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Metric Culprits

Metric: the Death of Measurement

In the days prior to pre-packed foods, most foods were sold "loose from bulk". This had the effect of protecting consumers from short measure, since they needed to specify quantities to traders prior to purchase, such as asking for a "pound of sausages". A trader providing less than the requested amount would be charged with serving short measure and subject to legal penalties.

Nowadays, most foods are sold in packs with the result that customers do not specify quantities; they merely pick items from shelves. As a result, producers who reduce quantities are not committing an offence since no agreement existed between the seller and buyer as to the exact quantity required.

If consumer protection from reduced measure is to be maintained, it follows that packaged foods and goods must be marked in weights and measures that are readily understandable by the shopping public. In this way, shoppers can spot any reduction in measure.

The experience of metric demonstrates that it does not provide understandable information. This is owing largely to the abstract nature of metric units:

  • Metrication results in huge numbers on food packaging (185g, 375g, 425g, 440g, etc). This vast increase in the size of numbers occurs because metric units are much smaller than customary units; 28 grams to one ounce, over 450 grams to one pound, 568 millilitres to one pint, and so on.
  • Metric units are derived from the geometry of the earth and have no frame of reference relating to food. This means that the number of grams or millilitres needed to represent a product is necessarily arbitrary, unlike traditional units that revolve around quantities typically dealt with.
  • Metric fails to produce consistent or easily understood sizing scales. Unlike the 16oz pound that is geared to multiples of two, the kilogram cannot comfortably accommodate successive halving. Thus, while some metric packaging builds up as 100g, 200g, 400g, etc, this will not integrate with one kilogram meaning that other packaging progresses as 125g, 250g, 500g, etc. Other packaging uses 75g, 150g, 300g, etc while others still use 110g, 220g, 330g, 440g. A large variety of packaged foods has no identifiable sizing scale at all, for example, tomato ketchup and brown sauce.
The above factors have contributed to a general failure of metric units to find common acceptance by British people for food and drink packaging. Technically, metric indicates quantity as accurately as the customary system, but it fails to convey meaning or value. Whereas six ounces of cheese actually sounds like a quantity of cheese, 180g of cheese is just a very large number.

Thus, while supporters of the metric system extol its "simplicity" and "rational internal relationships", metric's streamlining exists only on paper; as soon as it is applied to the physical world that relies on divisions of 2, 3 and 4, metric indications turn into archaic three-digit numbers that lack the logical size intervals that exist under the UK system. Metric was adopted on the basis of its supposed simplicity, yet one of its main effects is make descriptions more complicated.

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