper price, threatening to lodge a complaint with the Trading Standards Authority if they disagreed, the management would reluctantly give.


  7. Dual unit pricing (another form of supplementary indications) leads to weak legislation.

    A case in point was the behaviour of Tesco some time ago when they began displaying price/lb only on some of their in-store advertising. They claimed that it was within the rules of the Price Marking Order (as a supplementary indication) because of the (much smaller) metric shelf-end labelling which was the primary indication.

    Clearly this went beyond the intended scope of SIs but the lack of clarity in legislation and the consequent unwillingness of Trading Standards to challenge it, allowed them to get away with it.

    SIs are OK as a temporary concession. They should not continue indefinetly because they undermine the whole process of change. When we decimalised our currency, dual pricing (£p/£sd) was used on a temporary basis to allow people to adapt but we never see it nowadays. In the end it has to go and 10 years is quite long enough.


  8. To Dave Brown’s point I think that supplementary indications are sensible only for a transition from imperial to metric. In the past we had the rule that imperial-only was allowed – that allowed unambiguous comparison of like with like. Today, there is some confusion because sometimes tricks are used due to two units being visible – an example being a supermarket that advertised on sort of meat “per pound” to make the unit price seem cheap, then advertised a price reduction on another saying that the saving was “per kg” to make the saving sound as large as possible. This is confusion marketing.

    Other examples of confusion are given on the main UKMA website http://www.ukma.org.uk/Practical/shopping/unfriendly.htm

    Removing supplementary indications should allow us to compare like with like transparently again… but with an easier set of units than in the past!


  9. In my view the real issue with supplementary units is that retailers can get away with using them to mislead or confuse the consumer (wether intentionally or not). My local branch of Subway sells bottled soft drinks in metric and refillable drinks in oz. From my interpretation of the Weights and Measures act “oz” became illegal in all cases, even for supplementary units, in 2000 and the only imperial measuerment for drinks still allowed is pints for doorstep milk and draught beer and cider. However Northamptonshire Trading Standards office claim that Subway’s use of oz is still legal! I’ve also noticed that other fast-food outlets and pubs still sell soft drinks in oz and even pints!

    If current law either isn’t enforcable or isn’t being enforced properly then the only way forward is to ban supplementary indications altogether, only then will the law be clear!


  10. “McIlhenny apparently has no problem producing one bottle for the US market and another for the European one. There would have been nothing to stop them using the same bottle and filling to slightly different levels.”

    But those bottles do look to me to be the same ( as per the picture). It is very expensive to have a new glass bottle mould and the extra logistics would increase costs.

    It might even be cheaper to actually have 355 ml and declare 350 ml rather than have a new bottle shape.


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