Is the proposed EU-US trade agreement doomed?

We have updated an article that was first published in 2013.

The new US President has said he wishes to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), signed but not yet ratified. Does this mean the proposed EU-US trade agreement, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is also dead? This agreement was supposed to remove regulatory barriers to trade, so it is likely that an opportunity to end the US ban on metric-only labelling of most packages has now been lost.

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 any talks, but the crucial issue is whether “America first” means outright protectionism or adapting to survive and compete in the modern world.

12 thoughts on “Is the proposed EU-US trade agreement doomed?”

  1. The TTP, TTIP, NAFTA and other trade packs are all dead. It is Trump’s desire to cut the US off from the rest of the world. If this is played out right it can be a win-win for the entire world outside of the US. For one a world-wide trade pact can be put into place that benefits all nations involved.

    Part of the TTIP is the universal adoption of ISO & IEC standards in all aspects of industry. This would cement the strict use of SI in all aspects of engineering and manufacturing. Without the US, this can be universally achieved to the point of eradicating any remnant usage of US Customary (USC) and imperial. Keeping the US out of world trade agreements and deals assures a wiping out of the USC pestilence.

    The TPP excluded China for a reason that being to assure US dominance and control, but with its demise assured, China has promised to go forward with a larger trade pact to include more countries in Asia and the Americas excluding the US.

    With the expanded Chinese pact, China will set the rules, not the US. One can be assured the rules will specify the sole use of SI units.

    When the US goes into seclusion, the reserve status of the US dollar will end. The renminbi and Euro will take its place and eventually all currencies will be reserve currencies. When the reserve status of the dollar ends, the value of the dollar will collapse and hyperinflation will wipe out the American economy. This will have the effect of ending America’s dominance in world affairs and with it its ability to force the world to accept USC.

    It will be a perfect time for the EU to blow the dust off of the EEC 80/181 and end once and for all any accommodation of USC. With an EU – China partnership, the metric system can achieve universal acceptance and USC can finally disappear.


  2. Unfortunately the so called “Atlantic Bridge” is now well and truly the way we will be heading, my biggest ever fear. The way is now clear for USA to totally dominate UK, its long term ambition for the last 200 years, the 52nd state of America.
    Any UK USA deal is not likely to include any concessions to UK for FPL in metric only. The UK government has always bent to US pressure and I am sure they will be only too pleased to make industry put Imperial (USC where necessary) measures on everything. Some may find out the hard way that the gallon has shrunk (i.e. as with 4 litre instead of 5 l cans of oil introduced in the ’70’s).
    We may find ourselves having to run two production lines, one for USA and one for the rest of the world. The local market then having three measures which must surely be much better than having only two?


  3. The US does currently require dual labels of contents, metric and USC. However, we have NO “standard size” requirements (except wine and spirits which are metric). There is nothing wrong with a fill that is round in metric, as long as USC declaration is slapped on it too. A sizable minority of our producers already do this.

    Everybody that exports to us complies with our net contents and nutrition labels, regardless of what they do at home. Because the nutrition label must declare a “serving size” and give nutrition info in terms of it (not 100 g or 100 mL), I think it may be the bigger problem in a world-wide label.

    There is no problem with using the same-size package and slapping an appropriate label on it (or multiple printings of the same-size cardboard box.


  4. What sort of packages does the poster have in mind for `the non-metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK)’? The only ones I can recollect seeing where it hasn’t been omitted in the UK shops since at least 2009 have been things like dual measuring tools and clothes, which must represent a very small proportion of total sales. Or maybe I’m just fortunate to not encounter goods labels also exported to (or imported from) USA? The `ubiquitous presence of imperial units’ in the UK does not seem to be a result of package labelling, but [imperial?] foot-dragging from the public sector and media symbiosis.

    Most of UK (and EU?) pre-nascent-TTIP trade with USA by value is not packaged goods, but services and weaponry, etc. where USA customary units are not an issue—although North American paper sizes continue to be the equivalent nuisance.


  5. @ Mark Williams says:2017-01-23 at 00:02
    I also was taken aback by the comment `the non-metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK)’. Apart, again, from the usual culprits of Video displays, clothes, shoes and instruments (the one that shocks me is school rulers, still ubiquitously dual marked!). I have been taking time to check this out in recent months and see very little non metric on prepackaged goods, the main (only) ones are legacy standard sizes i.e. milk, jam and honey. Any so marked I can now refuse to buy (bye-bye my favourite jam, Mackays of Scotland (12 oz), hello Tesco.)
    In our local Tesco store a few loose vegetables are still duel priced but there are no Imperial scales anywhere in the store. I guess that has the dual benefit of price comparison to those that still like that sort of thing, and for confusing those of us that do not expect it and mistakenly compare lbs with kg, one mistake a couple of years ago for which I still hold a grudge against Tesco.


  6. Trump will put “America first” just as all his predecessors have done. That is because he is a Nation State leader just a our own PM.
    Any commercial deals will be what the US president sees as making them the winners. This may or may not mean opposition to metric only labelling. If the case was made that ditching USC in favour of metric-only was in US interests in the context of US first then it may be heeded.
    Large corporate US industries have always dominated US policy. Trump will re-inforce that. They don’t necessarily oppose change but it depends on who bares the cost of the transition. They just make sure isn’t them.


  7. @BrianAC:

    At least one UK supermarket last week had all Mackays jars in sight labelled only as 340 g. No idea whether that is the same size. It wasn’t Tesco, as I live not far from its global HQ and have been unimpressed with some of its shenanigans over the years—including the dual labelling, wrong metric unit symbols (`Kg’) and the appalling way it behaves towards its suppliers. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover they had been coercing jam factories into putting imperial ozzes on labels to disadvantage one brand against another…


  8. @Philh:

    Donald Trump has a completely different and wrong idea as to what it means to put America first. Past governments always tried to maintain the status quo since the end of Breton Woods, so as not to disturb position of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. As long as events stayed this way and followed the course, the US directly or indirectly had control of the entire world economy. As as long as it had this power, there never was a need for the US to metricate. The goal of the US was to print dollars and use them to purchase everyone Else’s products. The countries took the dollars they earned and “stored” them in the US stock market & US banks where they were lent out to Americans at low rates to maintain the economy. Because of the world-wide acceptance of dollars the over printing of dollars did not cause the US economy to hyperinflate as was the case in many other countries.

    With Trump’s, the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency will end. No one currency will replace it, but a basket of currencies, like the euro, yen, renminbi, Australian & Canadian dollars, possibly the British pound, etc. The US dollar may be in the basket but with no special status.

    What this means is that the US will have to run its businesses like everyone else and export heavily in order to make money to purchase needed imports. It will then no longer be in a position to demand USC be used on products. The world will instead demand metric and the US will be forced to metricate or sink. It will happen but it won’t be smooth and many will kick and scream until they are subdued.

    So, if we want to see the US metricate, we need to let Trump do his thing and the events run their course.


  9. @ Mark Williams:

    As with the DfT, the situation with Tesco is the same. Tesco is not to be blamed for what happens in its shops as it is an inanimate object. People who make decisions on Tesco’s behalf are the ones to blame.

    Dual labelling is obviously the decision of some manager who opposes metrication. A manager in a different store who is pro-metric will never dual label. The use of wrong symbols comes from employees who use what they learned in school. Obviously the schools don’t teach the proper use of SI. Even though you wrote 340 g, others would have written it incorrectly as 340g. This is why it is important to teach the SI correctly to students in the same manner that correct spelling and grammar are stressed.


  10. 49 of the 50 states of the US allow metric only labelling. The only holdout is New York State. Perhaps things will change when this last state falls into line with all the others.


  11. @Michael Glass

    The wrinkle in the USA is that here there are several different pieces of legislation that govern which units can or must be used on retail packaging.

    The UPLR (Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation) adopted by the NCWM (National Conference on Weights and Measures) is model legislation for states in the USA to adopt for those products that are not governed by the FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act) of the US federal government. The FPLA became law after being passed by Congress and signed by the President. The FPLA is enforced by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), an independent agency of the executive branch of the US federal government.

    The FPLA was amended some time ago to require metric units alongside US Customary units on retail packaging for products sold in stores everywhere in the USA. However, some products are not covered by the FPLA; instead, they are covered by state laws that are modeled on the UPLR.

    Although efforts to amend the FPLA to allow (not require) metric-only labeling have failed, the NCWM did amend the UPLR some time ago to include voluntary metric-0nly labeling. So far 49 out of the 50 US states have adopted this language in their statutes. Unfortunately, the state of New York has not yet made this change to their legislation. I also have not been able to get any updates from USMA (US Metric Association) on the latest effort (if any) to persuade the New York state government to adopt permissive metric-only labeling in their statutes.

    Once New York does (we hope!) make the change, it should be legal for any manufacturer, distributor, or retailer of products governed by state statutes modeled after the UPLR to use metric-only quantities on the product’s packaging.

    The real rub is that most retail products’ packaging is governed by the FPLA and not state legislation modeled after the UPLR. There is little hope the current administration and Congress will want to cross the FMI (Food Marketing Institute) and their opposition to such labels:

    Bottom line is that we cannot expect to see metric-only packages on store shelves any time soon here in the USA, alas. 😦


  12. @Daniel Jackson:

    Yes, it is lazy of me to refer to the organisation. In my defence, the name of the individual(s) who make these decisions is difficult to find out and it is the whole organisation which, for example, loses jam sales as a result of them. Tesco, i.e. a spokesperson for them, at one time claimed that their shelf labels were controlled by head office, with no discretion for managers at each store.

    The SI brochure says that there should be a space, although it doesn’t say how wide. One LaTeX SI package uses a mathematical space (340‍ ‍g). Package label designers throughout Western EU, at least, often resent inserting more than something like a hair space (340‍ ‍g).

    UK Schoolchildren are taught to put a space in—certainly the case when I were a lad—but that is undermined by what they see in shops. The supermarket shelf labels commonly have no space at all, perhaps because of width constraints or the staff do not know how to avoid line breaks otherwise. As a matter of interest, do the shelf labels in USA replicate the [verbose] dual units of FPLA or what? Is that a trade barrier in itself, regarding shop furniture?

    Even DFT, themselves not averse to undermining schoolchildren’s learning with road signs, recognise that it’s not just a matter of pressing the space bar and hoping for the best. Their Traffic Signs Manual chapter 7 reduces the normal word spacing (paragraph 2.10) from 2.5 stroke widths (SW)—where SW and x-height are defined in terms of font size—down to 1.5 SW for `abbreviations […] for the unit of measurement’ apparently including metre (non-abbreviation `m’) on dual height/ width signs, 1 SW for imperial mile (non-symbol `m’) or 0.5 SW for millions (non-prefix `m’). Not confusing, allegedly! Anti-metric distance ruling is paragraph 14.5


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