F ew things are more infuriating than tearing into a bag of chips to find that it's mostly filled with air, or digging into a "pint" of ice cream that—on closer inspection—is only 14 ounces. How can they cheat us like this? consumers often ask. There oughta be a law!
Technically, there is a law—the almost 50-year-old federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. It prohibits excessive "slack fill," or nonfunctional empty space that creates the illusion of more product through underfilling, overpackaging, or other tactics. But the law has loopholes. When we contacted the Food & Drug Administration to inquire about violations, and a recent citation it might have issued, the press officer referred us to a database in which we could find neither details of violations nor warnings to manufacturers.
California is one of a few states in which local officials are cracking down. In late August, StarKist agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by Patrick Hendricks in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, accusing them of underfilling various 5-ounce cans of chunk light and solid white tuna for more than five years. StarKist denied wrongdoing but has agreed to distribute $8 million in cash and $4 million in vouchers redeemable for their tuna products. (You can file a claim until Nov. 20; go to tunalawsuit.com.)
Larry Barlly, supervising deputy district attorney in Yolo County, Calif., told us that since 2009, 27 slack-fill cases have been settled in civil penalties against companies including Coty, CVS, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, and Walgreens. As part of the settlements, the companies were also compelled to redesign their packaging.
Other cases are pending elsewhere. This past March, in New York, 100 consumers joined a class-action suit against Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies and McNeil-PPC accusing the manufacturers of using disproportionately large bottles to house a small number of Motrin IB and Motrin PM capsules.
"Most every pharmaceutical issue is tied to regulatory matters, so any change to packaging materials (say, to a different-sized bottle) could mean expensive investments and time-consuming review and approval from the [FDA or another] agency," said Jim Butschli, an editor at the trade publication Packaging World.
"You and I may be outraged, but there might be a function to the slack fill," said food and drug lawyer Eric Greenberg.
When companies do start playing footsie with the packaging, you can bet it has to do with the bottom line. "If raw paper costs rise, you'll see fewer and smaller sheets of paper towels," says Edgar Dworsky, editor of the pro-consumer watchdog blog MousePrint.org, which looks at the fine print of advertising. "When peanuts are in short supply, a manufacturer will take out a few tablespoons from the jar to offset higher costs."
So be vigilant when looking at packaging. Pay attention to the net contents more than the box or bag they're housed in. Compare unit prices of various-sized brands and package sizes to see which sell for the lowest price per ounce, per quart, or per pound. To get you going in the right direction, we take a close look at some big packages and bold claims—and share what the companies' customer-service representatives told us when we called, as any consumer would, to ask: "Where's the rest?"
When "large" doesn't pack a punch, "marketers go bigger and bolder, and neutralize the competition," said Mark Lang, Ph.D., professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University. Hershey's has its Extra Large (4.25 ounces), King (2.6), and Giant Special Dark chocolate bars (6.8, down from its original 8 ounces). And not all "giants" are created equal: The Giant milk chocolate version weighs in at a full 7 ounces. Why the difference? "It could be a marketing reason, but I really don't know," a rep said.
Like other companies, Ivory has downsized; it shaved its standard bars from 4.5 to 4 ounces in 2012. But the iconic product has a smaller doppelganger. When you buy a 10-pack, you get the standard-sized soap cakes. Purchase a 3-pack, and the look-alike bars weigh in at only 3.1 ounces. Be sure to compare the cost of the soap on the price per pound (usually indicated on the unit-price label), not on the cost per bar.
Why is it that chip bags always seem to be so filled with air? "So the chips can move freely in the bag to avoid breakage," said a rep for Snyder's of Hanover. When we asked why the snack giant recently shrunk the size of its bag of tortilla chips from a pound to 12.5 ounces, the rep cited increased production costs. Fair enough, but the expectation that an unopened product will be only half-full can make spotting downsizing even trickier.
We've received many snarky comments about outsized boxes and bottles of OTC drugs, but combination packs like this one from Vicks NyQuil/DayQuil are especially maddening: Only 24 caplets on two blister packs rattle inside a box that's about 3¼ x 4¼ x 2 inches. "People assume the larger box is a better value," said Lang of Saint Joseph's University. "Shoppers make decisions heuristically—based on shortcuts using inferences and incomplete data. We can't process everything." A rep couldn't explain the large packaging. "But if you'd like to see it in a smaller container, I'll pass the information along," she said.
"Larger package, two less bars, same price. Really?" wrote Jacquelyn Wood of Salem, N.H., when she sent us a photo of a 12- and 10-pack of Hood ice cream sandwiches, each which sold for $5. According to a customer-service representative, the reason Hood shrunk its sandwich count last year was to be in sync with the industry standard. But why did the company make the box bigger in the process? For that, the rep had no answer.
This claim on a French's mustard bottle seems to indicate that consumers will get 50 percent more for their money. But the smaller print shows that the difference between the 18-ounce bottle and the 12-ounce one is, well, just that. According to a customer rep, the label isn't misleading because the word "free" doesn't appear anywhere. "We do it mostly for the moms," the rep said. "Back in the day, the mustard came only in 12-ouncers. We put 50 percent more in the bottle, so it would last all summer and you wouldn't have to go out and buy another. Sorry for the confusion."
One way we've seen peanut butter and mayonnaise makers conceal the fact that you are getting less—even though you are paying the same—is by retaining a container's dimensions but crafting a dimple into the base. When we called Jif to ask about downsizing, the customer-service rep confirmed that in 2012, Jif's 18-ounce container shrunk to 16 ounces, as an alternative to a price increase. The most probable reason, the rep said, was the rising cost of peanuts.
Many juice giants have taken their refrigerated not-from-concentrate citrus juices down from a half-gallon, or 64 ounces, to 59 ounces. But some store brands, such as this Stop & Shop grapefruit juice, continue to offer the old size. Jim Wisner, a former retailer and president of Wisner Marketing Group, said retailers will occasionally delay downsizing for as long as several years after a big brand has led the way in order to show consumers that they offer a better value. The other advantage of store brands is that they're around 25 percent cheaper than the big names, on average, and in our taste tests many prove at least as good in quality.
"I am very annoyed by the deceptive marketing practices of corporate America in today's world," wrote reader Ed McGuire of Syracuse, N.Y., who e-mailed us a photo of two different-sized bottles of All Free Clear—one 50 ounces and one 46.5 ounces—both sold at the same price. A company rep acknowledged that the laundry detergent bottle was reduced in size, attributing the decision in part to rising manufacturing, transportation, and packaging costs. However, we noticed that regular All liquid continues to come in the previous 50-ounce size. The lesson: Not all products are shrunk at the same time.
his article also appeared in the November 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.