It happens all the time: You open a snack bag, cereal box, or pill bottle and find a little bit of product and … lots of air. Consumer Reports dings such products with a Black Hole Award, and loyal readers are quick to send us nominees. We recently rounded up a handful and asked their makers to explain the extra space.
The federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act is supposed to prevent the public from being misled by packages containing excessive "slack fill," nonfunctional or empty space that creates an illusion of more product, often through underfilling, indented bottoms, or extra walls. But slack fill is allowed if it keeps a product from breaking, if the package does double-duty (as a dispenser or tray, for example), to accommodate machinery on the assembly line, or to discourage theft in the store.
The Food and Drug Administration administers the regulation for food and personal-care items; the Federal Trade Commission covers other consumer products.
The law gives manufacturers plenty of wiggle room. Indeed, the FDA hasn't acted against a slack-fill violation in five years, according to public-affairs spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. The most recent slack-fill case we unearthed occurred in December 2008 in California, which has its own rules. Reckitt Benckiser, maker of the cold medicine Mucinex, paid three counties $300,000 to settle a claim that the product had "excessive nonfunctional slack fill" and agreed to change to blister packs. Reckitt Benckiser, which bought Mucinex while the investigation was under way, admitted no wrongdoing.
As a practical matter, said Erin Dervin, a deputy district attorney in Shasta County, Calif., the D.A.'s office won't go after a company unless its packaging exceeds 40 percent nonfunctional slack fill. "We choose our battles," she said. Mucinex, Dervin added, went over that limit, with about 90 percent cardboard, cotton, and air, and 10 percent pills. (The company has about two years to comply, so the roomy Mucinex is still on shelves.)
Even when extra space is perfectly legal, it's natural to wonder whether you're getting the amount of product you paid for. In the examples we cite, net weights were labeled correctly.
But how many consumers know what 6.7 ounces of rice looks like? Not Terry Hemmen of Chino Valley, Ariz., who reported on a purchase of chicken-flavored Rice-A-Roni. "When I opened up the box," he said, "the rice inside only came up to the top of the word ‘Roni,' which was a tad more than 50 percent of the size of the box." He was further miffed by a banner on the box proclaiming "20% More!" Hemmen said, "One might believe that the box has indeed 20 percent more than a normal box of Rice-A-Roni." But no dice for this rice: Tiny lettering revealed that the box held 20 percent more "than closest competitor's chicken flavor."
Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, who has studied shopping behavior for years, said that consumers tend to ignore size labels and base their buys largely on package dimensions. "Most of our studies show that 75 to 80 percent of consumers don't even bother to look at any label information, no less the net weight," he said. Faced with a large box and a smaller box, both with the same amount of product inside, he said, consumers are apt to choose the larger box because they think it's a better value.
Tim Bohrer of Pac Advantage Consulting, a packaging consulting firm in Chicago, conceded that there "may be a few suspicious cases or even deliberately deceptive underfilled packs" but added that the cost in terms of damaged brand reputation and lost future sales to consumers who feel they've been cheated isn't worth the risk.
If anything, manufacturers are trying to be more, not less, efficient with their packaging, said Joe Angel, vice president and publisher of Packaging World, a trade publication. Angel said that companies are finding new ways to create boxes, cans, bags, and cartons that keep products safe and fresh while using more renewable materials and leaving less of a carbon footprint. Angel pointed out that one hot-dog maker recently saved millions of dollars by trimming a couple of inches off its packaging. That way, more products fit into shipping containers, and the trucks that move the containers into stores can make fewer trips.
Realize that you're not getting shortchanged. But if you want to avoid being annoyed, look at the net weight of the product you're considering and compare weights and box sizes of nearby products. Rattle the box of a food such as pasta or rice. It was easy to tell that some of the products pictured on these pages were far from full.
The FDA says it checks for packaging violations, but with thousands of products in the marketplace, the agency also relies on consumer complaints. To file one, contact an FDA district complaint coordinator. A list of coordinators for each state is at www.fda.gov/safety/reportaproblem/consumercomplaintcoordinators/default.htm.