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Is your food lighter than it claims?

Tin with tape measure

Are the grams on the supermarket products you buy accurate? Our snapshot investigation of 467 supermarket products found that some weighed significantly less…

In 2012 we discovered that 80% of the smoked salmon packs we’d measured were underweight. We wanted to broaden our test for 2015, so we asked food fraud expert Professor Chris Elliot to help us investigate underweight food in supermarkets.

His researchers at Queen’s University Belfast weighed 467 food products bought from supermarkets in Northern Ireland and found that 73 were below the recognised margin of error (this ranges from 4.5g on a product weighing 50g or 15g for a 1kg product).

Products that we found weighed less

Products weighing less than the margin of error:

  • 23 out of 32 tins of Heinz Chunky Veg Big Soup.
  • Six out of eight samples of Tesco Finest smoked salmon.
  • 19 out of 31 Green Giant Niblets Original Sweetcorn contained less than the drained weight stated on packaging.
  • Four out of 32 Del Monte Peach Slices in light syrup. Two were very underweight.
underweight foods

We’d expect a small variation in weight, which the margin of error accounts for, but we were surprised by how many samples were below this.

Enforcement for underweight foods

Trading standards officer Paul Ferris couldn’t comment on our research as it wasn’t carried out by accredited weights and measures professionals, but he did say:

‘Discrepancies may be due to natural desiccation of the product – as stated weight relates to the time of packing – inadequate staff training on packing, or incorrectly using weighing equipment.’

It’s important that manufacturers have effective checks in place to make sure you aren’t getting short-changed. And if products are found to be underweight, it’s important that Trading Standards continues its enforcement to help ensure compliance.

What do you think about underweight food? Are you sometimes suspicious that a product is lighter than it claims? Do you ever go to the lengths of getting the scales out to prove a point?

Lisa M says:
30 August 2020

Bought a can of stewed steak ( 392g Morrison’s own label). Physically felt light when I went to use it. It weighed 360g (including tin). Is this allowed? A tin of Princes of the same spec weighed 411g (including tin). Do I have any recourse? Kind regards

Hi Lisa – This is probably just a one-off mis-steak in the canning process but you can check by taking accurate scales into the shop or using the ones provided in the greengrocery department and checking other cans.

Morrisons should give you at least an apology and a refund. The rules that apply can be found in an earlier post I made: https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/underweight-supermarket-food-cans-tins-weight-grams/#comment-1471729

Lisa M says:
30 August 2020

Many thanks for your time and advice😊

Lisa – I don’t know whether it is still their policy but Morrisons used to replace the product as well as give a full refund if there was some thing wrong with it. It’s worth asking.

I remember when Tesco did this but it was a long time ago.

What I can suggest is bringing in a flat electronic scales with you, weighing a few and buying the heaviest.

Ha! I’m concerned about what appears to be the systemic practice of packing as little product as this particular packer can get away with – if they can pack between 90 and 99gm, and average 94.5gm, consistently they can pack between 94 and 104gm and average 100gm consistently. And Waitrose isn’t monitoring closely enough. We’re all getting diddled, and Waitrose is selling short measure.

michael fowler says:
17 November 2020

Is the grams label on tins including the weight of the tin??

No, it is the weight of the contents. With products such as tinned fruit it will include the weight of juice or syrup.

Thankyou, got told the opposite by a manufacturer, glad I checked.

It’s actually more complicated with cans and bottles containing solids and liquids, where the drained weight and total weight of the contents should be shown. I’m looking at a can of tomatoes, a jar of beetroot and a jar of stem ginger in syrup and all give this information.

What the current legislation requires is: “foods which are sold in a liquid medium must also label the drained net weight of the food”

I’m having this trouble with Waitrose No 1 brand 100gm packs of Scottish smoked salmon. The contents NEVER weigh 100gm or above. They’re always between 90 and 99gm, and average 94gm. Might not seem like a big deal, but if the packer can hit that range time and again, they can hit 95-104gm just as easily. Waitrose customer services only seem to get concerned about the 90gm examples, and cannot commit to me that they expect 100gm on average, despite repeated requests. So it looks to me like they’re selling short measure. Anybody else encountering this?

Hi Neil – This link gives details of what is legally acceptable: https://www.gov.uk/weights-measures-and-packaging-the-law/packaged-goods

“Average system
You can pack your products to an average measurement that is on the label. You must check your packages to make sure a random sample is packed to meet all these rules – known as the ‘three packers’ rules’:

:: the contents of the packages must not be less, on average, than the weight on the label
only a small number can fall below a certain margin of error, known as the ‘tolerable negative error’ (TNE)
:: no package can be underweight by more than twice the TNE”

For your 100g packets the TNE is 4.5g.

You could take your scales to Waitrose and weigh packets to check that the average weight is 100g or above. It’s worth checking that your scales are accurate. I know that my scales are accurate to within 1g, having checked them with accurate weights, but some household scales under- or over-read. The weight shown on the pack is for the contents and the weight of the pack will be greater.

Thank you Wavechange. I’ve already downloaded and read the Weights and Measures Packaged Goods regulations, and am familiar with the Packers Rules and TNEs. I’ve calibrated my scales and they are accurate to the gram at 30gm and 120gm. Weighing packs in the store isn’t useful, because I’ve found there’s almost as much variation in the (empty) packaging weight (28-35gm) as there is in the product itself. And we’re having home delivery ATM as well. I am being diddled, as the statistical odds of my 15-pack sample coming from a larger sample that averages 100gm are vanishingly small.

If you contact Citizens Advice they should refer your case to Trading Standards, but the response I have come to expect from TS is that they won’t take action unless they receive other reports.

It might be best to contact Waitrose about this. Waitrose tend to be responsive to complaints from what friends have told me. I complained that it was ridiculous being expected to go into their store for a click & collect order and they have now made arrangements to put the groceries in the boot of your car. I guess I was not alone in complaining.

When I last checked packs of (Tesco) smoked salmon the weight of the packaging was remarkably consistent, which made the pack weight a useful guide.

Thanks again Wavechange, and again I’m afraid I’m ahead of you. I called CA, and they really didn’t seem competent to deal with anything but simple consumer issues like a defective hairdryer. The guy I spoke with took the details of my complaint and said he would pass them to TS, but when I asked what would happen next he said they simply pass it on, one-way, to TS. They get no feedback or ability to respond to the complainant. He didn’t even ask me for a phone number or email address until I forced them on him. So basically it’s just an arm’s length barrier between the consumer and TS.

And further, I’ve been emailing with Waitrose C/service. They only show any interest when the weight’s below 91gm (twice the TNE), and despite my repeatedly asking them, they won’t tell me that they expect an average product weight of 100gm. The response is simply “I’ve passed this on to our monitoring team” – well they should be monitoring already.

That is my criticism and experience of CA, Neil. If I have a valid complaint to make I want to know it is being considered properly. There is no point in having a third party as an intermediary, particularly when they take no continuing interest in the complaint.

We need to be able to contact local trading standards directly (as used to be the case) and that means resourcing them properly. It should be a Which? campaign, in my view, to help deal with consumer detriment. We expect commercial organisations to respond directly to complaints, so why not public ones?

The last time I contacted Trading Standards via Citizens Advice, CA called me back for feedback on their service. I was very happy with CA, which took detailed notes of my cases and passed them on to TS. As on other occasions I was let down by TS. These services will depend on where you live.

After this Convo was launched I did checks on a variety of Tesco products including smoked salmon and could find no evidence of underweight packs. I discontinued these checks.

I think it’s time to send a complaint to the Waitrose head office, Neil, giving the names of those you have spoken to if possible.

If Which? are not prepared to help then perhaps they should be suggesting what action to take.

I do not have any Waitrose smoked salmon but I found I had eight bags of Waitrose coffee beans in stock. 🙂 These are marked 227g. The weights recorded were 239, 247, 245, 239, 237, 246, 248 and 242g. I opened the lightest bag and found it contained 227g beans and the bag weighed 10g. Perhaps the bags will vary in weight but it does not look as if I’m being short changed, which is what I found when checking Tesco products a few years ago.

Hopefully I will be able to check some packs of Waitrose smoked salmon by Christmas and will report back if they are underweight.

Worth remembering Thankyou.

Perhaps it would be useful for Which? to do a survey once again. Maybe a start would be to ask Connect members to weigh pre-packaged food and report significant discrepancies. Neil seems to have highlighted a particular product that was also a problem when this Convo first started, and Tesco seemed a culprit. Then take the results and follow up those that seem more common. Understandably, weights need to be accurate so maybe this should be done in conjunction with Weights and Measures so Trading Standards can, if necessary, take action.

Malcolm, here’s the Which? response to me:
“Thanks for getting in touch about the weight of smoked salmon.
This isn’t something Which? can currently assist with, as it falls outside our area of scope.”

What to do?

I did suggest that this could be done as a school project: https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/underweight-supermarket-food-cans-tins-weight-grams/#comment-1402888

Unlike most members of the public, schools are likely to have accurate balances and weights for checking calibration. If our citizens are going to learn about consumer rights it’s never too early to learn.

No doubt if trading standards became involved they would need weights to be officially performed before they could take action.

Neil, I cannot understand why Which? would suggest this falls outside their scope. It is surely a consumer issue and, if underweight products are suspected on any scale, as a detriment to consumers should be investigated. Perhaps @jon_stricklin_coutinho could tell us more?

This is an extract from the regulations to enable packers to accept or reject and a basis for enforcement:

3.1 The minimum acceptable contents shall be calculated by subtracting the tolerable negative error for the contents concerned from the nominal quantity of the package.

3.2 Packages in the batch whose actual contents are less than the minimum acceptable contents shall be considered defective.

Single sampling plan for non-destructive testing
3.3 The number of packages checked shall be equal to the number in the sample, as indicated in the table below.

3.4 If the number of defective packages found in the sample is less than or equal to the acceptance criterion indicated in that table, the group shall be considered as acceptable for the purpose of the check.

3.5 If the number of defective packages found in the sample is equal to or greater than the rejection criterion there indicated, the group shall be rejected.

Number of defective packages
Number in group Number in sample Acceptance criterion Rejection criterion
100 to 500………… 50……………………………. 3…………………………….. 4
501 to 3,200…… 80……………………………. 5……………………………… 6
3,201 and above…125…………………………..7……………………………….8

3.6 For a batch of fewer than 100 packages the batch shall be considered acceptable for the purposes of the check if the number of defective packages does not exceed 5%.

Thank you Malcolm. I have 3 defective (90gm) packs out of 15, so 20%. I think wavechange’s suggestion of approaching Waitrose Head Office is my next resort.

Well that was hard work. The guy I spoke with offered me a refund (tempting – 15*£6!) but I persevered. He tried telling me at one stage that I was asking for commercial secrets, effectively. The alternative to the refund was a 24-hr manager call-back, so I’ve asked for that. I had to prise a case # out of him as well. I shall report back….

I hope your perseverance pays off, Neil. Too often someone is paid off to keep them quiet with no sign that the real problem is being addressed. Waitrose may well be being shortchanged by their supplier without knowing about it until you brought your findings to their attention. 6% extra profit on smoked salmon is a substantial “extra” for someone.

I shop at M&S and often buy a pack of German rye bread and their continual offer of 3 x 100g packs of smoked salmon for £10. I have never checked the weight and no reason to doubt it…….but will check after the next shop. Quite a pleasant way of conducting research.

I look forward to hearing the outcome of your discussion, Neil. The most interesting discussion I had was with Kelloggs about my concerns over products full of sugar and fats. I found myself involved in an interesting scientific discussion with a biochemist. I did not ask why he had landed up having to deal with customers’ complaints. On the other hand McVities was insistent that it was OK for them not to put the weight on a pack of Jaffa Cakes, on the basis that the weight on one item can vary. It’s enough to make your brain hurt.

A continuous reduced price sounds like a DFS sale. I’m trying to work out whether full-price dishwasher tablets have ever existed.

Sorry to have to report that the “Manager 24-hour callback” didn’t happen. I was desolated. So I called and nagged, and I live in hope that – one day – I may get THAT call.

There’s something fishy going on. 🐟

Maybe the manager was busy checking the QA records.

Actually Malcolm, having reread your info above, I have 7 defective samples out of 15. That’s 47%

If you have not been contacted by Waitrose, perhaps it’s time to escalate your complaint, Neil.

Here is a contact from the CEO email list: https://ceoemail.com/s.php?id=ceo-9152&c=Waitrose%20Limited-Executive%20Director%20-%20Customer%20Service

Neil, I have just bought 3 (different) 100g packs of smoked salmon from M&S and will check their unpacked weight. May take a few days.

I agree Neil, on the face of it, it may not seem like a big deal, but if you are fortunate enough to be able to receive a delivery from Waitrose under 3 weeks and you enjoy your Scottish smoked salmon and buy a lot of it and it is always under and never overweight, given the high price they charge for it, over time that would amount to quite a considerable Waitrose profit so its well worth pursuing.

Please keep us in the loop and let us know what transpires.

Thanks Beryl – will do.
All – xplorernew is me, Neil. Logon/password/username issues. It’s not been a good day….

Sorry to hear that Neil! Hopefully what’s left of the day will be an improvement from the rest.

You can change how your name displays under your user profile. Click on your username, then Profile > Edit, and change your username to the name you’d prefer to see on site. NB this won’t change your username, so if someone wants to tag you it’ll still be @xplorer1new

@jon-stricklin-coutinho, Jon, why is this smoked salmon problem outside Which?’s ” area of scope”, do you know? I would have thought with Christmas coming up and a large increase in the consumption of smoked salmon it was very topical and of some consequence.

Anyone game to do some Christmas research on the weight of smoked salmon in packs sold by Waitrose or other supermarket?

I’m afraid I can’t join this project – we’re hooked on trout.

It’s a good job fish have scales so they can check their weight as they grow.

Thanks Jon – worked a treat

Happy to add a bit of context here. What wouldn’t be in scope would be a Which? intervention on a particular product, as we aren’t accredited to officially “prove” the problem of a particular product being consistently off in its weight, nor could Which? directly levy enforcement action against the product or retailer (this is the role of Trading Standards). You can see how this plays out in the article above in how we’re able to use our research to identify this as a larger area of potential consumer harm than just an isolated report, however given our research isn’t by an accredited agency it then falls to Trading Standards’ to investigate themselves, and act where necessary.

Within our remit as a consumer champion though, we are able to call attention to growing areas where consumers may not be getting what they’ve paid for, gauge the scope of the problem, and bring it to the attention of the relevant agency or organization for them to investigate further as above. This is one of the core reasons Which? Conversation exists, as we’re able to hear directly from you where issues are, offer advice on how to handle it, and make sure our research teams hear about it for further investigations. We’ve done all of this with your report @xplorer1new, and should there be other examples with the same product or at similar retailers, we’d love to hear about it here, as it may indeed be a problem that is at a larger scale than just a few cans of fish.

In terms of redress I’d be repeating of a lot of what’s been said earlier in the thread. Trading Standards allows for some variance on a product’s average weight (as wavechange and malcolm-r mentioned earlier, and if a product is consistently falling short (or indeed, over) it’s worth getting in touch with your local Trading Standards office to file a report.

You can also return the product to where you purchased it, and here it may be useful to see our Consumer Rights Guidance for all you need on returning goods that aren’t as described. We’d be keen to hear your experience, both in the return process if you go this route, and if anyone identifies other products that may be off in weight as well as we can then flag this up with our researchers. This is why this conversation’s ongoing even some five years on!

Thanks Jon – that all makes perfect sense, except for contacting Trading Standards, which seems impossible currently for the humble consumer.

What wouldn’t be in scope would be a Which? intervention on a particular product, as we aren’t accredited to officially “prove” the problem of a particular product being consistently off in its weight, nor could Which? directly levy enforcement action against the product or retailer (this is the role of Trading Standards)

Surely underweight examples will always be particular products. What is the point of instigating a conversation, asking for information, if Which? have no intention of doing anything about it? Surely if, for example, a particular product from a particular source seems to flout the regulations they should do something about it; say do their own properly-conducted research – including certified weights – and take it up with both the supplier and trading standards ( do they get fobbed off with Citizens’ Advice, though, like we often do?).

I make an effort with calibrated scales, and lucky I do.

Thank you William and welcome to the curious world of Which? Conversation where consumers rights are debated at length. It had not occurred to me that dogs are consumers too.

I wonder if Hills will jump if barked at.

Well praise the Lord. I opened a pack that actually had 100gm of product today.

Thanks goodness for that. Hopefully this will be followed by some packs containing more than 100g.

I have found a 300g pack of Marks & Spencer Scottish smoked salmon, reduced in price to £4.47. At this price I won’t worry about the weight but I will check. Unfortunately it has been in the freezer for too long.

The 300g pack contained 283g smoked salmon, so less than 6% underweight and within the requirements.

Well no. The next one was 96. Waitrose did send my complaint (though not, I suspect the detail) to their supplier, who replied (to Waitrose) last week:
“As a Food Business Operator we are legally required to adhere to the Weights and Measures Act 1985 and as the majority of our products carry an e mark (average weight) we have a legal requirement to meet the average weight rules. The average weight rules are split into what they call the ‘3 packers rules’. The ‘3 packers rules’ of which we need to comply with are to ensure the batch average is the same as the nominal weight, there is no more than 2.5% under the T1 weight and there are no packs under the T2 weight along with a review and sign off. All 3 of these rules we need to demonstrate compliance with.

We are inspected by Trading Standards who conduct a sampling exercise on site to check we are complying to the average weight rules and in particular the ‘3 packers rule’. Once a year we are audited by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) under section 6.3 Quantity Weight, Volume and Number Control which we conform with and we are regularly audited by an independent body on behalf of our Customer Waitrose. These frequent Inspections and Audits demonstrate we are fully compliant and as a Business we are comfortable that we comply with the Average Weight Rules.

I hope you find this useful and if you need anything else please let me know.”

So lots of “we do the right thing” but no response to my particular experience. I asked Waitrose to send my detailed results to them for comment. Now waiting for a further

Thanks for the update, Neill. I checked a pack of Waitrose fresh salmon marked 240g and it contained 245g. If I can get a Waitrose click & collect slot I will buy some smoked salmon.

Just opened a 100g pack of M&S “mild and delicate” smoked salmon. Spot on for weight. This research is quite pleasant.

Purely in the name of consumer research I have now weighed the contents of 3 packs of M&S smoked salmon, 3 different styles, 100g each. They were 96, 102 and 105g so an average 101g. It was necessary to dispose of the contents responsibly, with black pepper on German rye, accompanied by Macon Village. Unfortunately as this was a very small sample, more research is necessary.

A bonus – it should have boosted my vitamin D level.

That’s very encouraging Malcolm, and very enjoyable I’m sure. Keep up the investigation!

Jenny says:
22 December 2020

I have been on a diet for nine months this year and thus have been religiously weighing my food. I’ve noticed a problem with Tesco soft fruits (raspberries, blackberries etc) which are far more frequently underweight than overweight, sometimes substantially so. I’m so fed up with being ripped off that I’m planning on changing supermarket after the pandemic. Just today I had an unopened packet of Tesco cheddar, supposedly contents 220g, actual weight including packaging 216g. If this is replicated across all stores and multiple products, then the British public are being ripped off enormously.

Hi Jenny – Have you checked the accuracy of your scales? This is best done with calibration weights but if you can take them into a supermarket you can compare readings with their scales.

Not every pack has to contain the marked weight and the rules are here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/underweight-supermarket-food-cans-tins-weight-grams/#comment-1612030 It would be far simpler if the marked weight was the minimum for any pack.