Food prices keep rising due to energy crisis and inflation. An additional price trap lurks in the quantity information on the packaging. Consumers should pay particular attention to a certain sign on the products.
In times of rising inflation, households try to get the most out of their money when shopping. It is particularly annoying that there is an EU rule that allows packaging to be underfilled.
A small “e” is printed next to the quantity in liters or grams on many product packaging. This sign stands for the French phrase “quantité estimée” – translated: Estimated or estimated quantity.
The sign therefore indicates that the actual quantity of the product may deviate from the stated quantity – up and down. This applies not only to food, but also to cleaning agents such as washing powder or soap.
The basis for the e-mark is the EU finished packaging regulation of 1976. By using the so-called EEC mark (a mark of the European Economic Community – EEC for short), the manufacturer assures that he is complying with the legal requirements regarding the filling quantity.
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This means that the amount of content must always be adhered to – but deviations are permitted. The filling quantity only has to be right on average. If one pack contains too little of the product, another pack of the same batch must contain a little more.
With luck, a consumer can buy an overfilled pack – or an underfilled one. The quantity specified for packaging that bears the e-mark therefore does not have to be adhered to exactly.
After all, the deviations must not be arbitrarily large. The EEC symbol may only be used for packaging with a content of 5 grams or milliliters up to 10 kilograms or liters.
With a nominal quantity of 5 to 50 grams or milliliters, the actual quantity may deviate by up to 9 percent; for 1 to 10 kilos or liters, a deviation of up to 1.5 percent is allowed. This means that a pack of washing powder that only contains 1970 grams instead of 2000 grams is still within the legal framework.
The missing 30 grams of washing powder already correspond to a whole load of laundry. It is therefore quite possible that a pack of washing powder contains one wash load less than stated – and that is completely legal.
FOCUS online has measured in a self-experiment: do the manufacturers of selected foods comply with the limit values for the deviations?
In the random sample, groceries were bought and re-weighed without packaging. Five products actually contained fewer grams than stated on the packaging – but the deviations always remained within the legal framework.
The largest downward deviation was for fusilli pasta. The 500 gram pack contained only 497 grams. Strictly speaking, the customer does not pay the price per gram stated on the price tag, but more.
Especially with more expensive products such as spices or coffee, underfilling also has a financial impact. In the FOCUS online test, the jar of instant coffee powder weighed 198 instead of 200 grams – which at a price of 4.29 euros is a good 4 cents.
A total of five products from the sample were found to be underfilled in the self-test, resulting in a loss of 8 cents when shopping. That may not seem like much, but the masses result in immense savings for the manufacturers and enormous additional costs for the consumers.
The calibration offices in Germany are responsible for checking the specified and actual filling quantities. The frequency of inspections varies from state to state.
The Bavarian State Office for Weights and Measures states that it controls “manufacturers, importers and dealers on the basis of appropriate random samples and to an appropriate extent”. However, no statistics are kept about the discrepancies found.
In Hesse, the manufacturing companies are usually audited annually. “In the event of a complaint, checks are also carried out more frequently,” says Michael Kraft from the Hessian Calibration Directorate to FOCUS online.
Violations have already been detected in Hesse this year: on the one hand, values have fallen below the average value, and on the other, the tolerance limits have been exceeded. According to Michael Kraft, this affected frozen products. Of the five products tested, the Hessian Calibration Directorate found that four products were underfilled, which led to official measures.
Baden-Württemberg records the measurement results in the annual report of its calibration and proofing system. In 2020, the inspectors carried out a total of 1707 spot checks.
“A total of 223 random samples did not meet the filling quantity requirements of the pre-packaged ordinance, which corresponds to a complaint rate of 13.1%,” says the report. And further: “The results show that the monitoring of prepackages is necessary.”
The responsible regional council in Tübingen does the math: For larger pre-packaged items from 1 to 10 kilograms, the permissible negative deviation may be a maximum of 1.5 percent.
“This means that the pack weight may vary within a permissible range. Since the mean value has to be adhered to, after 66 packs the customer gets the amount that is stated on the pack on average.”
In the case of everyday products that are one kilo or one liter – such as milk or sugar – the 66 packs are reached in a reasonable time and the customer has received the quantity stated on the pack.
However, if one assumes that the 5-kilo pack of washing powder is sufficient for a two-person household for a year, consumers would only have actually received the indicated average quantity after 66 years. If the price increases over time, the customer is more likely to make a loss than to receive the desired quantity at the originally quoted price.
The e-mark and the permissible fluctuations are a thorn in the side of the consumer advice centres. The Hamburg consumer advice center calls for the so-called minimum quantity principle. Each pack of a product must have at least the weight specified on the packaging.
Deviations below would not be allowed. “The packs would then be required to contain at least the nominal filling quantity printed on them,” explains Armin Valet from the Hamburg Consumer Advice Center. “Unfortunately, the industry lobby has so far been too strong to push through this paradigm shift.”
In the supermarket, consumers find it difficult to check the actual filling quantity. For liquids in transparent packaging, the fill level can be compared. For products with a gram specification, customers can put the packaging on the scales in the fruit and vegetable department.
However, the weight of the packaging material must then be deducted. On the other hand, unpackaged products such as cheese and sausage from the deli counter or tea and delicatessen salads from the market or specialist shop are weighed precisely.
The e-mark and the associated tolerance values do not apply here, so that customers always know how much they are receiving for products to be weighed and only pay the exact price per gram.