Managing can shrinkflation

Codex Alimentarius is working on a wide range of changes impacting canned food standards, such as the drained weight of canned mushrooms. Image: Andreia Nogueira

Keith Nuthall and Liz Newmark explore how regulators and the can industry are working to prevent companies reducing the amount of food in cans while keeping the same package size


High inflation forces consumers and businesses to change their behaviours – and not always in positive ways: fillers for example, have sometimes been reducing the amount of food in cans, while maintaining the size of the packaging, and their prices. Unsurprisingly, this ‘shrinkflation’ has upset consumers and their representatives, highlighting a potential lack of transparency. Regulators have been reluctant to respond directly with reforms, but the European Commission has recognised the problem and stressed laws to control how shrinkflation can be undertaken.

Responding to a July 2022 question from right wing Identity and Democracy Group MEP, Mara Bizzotto, the European Union (EU) justice Commissioner, Didier Reynders, said the Commission had noted the “practice of traders reducing the size or quantity of consumer products while maintaining the same price and appearance of the packaging as before the reduction (‘shrinkflation’).” And he stressed that can fillers and other food packagers needed to be open about such moves, with the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the EU Consumer Rights Directive and sector-specific legislation, where applicable, requiring traders to clearly indicate the total price of a product and its main characteristics, such as size.

Didier Reynders, European
Commissioner for Justice, and Commissioner for Competition, who warned about traders reducing the
size of products while keeping the same price of the
packaging. Image: Christophe
Licoppe, European Union, 2023

While the enforcement of consumer laws linked to these directives is the responsibility of the 27 member states, article six of the unfair practices directive  “prohibits  various  types  of  traders’ misleading commercial practices that cause or are likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision that they would not have taken otherwise,” he said. That could include “a misleading overall presentation of the product in a way that deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer about the product’s size.” In Italy, said Bizzotto, where inflation hit 12.3 per cent in November 2021 (it fell to 5.5 per cent by this August), “deceptive marketing” involving food volumes is so widespread, that Italy consumer association, Codacons, filed complaints with Italian Competition Authority (ACGM) and 104 public prosecutor’s offices alleging fraud or unfair trading practices by traders and manufacturers.

Concerns have also been raised in the US, where the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) has been vocal: “Consumers are being hit with a double whammy,” said Jack Gillis, its executive director, “with inflation raising prices and sellers shrinking package contents, ‘shrinkflation’ has now set in.”

The CFA highlighted American consumer advocate reports raised by allied publication, Consumer World, which stressed, for instance, a claimed reduction in April of a traditional 10oz can of Goodman’s macaroons to a 9oz bag; Aldi green beans cans being reduced by half an ounce; and cans of Season sardines sold at Walmart being reduced from 4.375oz to 3.75oz.

In August 2022, according to Germany-based statistical platform, Statista, more than 34 per cent of American consumers of beverages, a traditionally can-dependent segment, were worried about shrinkflation, with 29 per cent saying they had noticed the practice in these products.

Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general and Consumer World editor, claimed that product downsizing has become more prevalent recently: “Since manufacturers are increasingly choosing to make their products smaller as a sneaky way to pass on a back door price increase, shoppers have to become net weight conscious and not just price conscious.”

Meanwhile in Europe, the unwelcome trend is particularly seen in France, with supermarket giant, Carrefour, putting up notices warning against the phenomenon.

The Carrefour chain has named and shamed brands, by marking 26 products by food giants including Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. Its labels read, “This product has seen its volume or weight fall and the effective price by the supplier rise.”

Guigoz infant milk formula, for example, produced by Nestlé, is one canned product to suffer shrinkflation, going from a pack size of 900g to 830g, according to media reports.

However, it would be unfair to say food and canning businesses consistency flout fair play standards. Indeed, many engage in the development of regulation and guidance that can and does make the canned food market more transparent and open.

The US Food & Drug Administration is proposing to amend the US Canned Tuna Standard of Identity and Standard of Fill of Container. Image: Andreia Nogueira

An example is a new proposed rule from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), amending the US Canned Tuna Standard of Identity and Standard of Fill of Container. This was suggested via a citizen petition submitted by American canned tuna companies Bumble Bee Foods, the StarKist Company, and Tri Union Seafoods (trading as Chicken of the Sea International).

A key element is that the US revises the weighing methods used to determine standard fills of tuna container (along with allowing safe and suitable flavourings and spices as optional ingredients), and that packing medium, such as brine and oil, is not only optional, but always clearly labelled.

The weighing reform is designed to replace what the FDA calls an “outdated” method of weighing the average pressed cake of tuna contents, taken from 24 cans, and replacing it with a system that weighs a drained tin of tuna. “The pressed cake weight method relies on more complex instrumentation and requires more steps than the drained weight method, resulting in a more costly procedure with a wider margin of error than the drained weight method,” said the FDA proposal.

The agency noted that the drained weight method is already used to weigh canned fruit cocktail,  pineapple,  green  beans,  wax  beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and oysters sold in the US. This proposal also tells canners how much tuna can pass through a half inch (or 12.5mm) mesh sieve to be given a product grade – less than 50 per cent for tuna chunks; and more than 50 per cent for flakes. Proposing the new system, the FDA said: “We tentatively conclude that this action, if finalised, will promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers.”

One issue highlighted by the agency is that the three companies had drawn inspiration from global standards on canned food weighing, developed by international body, Codex Alimentarius, which works alongside the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Codex rules are widely applied, with 188 states and the EU as members – they are also used to decide food trade cases at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Standards for canning foods are a key part of Codex’s work, notably its committees on methods of analysis and sampling; fish and fishery products; and fresh fruits and vegetables. Codex has developed standards on a wide range of canned products, including salmon; apple sauce; shrimps and prawns; baby foods; fruit salad; finfish; tuna and bonito, and more.

The tuna standard lays down the method for assessing the drained weight, net weight and washed/drained weight for packs with sauces – guidance that has fed into the new US proposal.

Codex continues to refine standards, with the aim of harmonising global food trade, notably through weighing standards, of particular importance to durable and robust canned products. It has, for example, been revising its standard on canned sardines, to include the fish species ‘Sardinella lemuru.’ An April meeting of the Codex committee on methods of analysis and sampling debated a wide range of changes impacting canned food standards, such as weighing metal containers of processed fruits and vegetables; apple sauce; green peas; and sieving to assess the drained weight of canned mushrooms.

The issue is a sensitive one for the can making and filling industry. A senior official in the European can sector, who requested anonymity, told CanTech International: “It is not my responsibility to say anything about the pricing of cans… This is probably not even up to the can makers but merely for the brand owners to decide upon.”

The European expert noted that, “unfortunately we have seen in some other packaging formats that they are less filled and sold for the same or even a higher price. This would be very inefficient regarding cans, as the standard formats of 25cl, 33cl and 50cl have an optimum filling capacity which should be fully utilised.

“But perhaps some consumers might switch to a smaller format if this is less costly and there is already a trend towards the 25cl format.”

Meanwhile as inflation and the cost-of-living crises ease, at least in the UK, it is likely that ‘shrinkflation’ too will die down for all products, including cans.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) chief executive, Helen Dickinson, reported on 3 October that “food prices dropped on the previous month for the first time in over two years because of fierce competition between retailers,” adding that she expects “shop price inflation to continue to fall over the rest of the year.”

BRC director of food and sustainability, Andrew Opie, said, “They are doing everything they can to offer great value to their customers despite rising costs in the food supply chain.”

He added: “For branded goods – not produced by the food retailers themselves – changes to size and pricing are largely determined by the brands themselves, reflecting the costs of production they face. Prices and sizes of all products are clearly labelled so that customers can make informed decisions about their purchases.”

Executive director for the UK’s Foodservice Packaging Association, Martin Kersh, also told CanTech International that, “We don’t tell the brands what [size of canned] products to sell, why would we? Other suppliers do not tell them that. It is a matter of economics and retailing.”

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