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What Is Non-Functional Slack-Fill and Why Does It Make For Good Social Media Content?

by Rudy Sanchez on 09/07/2022 | 4 Minute Read

I hate to get all Seinfeld on everyone, but what's the deal with all that air in a potato chip bag? 

It looks tempting in the store, that big, rotund bag of fried starch, but once you pull it open and look down into the bag, you find emptiness and a deceitfully small pile of chips.

It’s easy to feel ripped off by tricky packaging, but sometimes that space is legally allowed, though that does little to dampen the sting of being duped. In the age of social media, it’s easy to snap and share a picture of your sad pile and commiserate over falling for spacially dishonest packaging and shaming the brand responsible.

When packaging uses space not filled with product deceptively, Uncle Sam calls that non-functional slack fill (NFSF). Making sure packaging is empty is a task that falls under the FDA, and the definition and exceptions get defined in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulation, section 100.100.

According to the feds, “A container that does not allow the consumer to fully view its contents shall be considered to be filled as to be misleading if it contains non-functional slack-fill. Slack-fill is the difference between the actual capacity of a container and the volume of product contained therein.” If consumers can not see the entire contents of a package, e.g., the color of the container is opaque or fully covered by a label, and there is space in the container not filled with the product (non-functional slack fill), then the packaging is considered to be deceptive, with some exceptions.

So how do potato chip companies get away with making big, airy pillows of disappointment? Because those bags of crispy, salty goodness likely fall into one of six exceptions in 21 CFR § 100.100. The exceptions include slack-fill to protect the product, slack-fill necessary for machinery to fill packaging, and inevitable settling during shipping and packaging. Other exceptions include provisions for packaging designed to perform additional functions such as preparation and serving or in cases where the packaging has a significant value in proportion to the product and independent of its function for holding food, like a commemorative or reusable tin or basket, for example. Finally, slack-fill that accommodates mandatory labeling, discourages pilfering, facilitates handling, or allows for tamper-evident devices are exempt.

Nonetheless, examples of NFSF are bountiful, including instances from countries where similar regulations don’t exist. The combination of plenty of non-functional slack-fill in the wild combined with the anger, frustration, and disappointment from feeling ripped off has spawned an online community devoted to chronicling and discussing packaging with NFSF or legal slack-fill that brands could easily avoid.

Ther/NonFunctionalSlackFill subreddit started four years ago and now has over 42,800 members. The community was inspired by a post on a similar subreddit called r/AssholeDesign that showed a cup of fruit with a clear cone in the center that took up most of the packaging's volume.

Non-functional slack-fill is more narrow in scope than AssholeDesign; they focus on packaging and, on occasion, sandwich fillings. Popular posts include large candy packaging with a significant amount of space, crayon boxes only filled to the window, and tall plastic trays in oversized boxes. Posts of served food are popular, which isn’t technically NFSF, but close enough in spirit—you'll find guacamole served on top of a wad of iceberg lettuce or airport sandwiches with half the toppings encased in a baguette made to look full when sliced (but behold, once you open that sammy, it's almost all bread).

So why are thousands of people subscribed to a subreddit chronicling tricky packaging? 

For starters, it’s easy to take a picture of slack fills, and it is universally understood. The concept transcends language, borders, and cultures. Reactions are similar in all of us; no one likes getting fooled into buying less product than the packaging implies. A picture of a box intentionally underfilled can elicit various reactions, from laughter to righteous indignation. Others can commiserate and relate with the original poster.

Of course, proving that slack-fill is intentionally deceptive would be difficult. Sometimes brands are sued over misleading packaging, but most cases get settled out of court. While exceptions exist, there are no set rules, such as a defined percentage of a canister or box that needs to get filled with product. Additionally, there's no practical way to describe the maximum amount of slack fill strictly for every product under the FDA’s purview.

The FDA’s rules around slack-fill are focused on preventing manufacturers from misleading consumers with deceptive packaging tricks. But rules surrounding NFSF also have the consequence of disincentivizing wasteful packaging that unnecessarily adds more garbage to the world. Non-functional slack-fill not only dupes consumers, but it’s also bad for the environment—think long pieces of boxes with short, stubby plastic jars inside that reek of overpackaging.

Partially empty packaging will always be a pain point for consumers, but at least there are spaces in this world for shared commiseration. Next time you run into packaging with plenty of negative space designed to look like there’s more product inside than there actually is, maybe snap a picture and upload it to Reddit. You’ll get fake imaginary points and might make some new internet friends.

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