WASHINGTON (AFP) — As Americans struggle with soaring fuel and food prices, it must come as a relief that the cost of some items in their shopping baskets are staying the same. Or are they?
While the price of some processed food may be staying put, the amount Americans get for their money is surreptitiously shrinking as manufacturers shrink quantity sizes.
"There's a grocery shrink ray that has been unleashed on supermarkets across America," Ben Popken of Consumerist.com, a consumer information website, told AFP.
"Manufacturers have kicked up the stun rate of the shrink gun this year because of rising oil prices and the rising costs of commodities like grain and milk," Popken told AFP.
Hellmann's mayonnaise -- a vital ingredient in the egg- or tuna-salad sandwiches that feature prominently in US bag lunches -- has seen its jar trimmed from 32 ounces to 30 ounces, Dean Mastrojohn, the US spokesman for Unilever, the global conglomerate that makes Hellmann's, told AFP.
Country Crock margarine tubs were reduced by around six percent, from three pounds to two pounds 13 ounces, and Breyers ice cream by 14 percent from 56 ounces to 48 ounces, Mastrojohn said.
"Package size reduction is mainly focused on the US, and is only one of our responses to dramatic input cost increases," he said.
"It's a last resort, with several other approaches coming first," Mastrojohn added.
Package-trimming is thinly disguised price-boosting, not to mention underhanded, said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director at consumer advocacy group MASSPIRG.
"They want to increase the price without the consumer realizing. The way they do that is with a smaller package, but when they put that package out, they don't advertise that it's smaller," Cummings said.
"So many times, they put 'new improved package' on the label but they would never put 'new, improved and smaller'," she said.
Popken said manufacturers are "hoping you won't notice".
"Some of them do it at the same time as they change the package design. They're hoping to distract you with a new feature, but fail to tell you that, oops, by the way, it happens to be smaller," he said.
Breakfast cereal boxes have become smaller; orange juice jugs have shrunk.
Consumer advocacy website Mouseprint.org has posted photos of the new, sleek, smaller Tropicana orange juice jug alongside the older jug to illustrate how some manufacturers try to sneak what is effectively a price hike past the consumer.
"While (consumers) may notice the shape is different, they may not realize they are getting almost a cup less of OJ. According to one supermarket dairy manager, the price has stayed the same," Mouseprint, which was founded by consumer lawyer Edgar Dworsky in 2006, wrote.
Tropicana defended the shrinkage, saying on Mouseprint.org: "Oil costs have skyrocketed. Oil is used to make plastic bottles, fuel our factories, and ship our juice across the country in refrigerated trains and trucks.
"We had the choice to either increase prices or downsize the bottle. We chose to downsize the bottle but add value" with a new flip-top cap and sleek shape, it said.
The price of navel oranges increased from around 90 cents in January to nearly 1.01 dollars in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The price of petrol rose from 3.10 dollars to 3.81 dollars in the same period, BLS data showed.
Even restaurant fare has been hit by the shrink ray, but different establishments handle inflationary pressure in different ways.
Popken's local pizzeria has upped prices, he said.
"Instead of cutting the pie into 12 slices instead of 8, they've increased prices, and right by the counter they have clipped news articles which say that because of the rising price of wheat and milk, pizza places are having to increase their prices," he said.
"I think that's a much better way to go about it, instead of trying to sneak one across."
Meanwhile, Consumerist reported that some restaurants and bars are using thick-bottomed glasses to serve beer -- shaving two fluid ounces off the usual 16-ounce serving size.
"People are going to get really upset about shrinking beers. You can take away our cereal, but you can't take away our beer," warned Popken.
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