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Confession of a net weight watcher

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Column by Jim Flynn

Ever wonder what two million federal employees do with their work time? Thousands of them are writing rules and regulations intended to promote our general welfare, as suggested in the Constitution. Their work output is so voluminous it’s often referred to in pounds rather than pages.

Federal rules and regulation writers are very thorough, as if they’re being paid by the word. For instance, as to food packaging they specify the height and width of the letters on various kinds of containers.

Recently we wanted to know what federal regulations govern the net weight of what we buy to eat and drink. The most common definition is “actual, computed, or estimated weight of contents without the container or packaging.” In other words the stuff inside that’s edible.

Our curiosity was stimulated by an observation that two foil wrapped blocks of coffee, produced by a well-known company had the same net weight on the wrapper but appeared to be of different lengths. Measurement confirmed that the width and depth were the same, but one block was an inch shorter than the other.

What have we here, we wondered? Both packages stated that 11.3 ounces was the net weight of their contents. Using a Weight Watchers food scale with years of trustworthy accuracy, we discovered the packages of coffee, including the wrapper, were more than an ounce less than 11.3.

Every “Aha!” stimulates more curiosity. So we opened a couple of boxes of cereal, produced and packaged by two different vendors. That empty space at the top cereal bags always created a suspicion we were getting short-changed.

At least one of our readers will exclaim: “He’s going to get this one wrong. He doesn’t know about slack-fill.” Yes we do! If we take the sleeve of cereal out of the box, it’s a devil to get it back in. It’s like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. That’s because we’ve disturbed the slack-fill.

Slack-fill space at the top of a package isn’t cheating. It’s allowed for products such as cereal, where the manufacturer can’t increase the contents or reduce the size of the package without scrunching the contents into crumbs.

However, a slack-fill exception doesn’t give cereal sellers a free pass to claim there’s 14.5 ounces of cereal in the box, when there are only thirteen.

It was disturbing enough when they made the ten-cent candy bar an inch shorter and a lot skinnier. That’s not deflation, by the way. It’s inflation - getting less for the same price.

To throw us off track, confectioners decided to make candy bars longer and fatter - and they raised the price to a dollar. That’s called “value added,” extra features that make kids beg for a dollar before leaving for the movie theatre.

Despite the meticulous work done by our federal regulations writers, we suspect there will always be a little hocus-pocus in every package of candy, cereal, and coffee. For peace of mind we’ve put the scale away.