Let's not become their prey

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Do companies selling food and household products believe consumers have no eyes? Or, if they admit to eyes, do they believe consumers cannot see?

Whatever the reason, these companies are having their way with us, and they are going about it very foxily. From a long list of their tricks, I've singled out one for comment here—the surreptitious changes to the size of packaging and content.

It first struck me when I found an old yoghurt container in the cupboard. The container had a capacity of 907 grams, a typical size some years ago. Gradually the 907 gram container was weeded out and replaced with one holding 750 grams. In the meantime, the 750 gram size, too, has become almost obsolete. Today, most yoghurt is sold in tubs of 650 grams. Thus, in a period of not so many years, the amount of yoghurt in 'large-format' containers has decreased by 257 grams. Now I ask you—in what direction has the price gone?

Here's another example: during the last few years, coffee was usually sold in packages of 454 grams. Lately, some brands contain just 400 grams, or 340 grams, or 312 grams, or even 226 grams or 225 grams per package. Of the three stores I visited, only one (Safeway) revealed the price per unit (100 grams), and since the packages still look more or less the same size, the consumer has to be extremely watchful to avoid being hoodwinked.

It's a fast-spreading trend. Dishwashing detergent, formerly sold in bottles of one litre, is now sold in bottles of 850 ml. I suspect most consumers are unaware of the stratagem. The difference in size and weight between 1000 ml and 850 ml is not so great, after all. And most shoppers have neither the time nor the inclination to ponder such matters—precisely what the manufacturers are counting on.

What can we, the consumers, do? Well, for a start, we can stop buying products from companies that resort to such subterfuge. Regarding the three I mentioned above—yoghurt, coffee and detergent—it's not difficult to find other ways of satisfying our needs. Many people make their own yoghurt. As for coffee, there are now so many vendors in the Pacific Northwest that it should be possible to find someone who sells beans that suit both our taste and budget. And dishwashing detergent is something we'd all be better without. It's full of poisonous substances that attack not only grime but potentially also our health. I've gone back to the basics—I hand-wash my dishes in hot water with a mixture of equal amounts of borax, baking soda and salt and rinse them thoroughly with cold water.

Hasn't the time come to ask ourselves if it's fair that these companies, who spend fortunes dreaming up ways to trap us, should benefit from our inattentiveness? We, the consumers, are their prey—in the original sense of the word. Prey derives from the Latin "praeda," signifying booty. It refers to the trophies of conquest—the profits—that a general of ancient Rome would show off to the citizens as he paraded through the triumphal arches in celebration of victory. Of course, the modern company manager doesn't indulge in triumphal marches to flaunt his winnings. He just laughs all the way to the bank.

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This page last updated: January 24, 2012.