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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 13:01 GMT
Do you think in pounds or kilos?
Weights and measures graphics
A greengrocer's court case has reopened the metric debate
If you were educated in the UK after 1975, the chances are you learnt kgs in the classroom, and lbs in everyday life.

Shoppers can order their fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces but traders have to weigh it out in kilograms and grams. Confused? You may well be.


You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France? A Royale with Cheese

John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction
Many people over the age of 30 feel like they have split personalities when it comes to weights and measures.

They measure their height in feet and inches and understand the weight of a newborn baby in pounds and ounces.

But when it comes to keying in their own weight on machines at the gym, they use kilograms.

Anomalies in weights and measures are everywhere to be seen in the UK. While speed limits are measured in mph, petrol is purchased in litres.

Steve Thoburn
Steve Thoburn: Britain's first metric martyr?

Beer still comes in pints and burgers in quarter pounders.

They are inconsistencies the pragmatic British public has largely taken in its stride. But the issue now has been flung into the headlines by the prosecution of Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn for selling bananas by the pound.

Scales seized

Mr Thoburn's imperial scales were seized last July after an undercover trading standards officer was sold a pound of bananas, costing 25p.

This followed the introduction of the European legislation, 1994 Units of Measurements Regulations, which came into effect on 1 January last year.

There are echoes, it has been suggested, of decimalisation in 1971 and the readjustment people had to make then.

But there is one important difference - the changeover between old and new money happened relatively quickly. Unlike weights and measures, the two money systems did not exist alongside each other for decades.

Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn
Steve Thoburn faces the scales of justice

The potential for confusion is one of the main planks in the case for prosecuting Steve Thoburn.

Eleanor Sharpston QC told the Sunderland magistrates that the law should prevent the need for customers to be confused over whether "metric" apples in one shop were more expensive or cheaper than "imperial" apples in another.

Tons and tonnes of letters

In any case, however, it is clear that the feelings behind the case go deeper than just the merits of one system over another. It is being presented as a wider battle between UK law and European legislation.


Campaigners say this case is about British sovereignty

Sunderland Echo editor Andrew Smith says the paper has been inundated with letters in support of Mr Thoburn.

"People in Sunderland really do see this as a threat to their Britishness. The letters are saying 'We want to buy our bananas in pounds'," he said.

But in the end, the issue may well boil down to what will avoid most confusion in the long run. The Sunderland Echo has not taken a stance on it because it feels it is simplest to continue offering customers both options.

"Anybody under the age of 30 trying to buy a pound of bananas may feel more comfortable with kilograms," says Andrew Smith.

Sensible approach

"Supermarkets show a sensible approach in pricing in both metric and imperial."

Weights and Measures
1865 Parliament recommended that Britain should go metric
1965 UK began adopting metric system
1971 Decimalisation of Sterling
1974 Children taught in metric
1995 Pre-packed goods traded in metric
2000 Loose goods priced in metric
Exemptions include the mile and pints of beer
Until 2010 goods can be labelled in both metric and imperial but must be weighed in metric

But the National Federation of Consumer Groups thinks there is no reason to continue battling against metrication.

Information officer Stuart Coverley said: "It seems that we have a legal principle which we have no alternative but to establish.

"This muddle has been going on far too long. Most of us still talk and think in pounds. If we don't do anything we are never going to change this."

The Department of Trade and Industry said metrication has been supported by successive governments since 1965.

A spokeswoman for the DTI said 90% of food products sold in Britain was already sold by metric measurements making it easier for consumers to compare pre-packed and loose goods.

But it may be some time yet before the British fully accept metrication.

A poll commissioned by the British Weights and Measures Association in 1999 found 72% of both young people and adults wanted to keep things the way they were. In pounds and ounces.

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See also:

02 Jan 00 | Business
The end for the pound
15 Jan 01 | UK
Grocer fights metric laws
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