Slack-Fill: How You’re Tricked into Believing Big is Better

“Slack-fill” — the posh name for pumping air into your potato chip bags!: Internet Scambusters #814

You may not have heard of slack-filling, but it’s a part of everyday life for consumers and the products we buy.

It’s the term manufacturers use to explain why their packages are often much bigger than the products inside — like the air that bulks out bags of potato chips.

Why do they do it? Is it a scam? We have the explanations for you in this week’s issue.

And now for the main feature…

Slack-Fill: How You’re Tricked into Believing Big is Better

Here’s something you likely have never heard of that affects you almost every time you do your grocery shopping – slack-fill.

If you’ve ever felt short-changed when you buy a product, only to find when you open it that the box or bag is way too big for what’s inside, then you’re a victim of slack-fill.

It happens with lots of groceries, household products, pharmaceuticals, and many other consumer items. And there’s often no way you can tell because the package is sealed.

In a sense, this looks like an out-and-out scam, since the makers seem to be deceiving consumers.

On the other hand, the manufacturers are usually operating within the law, provided they post the correct net weight or volume on the outside of the packaging.

We’ve seen eye drops inside tiny bottles inserted in boxes three or four times their size, cosmetic bottles packed inside containers within containers, like Russian dolls, and we’ve opened candy wrappers to discover the chocolate bar that once filled the packaging now only takes up two-thirds of the space.

But perhaps the worst offenders in this visual rip-off are the makers of potato chips, who bloat their bags with air, making it appear as if the contents are about to burst out!

Yes, folks, this is slack-fill.

The makers claim they need to use the process to protect the chips from being crushed. And maybe they have a point: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does permit what it calls “functional” slack-filling.

In a famous class action lawsuit last year, one snack company was accused of tricking customers into “paying for air.”

But the action was ultimately dismissed, with the judge declaring that the slack-fill would not mislead “a reasonable consumer” and that the weight of the chips was accurately printed on the bag.

But this is only the tip of an iceberg. Every year, hundreds of similar complaints are launched against manufacturers alleging not only that their containers are part-empty but that other claims made for their products are simply untrue or, at best, exaggerations.

More Class Actions

In fact, if you visit the website of consumer champions Truth in Advertising (TINA – you can find a whole section devoted to slack-filling, listing about two dozen class actions so far this year alone.

They cover such items as cosmetics, ice cream, cereals, candies, and even coffee shop lattes. Surely, the makers can’t all claim they need the sweet air that surrounds us to protect their products!

In fact, the more you explore the TINA website, the wider your eyes become and the more your jaw drops at the scale of alleged misleading labeling and advertising.

At a time when daily life is full of claims about so-called “fake news,” the number of allegations about untruthful product statements puts even these to shame.

However, both activities offer us the same lesson: the importance of being skeptical about what we see and hear when it comes to deciding what’s true and what’s not.

Back to slack-fill.

According to TINA, more and more manufacturers are hiding behind the “functional” (i.e. necessary) excuse to package consumer products in oversized containers. And many of them are successfully defending against lawsuits.

So, what can you do to avoid falling for the fill trick?

Says TINA: “Next time you’re at the grocery store, check the label for things like net weight and serving size to avoid the disappointment that comes with opening a slack-filled package.”

It’s also important to know what’s acceptable, in other words, what fits the “functional” description.

According to the FDA, the following reasons for slack-fill are okay:

  • Protecting contents.
  • Packaging machine requirements.
  • Product settling.
  • The container is intended to be reusable.
  • Inability either to decrease the packaging size or increase the contents.

Off the Hook

There’s more, of course, but that seems like enough to get many slack-fillers off the hook.

So, ultimately, it’s down to us, the consumers, to be aware of these tactics and base our decisions not on the size of packaging but on the measure of its contents.

This is especially important when you’re comparing two similar products when making a purchase decision. In fact, one might be inclined to disfavor a big box or packet that only has the same weight or volume of content as a much smaller one.

That seems a fair benchmark for judging honesty!

Alert of the Week

One of America’s biggest grocery chains – Kroger – is the latest target for a free gift voucher scam.

A social media message announcing “Congratulations” grabs your attention and goes on to tell you about a whopping $250 coupon that’s coming your way.

No such luck, sadly.

To get your coupon, you’re supposed to “like” the fake Kroger site, which, in reality, is just a front for “like harvesting” – a way of building up hordes of followers who can then be targeted with other phony deals.

Time to close today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!