Going Metric: American Foods and Drugs Measure Up

Article excerpt

Years ago, nearly every principality, dukedom and kingdom had its own set of weights and measures that often differed wildly from standards in effect a few miles away. That worked well enough for small, self-contained societies. But as the horizons of commerce broadened, local measurement units no longer

Today, in a time of rapid transport and instantaneous communication, there is only one marketplace and it is global. Trading in it requires a common, standard set of measurements worldwide. We have such a set of standards. It is popularly known as the metric system and more formally as the International System of Units (SI).

Until now, the United States has been very much like the Boy Scout in the Labor Day parade whose proud mother exclaimed, "Look, they are all out of step but Johnny." Except for two minuscule players in the global marketplace--Liberia and Myanmar (Burma)--ours has been the only trading nation not routinely conducting its commercial affairs in metric units.

This has been a source of problems: If we sell rice or flour by the pound, how does this sit with a purchaser in some foreign country who is used to buying rice or flour by the kilogram? And what does it do to our competitive position if U.S. products are the only ones on a store shelf in a distant land labeled in weight units that make no sense to would-be purchasers?

Through a 1992 amendment to the 1967 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, Congress has ordered that the packaging of many consumer products display both the customary inch-pound and metric designations. Final regulations for products in the Food and Drug Administration's domain--most processed foods, virtually all nonprescription drugs, and personal care items ranging from liquid makeup to sunscreens--are expected soon.

Once the regulations are final, manufacturers of the products will have a grace period to use up any labels already on hand that disclose only inch-pound system measurements. And some of the hundreds of thousands of products in FDA's jurisdition--adhesive bandage strips are an example--will not be subject to the new requirement, at least not immediately. Meanwhile, because some U.S. companies have realized the benefits of "going metric," their products are already labeled in both metric and traditional units. Typical is this notation on a can of condensed tomato soup: "10 3/4 oz.--305 grams." And the labels on prescription drugs have had metric designations for many years.

Switch Is On

Since mid-century, all other English-speaking nations have made the switch to metric. For example, both Canada and Australia, longtime adherents to the English system of measurement, are now comfortably in the metric camp--as indeed is England itself. Conversion to metric in other English-speaking countries was not done overnight or without public information and education campaigns. Starting in 1970, Australia phased in new measurements one at a time with a series of "M-days" ("M" for metric), each preceded by a barrage of publicity through the news media. As each deadline passed, an old standard of weight or volume or length or area disappeared and a metric one took its place. Canadians followed a similar course of gradualism over a 10-year period starting in 1973. Today, according to an official at the Canadian embassy in Washington, "older people remember the old measures, but younger people don't know what a gallon is."

If gradualism is the key to success in metric conversion, the American experience should be a cakewalk. We have been on the metric track for almost 120 years; indeed, it is an irony of history that the world's last major holdout was one of the original signatories to the first international metric agreement. This was the Treaty of the Meter, signed in Paris in 1875. The United States was the only English-speaking country among the treaty's 17 original signers.

Even earlier--in 1866--President Andrew Johnson signed an act making metric measurements legal anywhere in the United States. …