The E.U. required many goods to be sold in metric measurements; the British government is axing this "bureaucratic interference."


While the United States has rejected the metric system for most practical purposes, the United Kingdom uses an odd mishmash of metric and Imperial. Draft beer is required to be sold in increments of the pint, but spirits have to be sold in milliliters. When calculating how far a soccer player ran, the stats are in kilometers, but when driving a car, the road signs are in miles. Ask someone their weight, and the answer is likely to be in kilograms or stone (that's 14 pounds).

But the U.K.'s time spent in the European Union pushed the county further towards metrication, forcing Britain to adopt more metric measurements to adhere to the E.U.'s trade rules. This included the sale of loose foods like fruits and vegetables or cheeses and meats which in the past might have been sold by the ounce or pound, but due to E.U. regulations, had to be measured in metric amounts (though the Imperial weight could also be listed). A group known as the Metric Martyrs even sprung up to protest this change and, in one famous case, grocer Steve Thoburn was convicted for not weighing bananas properly.

Labels show the price in pounds sterling of fruit and vegetables
Labels show the price in pounds sterling (GBP) of fruit and vegetables, including Chiquita branded bananas, displayed for sale at a market stall in Borough, central London, on November 22, 2017. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
| Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP via Getty Images

But now that the U.K. is out of the E.U., the British government has promised that choosing to sell items in Imperial instead of metric measurements will soon be legal again. Yesterday, in an announcement "to capitalise on new Brexit freedoms," the government stated they planned to "scrutinise" thousands of E.U. regulations that had automatically remained on the books after Brexit.

"From rules on data storage to the ability of businesses to develop new green technologies, overbearing regulations were often conceived and agreed in Brussels with little consideration of the UK national interest," Lord Frost, the U.K.'s Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, stated. "We now have the opportunity to do things differently and ensure that Brexit freedoms are used to help businesses and citizens get on and succeed."

For food and beverage, the announcement specifically states plans to reduce "bureaucratic interference" by "permitting the voluntary printing of the Crown Stamp on pint glasses and reviewing the E.U. ban on markings and sales in imperial units and legislating in due course."

And yet, to what extent this change matters is up for debate. Metric units will likely remain in most situations: It's what most people are used to, the equipment has already been transitioned, and any items sold outside of the UK will often need these measurements anyway. But at the same time, it is more than a symbolic gesture as, yes, selling bananas by the ounce will no longer be illegal.

But interestingly, though a change in measurements is easy to hang your hat on, the real change to British food may be a different regulatory change mentioned in the announcement. The E.U. has an ongoing ban on GMOs, but the British government has promised "to reform the regulations around gene-edited organisms, which will enable more sustainable and efficient farming," opening up the U.K. not just to GMO crops but also products that use this technology like the E.U.-banned Impossible Burger.

Ah, you lucky Brits: Forget measurements. Now you get to have a whole new labeling debate to argue about! Time to buy several ounces of popcorn and enjoy the show.