UNCONTAINED: A lot of air about package fills

“This package is sold by weight, not volume.” That phrase on cereal boxes used to mystify and intrigue me when I was a kid just learning to read. Its meaning seemed just out of reach, like I imagine the phrase “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear” would be to little kids today.

Soon enough, of course, I figured it out. But it seems the folks at Consumer Reports, or their readers, haven’t. They recently put out a report on what they call “black-hole packaging,” meaning packages with what they consider excessive air. Examples, based largely on reader nominations, include Lay’s Potato Chips (Frito-Lay), Mrs. Paul's Lightly Breaded Tilapia Fillets, Pasta Roni Garlic & Olive Oil Vermicelli, and Quaker Oatmeal to Go Brown Sugar Cinnamon bars.

To CR’s credit, the coverage included technical explanations of how, for instance, product could get broken or could interfere with package sealing if the package didn’t have enough of a cushion. But the clear implication is that packaged-goods companies are ripping off consumers.

Now, I happen to think that “the free-market solution” is a card that gets overplayed these days. But it applies here. Consumers are free (as the CR article points out) to shake packages and compare competing products if they’re dubious about package size. Conversely, CPG companies have incentives not to use superfluous packaging, both internal (cost) and external (retailer initiatives like the Walmart Sustainability Index).

Half-filled packages may be a disappointment, but they’re not a ripoff. That’s why packaging lines have checkweighers.