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Metric Culprits

The Retailer's Survival Guide to Metric Law

The Legal Situation

On 18 February 2002, the divisional court in London ruled that the sale of loose foods in pounds and ounces is illegal. This is despite the existence of the 1985 Weights and Measures Act that allows retailers to use lb/oz and other traditional UK units. This judgement is based on an interpretation of the 1972 European Communities which allows it (the 1972 Act) to override future Acts of Parliament in order to implement EC directives.

BWMA does not believe that this ruling is lawful, and is seeking to have it revoked. In the meantime, there still exist ways of legally using UK customary units on packaged and loose foods and goods. Here is a summary:

Type of Product Purpose and typical location of label Relationship to metric Authority
Packaged foods and consumable goods (eg shampoo, perfume, biscuits, cereal) To indicate quantity on the packaging As "supplementary indications" (ie additional to metric) 1994 Units of Measurement Regulations
Loose foods and goods (eg carpet, fruit & vegetables) To show the unit price As "supplementary indications" (ie additional to metric) 1994 Units of Measurement Regulations
All foods and goods To show the unit price for advertising purposes (ie on posters, stickers and other promotional materials) Can be used without metric NB Metric must still be displayed on non-advertising materials Price Marking Order 1999
Single item non-food goods (eg furniture, rugs, kitchen appliances) To describe dimensions Can be used without metric Not covered by regulations

As can be seen from the table, there are two main legal authorities for displaying lb/oz:

1) The Price Marking Order - for Advertising Purposes

The Price Marking Order differentiates between the use of unit pricing for contract purposes (ie price indications on labels and till receipts) and advertising. In other words, while metric unit pricing must be used for contracts but no such requirement exists for advertising and promotional uses.

Tesco have made use of this distinction by displaying the price per pound on posters, leaflets, and price stickers on packages. On the wrapper below, a prominent circular sticker gives the price per pound only. This is a promotional device and therefore exempt from the 1994 regulations.

BWMA regards Tesco's view of the law as entirely reasonable and in the interests of consumers. However, trading standards in Hertfordshire are known to disagree. As yet, Hertfordshire trading standards have taken no action against Tesco.

Sainsburys has also adopted this practice, as illustrated by the two stickers below featured on a pack of fresh pork: to the left is the formal price indication (£2.20 at £4.39/kg); to the right is the promotional sticker showing the equivalent price per pound, £1.99.


2) Supplementary Indications

Although EC directive 80/181, implemented into UK law by the regulations, requires that metric be used for all economic purposes, people are still "permitted" (to use the EC's term) to show "supplementary indications"; in other words, non-metric equivalents. UK regulations state that imperial indications must be expressed, "in characters no larger than those of the metric indication". This wording suggests that imperial may be as large as the metric. Moreover, BWMA believes there are ways of presenting imperial units prominently without exceeding on the letter of the purported law:

i) Make imperial/customary units AS LARGE AS metric units
ii) Place imperial units TO THE LEFT of metric This means that people can read the imperial first, since people read from left to right. BWMA does not believe that this contravenes the letter of the law, since placing imperial to the left does not make metric less prominent, so long as both labels face the reader squarely.

iii) Place imperial units TO THE RIGHT of metric on a CIRCULAR LABELOn a circular label, the consumer's eye naturally goes to the bottom and then starts reading to the right. This makes it easier to read the lb/oz indication first and ignore the metric. The effect can be emphasied even more if the "8oz" commences from exactly the six o-clock position. BWMA does not believe this impinges on the law, since the metric is as visible and as large as the imperial.
Waitrose packaging

v) Abbreviate the metric, spell imperial out in full This does not, in BWMA's view, impinge on the issue of prominence since the meaning of "100ml" on a food packet is the same as "100 millilitres". It is neither clearer nor less clear. "568ml 1 PINT"
iv) Use UPPER CASE for imperial, LOWER CASE for metric The above effect can be emphasised by putting the imperial indication in upper case. Again, this need not affect prominence, since the same font size is used for both, and changing case does not affect the meaning of a word or its clarity. It could be argued THAT UPPER CASE IS HARDER TO READ THAN LOWER CASE. "568ml 1 PINT"
vi) Use RATIONAL sizes for imperial, and IRRATIONAL sizes for metric Tried and tested, and totally within the regulations, since it does not relate to the labelling design. There is no better way to promote customary units than by using customary quantities.

vii) Emphasis the above effect by putting metric to three decimal places. Another old favourite. This cannot be said to undermine metric, since one of metric's much hyped-up benefits is that it is (allegedly) "more accurate". A producer can therefore make the most of metric by putting it to three, or even four, decimal places.
viii) Wrap the metric around the packaging. Print the metric on the top of the label and imperial underneath. Metric cannot be said to be less prominent; on the contrary, if one looks at the product from the top, only metric is visible.

Use "lead-ins" These are used by Somerfield and other retailers to lead the consumer from the metric to the imperial, for instance:
Bananas 55p/kg - equivalent to just 25p/pound
454g Marmalade - that's 1 lb to you and me!
Don't state the imperial unit by name Sainsburys use this technique with their milk: a one-pint carton displays a prominent "1", a two-pint shows a prominent "2", and so forth. Even though these numbers are much larger than the metric, the labels do not break the metric regulations since they do not refer to the pint unit; they are simply prominent numbers.

Make use of Colour This is another technique used by Sainsburys to promote lb/oz while remaining within the letter of the regulations. In the (reconstructed) sign below, the price per pound complies with regulations in the usual way. However, it is located just under the product name and on a background of the same colour. Thus, while technically "less prominent", it is immediately more identifiable as relating to the product. It could, of course, be argued that the price per kilo is more prominent as it is on a eye-catching red background.

only 49p
per kg
Loose Carrots
  22p per lb

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