The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has saved us from centiliters. And maybe even dekameters, decimeters and hectometers.
In response to a petition from a vintner in Old Brookville, N.Y., to label 750-milliliter, or "750 ml," wine bottles as "75 cl," ATF said, charitably, that this would just be too confusing for American consumers.
The agency, which regulates the "metric standards of fill" for wine, said it's best to stick to milliliters as the unit for amounts less than 1 liter.
That decision came after due consultation with metric experts at the National Conference on Weights and Measures, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and U.S. Metric Association Inc. Many Americans are metric-impaired, the agency concluded, and they'd mistakenly assume they were getting a different amount in a bottle marked 750 ml versus one marked 75 cl.
Banfi Vintners said its request, made two years ago, was intended to keep its wine labels free of clutter and cleanly designed. "Labels are overregulated," said Lars Leicht, spokesman for Banfi.
The vintner produces its own brands in Italy and is a leading importer of Italian and Chilean wines. Because so much of its trade is international, it uses a French supplier for its bottles. In France the use of "75 cl" is widespread, and it also is stamped into the glass in the bottles that Banfi uses in the United States.
So the company hoped it could persuade ATF to let it drop the 750 ml designation from its label, since it already said 75 cl on the glass part of the bottle.
"We'd like to hope consumers would understand it's the same," said Leicht.
It's no secret that as much of the world has gone metric, Americans have hung back. Though metric is now taught in schools here and some youngsters actually are thinking and measuring in metric, many adult Americans cling to pounds, ounces and inches. This isn't Canada, where everyone's speedometers look funny.
Gerard Iannelli, director of the metric program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said most businesspeople are perfectly happy using metric because they know it's in their economic self-interest, especially if they are trading overseas.
But Iannelli thinks metrication is culturally jarring for the average American, a different language. He advocates not touching highway signs, temperature readings or anything that is weighed -- at least not until more education is done. "It forces an instantaneous translation, and that's painful," he said.
Metric supporters also say it should be the preferred unit of measurement because it's easy to calculate: It has only a few units of measurements, and everything is divisible by 10: For example, there are 1,000 milliliters to a liter; there are 100 centiliters.
ATF was one of the first federal agencies to go metric in 1979, according to Kenneth Butcher, NIST coordinator of weights and measures. The federal government tackled other packaged goods with regulations in 1994 that said metric and inch-pound units would be used together in labeling.
At that time, the metrication gurus, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, said keep it simple: Keep to liters or milliliters.
Butcher said that the thinking was to avoid centiliters, deciliters and decaliters -- not to mention mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta and yotta.
It was that wise counsel that ATF relied on when it turned down Banfi Vintners. The agency also paid attention to the 82 comments it received opposing Banfi's request -- some suggested it would open the door to all the other metric units. Eleven other commenters supported it, generally arguing that differences in labeling rules between the United States and Europe were costly to importers and the milliliter rule should be changed.
Seaver W. Leslie, chairman of Americans for Customary Weight and Measure, said Americans are too smart to go with what he calls an inferior system that would compromise our culture and heritage. "ATF was one of the first to get hoodwinked, and they went too far with it as it is," Leslie said. "A majority of Americans ask for a fifth of whiskey."
Leslie points out there is a way to avoid milliliters in the liquor or grocery store altogether: Buy beer, which does not have to be labeled in metric. "The 12-ounce beer is right there."
OUT FOR COMMENT: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is getting hammered by various Republicans and business groups over a workplace ergonomics rule that the agency is trying to get on the books.
In the face of that pressure, OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress has agreed to be keynote speaker on July 21 at the summer quarterly meetings of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. The NAM, which often is at odds with OSHA, suggested this topic: "The Top Ten Reasons Why I Love My Job."