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With some packaging, size is deceiving

Is it ever necessary for the packaging to dwarf the food inside?

By Karen Datko Dec 7, 2009 2:04PM

Does it annoy you when you open a box of some kind of food -- fish sticks, say, or a rice concoction -- and find the box only half full?


Consumer Reports examined nine products suggested by readers and, in each case, the actual weight of the contents was accurately displayed but the package contained a disappointing amount.

Federal law prohibits companies from using packaging to mislead consumers, but “slack fill,” as it’s called, “is allowed if it keeps a product from breaking, if the package does double-duty (as a dispenser, or a tray, for example) to accommodate machinery on the assembly line, or to discourage theft in the store,” our partner site says.


Edgar at Mouse Print presented a lactose-free parmesan cheese substitute as an example. He wrote: “Beside bearing more resemblance to sawdust in flavor than grated cheese, the package contained another surprise. Had MrConsumer been Superman, he could have used his X-ray vision at the store and discovered that the container was only about 60% filled."

Some companies offered reasonable explanations to Consumer Reports: Lay’s Classic potato chips need lots of air sealed inside the bag so they don’t break. Shredded Wheat takes up only two-thirds of its box to make sure the bag can be properly sealed. Plus, it settles during shipping.


Do some of the other explanations asked for and received by The New York Times seem convincing to you?

  • Uncle Ben’s also cited the “proper seal” argument to explain why its Fast & Natural Whole Grain Instant Brown Rice fills only half the box.
  • Pasta Roni said it uses the same box size for all of its products, and the vermicelli takes up far less space than other pastas.

The most extreme sample examined by Consumer Reports seemed to be Mrs. Paul’s lightly breaded tilapia fillets. The company told the Times that the box is sized so that “our fish fillets remain separate from each other to retain their shape, texture and flavorful coating.”


Consumer Reports reader Jim Demers wrote to the company: “Even after being processed, breaded and frozen, these fortunate fish continue to enjoy the feeling of the open ocean.”


How can you be sure you’re getting your money’s worth? Don’t rely on package size. Read the weight of the contents (you  may have to put your reading glasses on) or give the box a shake, Consumer Reports recommends.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is supposed to enforce laws against excessive slack fill but rarely does. We found some cases in which state authorities took action on behalf of consumers.


Our solution? You might be able to fool us once, but after that we’re not buying.


Related reading:

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