Fair Packaging and Labeling
April 13, 1965 — US Senate Commerce Committee, Washington DC
As you know, I am very pleased to be here today to testify on S. 985, the Fair Packaging and Labeling bill.
Two years ago I testified in support of S. 387, the truth in packaging bill. At that time, in my capacity as Assistant Secretary of Labor, I stated:
It is a pleasure for me to be here with you today to speak on behalf of the Department of Labor in favor of legislation to ensure truth in packaging. We support it strongly. We think it is needed for the benefit of all of us as consumers.
Two years, one month and sixteen days later, I strongly reaffirm that statement. I reaffirm it not only as spokesman for the Department of Labor but also as Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs.
Much has transpired since my testimony 2 years ago. For the past 16 months, I have had the honor to serve as the President’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, and as the chairman of his Committee on Consumer Interests, in addition to my duties as Assistant Secretary of Labor.
At the same time, I have continued to hold my lifetime job of housewife. It is in this area that, perhaps, I have my greatest experience. But it is an experience buttressed by my official positions.
During the past year, I visited almost every State in the Union, conduced four regional consumer conferences, participated in many other consumer conferences, discussed consumer problems with Federal, State, and local government officials, and have exchanged views with representatives of industry.
I have also received valuable guidance from the members of the Consumer Advisory Council, and group of experts selected to advise the Government on consumer affairs. I, too, have been the recipient of thousands of communications from consumers all over these United States, and no subject has been talked about more in these communications than packaging and labeling of household commodities.
I speak today, then, as a housewife tapped by President Johnson to perform a challenging and exciting assignment; who has had the opportunity to hear the views of many of her colleagues, male and female, and work intensively in the field of consumer affairs for almost a year and a half.
Last month I presented to the President and the Cabinet my report of the four regional consumer conferences held by the President’s Committee on Consumer Interests last year. In that report, I stated that the conferences were not designed to examine in detail either legislation now pending before Congress or new legislative ideas. Therefore, no legislative proposals appear in the report.
I would not be fulfilling my responsibility, however, if I failed to report to you today the wide support that the conferences evinced for some action to end the particular difficulties which buyers encounter because of some types of packaging and labeling.
During the past 16 months, I have met with representatives of trade associations and individual firms. I have visited factories and gone through retail stores. Some firms have instituted voluntary improvements in packaging and labeling. Abut this there can be no question.
I think Senator Hart deserves much of the credit for inspiring the interest which led to this action. The fact is, however, that not enough has been done. Why? Because, as many leading businessmen have told me, competition will permit them to go only so far. If a competing firm institutes a questionable practice and succeeds, then others suffer if they fail to follow.
It is clearly time, therefore, for Government to assist both the consumers and business by helping maintain the ground rules which enable to best practices of a free, competitive market to flourish, strengthening competition by outlawing shoddy merchandising practices, which, if allowed to go unchecked, could interfere with the satisfactory functioning of the competitive system, and making sure that its laws are current with the time, and adequately meet the needs of the modern marketplace.
The modern shopper, be it housewife or househusband, as one correspondent referred to himself in a letter, is an intelligent person. Because she is intelligent, she is asking the kinds of questions, and seeking the kind of information that will help her make intelligent decisions.
She wants a package that she can examine “on the fly.” She marvels, as do we all at our wonderful food distribution system. In general, she knows that she spends a smaller proportion of her husband’s take home pay for food than she would in any other country, or at any other time.
One of the conclusions we reached as a result of our consumer conferences was that consumers harbor many more complaints than they attempt to register, for there is an unmistakable fatalism toward what is regarded as the futility of individuals expressing themselves effectively in the maze of the marketplace.
Mr. Herbert M. Cleaves, senior vice president of the General Foods Corporation, was quoted in the press as saying “perhaps there is more than a grain of truth in that.” If I have learned anything this past year it has been that these problems are real and widespread.
America’s high standard of living, which most of us enjoy, rests not only on how much we earn but also on what we buy, the quantity and the quality of all the goods and services we use in daily living.
We are justly proud of the fact that “food is a bargain” in the United States with less than 20 percent of the average worker’s paycheck spent for it. But for the poor, and let’s remember there are about 35 million of them, the percentages are significantly higher.
Families with incomes under $3,000 spend around 30 percent for food, according to Bureau of Labor statistics figures. For these families, particularly, every penny is important.
I think it highly fitting that S. 985 is entitled the Fair Packaging and Labeling Bill. Since 1962, when the first consumer message was sent to Congress, there has been widespread recognition of the need for fair and full disclosure of pertinent facts to consumers, in order to facilitate rational choice.
President Kennedy stated:
. . . consumers have a right to expect that packages will carry reliable and readily usable information about their contents. And those manufacturers whose products are sold in such packages have a right to expect that their competitors will be required to adhere to the same standards.
President Johnson stated:
The shopper ought to be able to tell at a glance what is in the package, how much of it there is, and how much it costs . . . Packagers themselves should take the initiative in this effort. It is in the best interests of the manufacturer and the retailer as well as the consumer. The Government has had, and had exercised, a responsibility toward the consumer in this field for a long time. But the case-by-case trail to which we are limited by existing law is long and winding one. More clear-cut regulations are needed . . .
I would like to comment now, Mr. Chairman, on some of the specific provisions of S. 985.
Like its predecessors, the bill’s substantive provisions are divided into two sections. The first group, known as mandatory provisions, would apply across the board to all products covered by the net, with provision· for exceptions to take care of the inevitable special cases.
The second group, termed discretionary provisions, give the administering agencies authority to promulgate rules and regulations on a. product-by-product basis. In general, let me say that the provisions in both section 3(a) — the mandatory provisions — and in section 3(c ) — the discretionary provisions — are based on genuine needs of modern day consumers. I cannot emphasize this point too strongly.
Section 3(a) (1) requires the promulgation of regulations that would require the net quantity of contents to be stated on the front panel.
Section 3(a)(2) requires the establishment of minimum standards with respect to the prominence of statements of the net quantity, and section 3(1)(3) is designed to prohibit such meaningless qualifying adjectives as “big” quart, “jumbo” gallon, etc.
These three sections taken together are designed to give the housewife an opportunity to make a rapid judgment on how much is in the package. Frankly, Mr. Chairman, I find it hard to imagine how there ran be any serious opposition to such simple requirements, particularly since the bill is drafted so as to allow for exceptions. One consumer summed up the situation cogently when she wrote:
I, for one, am quite out of patience with tiny print . . . I wish I could tell the Congressmen just how tired I am of hunting for the it is. . . (Mrs. H.M. North Hollywood, Calif.)
I will have to write this lady and let her know that her views have been made known to the Congressmen.
Section 3(a) (6) concerns itself with pictorial matter which is likely to deceive retail purchasers in any material respect as to the actual contents of the package. Again let me turn to the words of one of my correspondents:
I am enclosing portions of two packages of beef sandwiches. Looking at the pictures, which Is all the purchaser has to go by, one would expect sliced beef. I found this was not the case. The sandwiches consisted of a filling of small pieces of beef, such as scraps which are left over when one has sliced a large roast, and small slivers fall off the large pieces . . . I feel that value received was not value expected and paid for. (Mrs. H.B.S., St. Louis, Mo.)
The last mandatory provision deals with the prohibition of cents-off labels. It seems to me that when the manufacturer puts a cents-off label on a package or container, he is in effect promising something that he cannot at all times deliver, for the manufacturer has not any control over the prices charged at the wholesale or retail level. The cents-off legend may mean cents-off of the wholesaler or retailer, but it does not necessary mean cents-off to the consumer.
During the past year many business leaders have told me that while cents-off promotions could be abused, and undoubtedly were abused n some instances, just as often they have resulted in savings to consumers.
I would suggest to the committee, therefore, that it explore the possibility of amending the bill in such a way as to eliminate the abusive cents-off promotions while allowing legitimate cents-off promotions to continue.
What I have in mind is to move this section out of the mandatory section of the bill to the discretionary section. If such were done, the administering body could draft regulations that would protect the consumer while at the same time protecting the manufacturer by allowing him to use cents-off packages and labels as a legitimate sales promotion mechanism.
Turning to the discretionary provisions, the bill provides that the administering agencies may promulgate regulations on a product-bvproducts basis, and only when necessary to establish or preserve fair competition by enabling consumers to make rational comparisons between competing products, or to prevent the deception of consumers ns to such product. The regulations would:
Establish reasonable weights or quantities in which a product can be sold.
Prevent the sale of a commodity in a package whose size, shape, or proportions may deceive purchasers as to the weight or the quantity of the product (with proper protection, to manufacturers to assure that they can exploit unique advantages of particular kinds of containers.)
Establish standards of size terminology such ns small, medium and large.
Establish standards to designate the contents of a package net weight or number is not meaningful.
Require that adequate information about the content ingredients or composition be displayed prominently on the package or the label.
Mr. Chairman, the words of consumers themselves best illustrate the kinds of problems these regulations are meant to cure. I offer the following as representative samples of letters I have received from consumers regarding these problems:
Weights and measures should be more uniform on packages and canned goods. How can a shopper intelligently compare prices when the weights are so broken up? It’s almost necessary to have a computer along!” (Mrs. L.E.T., Minneapolis, Minn.)
I recently bought a prepackaged pizza and I was horrified . . . Why this pizza Is only 13 1/4 oz. and it’s in box size that would fit a 17 or 18 oz. pizza . . . I feel that I was gypped and I want you to do something about it and if I do not hear from you soon I will write to a higher authority even the President if I have to. (Mr. C.R., San Leandro, Calif.)
The (blank) oil is an example. The smallest bottle they sell Is called large. I still can’t remember which Is bigger, super, giant or king. I say a giant Is bigger than a king, bot my husband uses the theory that a king rules the land and Is therefore bigger. The whole thing ls stupid. (Mrs. E.A.S., Ceres, Calif.}
I am enclosing a bag that contained instant sweet potatoes. The product is very good but the label distinctly says that the package serves four generously. I have bought this product several times but it never serves more than two of us (my husband and myself). Since we are both 70 and not possessed of an excessive appetite, I feel we are being cheated. (H.P.J. Trevose, Pa.)
When I buy aerosal products like hair sprays and deodorants. where I cannot see the contents, net weight means nothing, and I don’t know how much I am buying. I would Uke to see some other way of determining the amount contained In the can. (Mrs. M.J.J., Bangor, Maine.)
I am extremely allergic to cotton-seed oil, for instance, and I would like for the manufacturer to state on his packaging which vegetable oils are used In bis products Instead of the wording “vegetable oils.” (Mrs. C.D.C., Tryon, N.C.)
Mr. Chairman, I would now like to devote a brief amount of time to answer some of the objections to S. 985.
First, it is claimed that S. 985 is unnecessary. On the one hand, it is argued that industry self-regu1ation can be trusted to correct the infrequent abuses, and on the other hand, that there is already existing authority for the Federal Government to prohibit truly deceptive practices in this area.
I have already touched on the adequacy of self-correction. The fact is that the food industry is highly competitive, and often forces businesses into going along with a practice that is not in the consumer’s best interest simply to meet the competition.
As to the adequacy of existing law, no better answer exists than was stated by the President in his consumer mage, which I quoted earlier: “The case-by-case trail is a long and winding one. More clear-cut regulations are needed.”
I think, as the Senator stated, one needs only go to the grocery store every Saturday, when I do my shopping, and see the need.
The second major argument is that enactment of this bill would work to the detriment of consumers by stifling innovation, inhibiting product and package innovation, inhibiting new research, turning the supermarket into a GI-type warehouse — in short, a 1965 version of the plagues brought on the Egyptians in the days of Moses. The facts certainly do not bear out these dire prognostications. I asked you to consider whether innovation and imagination suffer because coffee comes in 1-pound tins; or because whiskey comes in fifths.
The third argument also seems to me to suffer from gross overstatement. It is that consumers would win a pyrrhic victory if this bill were enacted, since the cost to industry would result in major price increases being passed on to consumers.
Throughout the hearing record there has been no substantiation of that claim. Most cost figures that have been bandied about seem to ignore the fact that packages are continually changing. The bill has ample language that would allow manufacturers and packagers to use up existing stocks of packages and labels.
The fourth point is that this legislation, if passed, would be unwarranted intrusion of government into the everyday life of citizens, and an unwarranted intrusion into the free marketplace.
The obvious inconsistency in this argument is that there is already existing authority in the Federal Government to move against the deceptive practices this bill seeks to reach. We are dealing with a bill that is not regulating a new area of activity, but rather is revising and modernizing the tools available to government to regulate in this area. It is really modernizing and bringing up to date existing authority.
I think Senator Hart and the sponsors of the bill are to be congratulated for the improvements they have made in S. 985 over S. 387 of the 87th Congress. It is clear indication to me that there is a genuine desire on the part of all those who support this bill to enact legislation that takes into account the needs of consumers in the modern supermarket, and at the same time recognizes the legitimate needs of the industry.
In keeping with the spirit of making S. 985 as good a bill as possible for both consumer and industry, I suggest, finally that the committee consider the ways in which business could be provided with an opportunity for advance clearance of specific packages and labels.
Ample time must be allowed, however for the review of applications for such clearance, and during this time the applicant should be required to refrain from using the proposed new package and label.
In addition, the Government’s advice ought to be binding unless and until the applicant obtains a reversal after a formal hearing procedure.
Mr. Chairman, passage of S. 985 with the above-mentioned adjustments would be in accord with the program of the administration, and I thus urge the committee to favorably report this administration-endorsed bill.
Source: Hearings before the Committee on Commerce, US Senate, Eighty-Ninth Congress, First Session, on S. 985 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1965, pp. 15-20.