The CSPI is charging that food packagers are too slack about monitoring their ‘slack fill’ practices. More…

In February, packagers were accused of filling packages with too much food and thereby understating the caloric content (see UNCONTAINED: Calorific labeling dilemma).

Now packagers are accused of filling their packages with too little food and too much space.

The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling deceptive what the food industry calls “slack fill” for boxes.

The CSPI sees red when a “biggish” box of Hamburger Helper is only half full of food, a box of Ginger Snaps contains an equal amount of air, and a solitary chicken quesadilla is packed in a Lean Cuisine box that appears sized for double the portion.

It’s a common, allowable practice: The Food and Drug Administration has regulations in effect regarding slack fill, which is defined as the difference between the capacity of a container and the volume of product inside. Those rules are meant to restrict slack fill to situations where air in the packaging actually helps protect the contents, or where some settling of the product makes a little slack fill unavoidable. For example, the practice is commonplace in bagged snacks.

But according to the CSPI, food manufacturers and the regulators who oversee them don’t seem overly concerned with the spirit of those regulations. It feels that consumer packaged goods manufacturers have taken advantage of legal allowances in a manner it terms “deceptive.”

The nonprofit watchdog group is urging the FDA and state attorneys general to crack down on illegal slack fill in food packages.

“It would be disheartening, even shocking, if it weren’t so commonplace,” says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. “As consumers, we’ve almost come to expect that our food packages will be half full of food and half full of air. Slack fill is just one trick that food marketers employ to make us think we’re getting more for our money than we are.”

The CSPI also takes exception to the environmental aspect of the practice: the shipping of half-full containers around the country and world.

“If food companies cut package [sizes] of Ginger Snaps or Hamburger Helper in half, what now takes two trucks to ship would only take one,” Jacobson says. “Some of us might appreciate some extra space in our cupboards, too. I wish the FDA or state attorneys general would take steps to ensure that consumers are getting their money’s worth at the grocery store.”

There’s a practical side to the problem. From a production standpoint, it can be more efficient to run a standard carton size to accommodate a range of products with varying degrees of ingredients and product densities and fill levels than to change over to a different box or container size for a particular formulation. Package size options may also be limited by the equipment, whether it’s the filler, cartoner or case packer.

In any event, packagers are motivated to cut costs as much as possible, and that usually means trimming package dimensions if possible. That’s never been more of a driver than in this market environment, where sustainability is king and packagers eagerly proclaim how much packaging materials they have saved or will save.

Slack fill can further confuse and confound the public in a market where food manufacturers have already been trimming package weights and sizes to maintain product pricing.

At the end of the day, it’s really all about rightsizing, and that means doing it for the right reasons.