Jimmy buys 500g of peanuts from the greengrocer, Sally buys 800g from the supermarket and Katie buys 1kg from the corner shop. Jimmy gives half of his to Sally. Who has the most peanuts? If your answer is Sally, you’d get full marks in a primary school maths test – but in the real world there’s every chance you could be wrong. If the scales in our hypothetical retailers are slightly out, Jimmy, Sally or Katie could end up with fewer peanuts than they had bargained for – no laughing matter when you’re trying to make every penny of your pocket money count.
The above example might seem innocuous – after all, what’s a few peanuts between friends – but in truth, ensuring the accuracy of weights and measures underpins the entire raison d’etre of trading standards. Today’s CTSI had its seed in 1881’s Incorporated Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures.
Metrology is something that many take for granted in everyday life. But in many ways it is the invisible ally of the consumer, a powerfully clear-cut method that helps establish fairness and honesty in dealings with retailers and suppliers.
According to David Templeton, the CTSI’s Lead Officer for Legal Metrology, there is more to the discipline than “making sure you get the right amount when you go to the shops, the pub or the supermarket.“Metrology has helped to drive standards up. It has improved levels of consumer protection, it has harmonised and provided a uniformity of levels of protection.From a business perspective, it has provided ease of access to markets, it has reduced technical barriers to trade, and it has promoted the free movement of goods and services around the EU.”
But the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has put the discipline in a somewhat fraught position, Templeton explains. “In terms of legislation, weights and measures is almost exclusively driven by policy that emanates from the EU, and has been since the 1970s.” The UK’s diminished involvement in metrology legislation in the wake of Brexit, combined with declining levels of interest in the discipline within the trading standards profession, is something Templeton is concerned about.
But he is convinced that the government could do more to promote the importance of metrology. “If we could replicate the system of control that we have for food standards in legal metrology, I think that would be a significant step forward.” As David reiterates, metrology operates “unseen and in the background”. But if it slips into the background of trading standards, the result will be bad for consumers and businesses alike, whether they’re buying or selling beer, petrol or peanuts with their pocket money.