America's Shame: Our Ketchup Packets

The typical condiment container has barely changed since 1955.

If the Olympics had a competition dedicated to ketchup packaging, the United States would lose. Handily. Without medalling. We would be vanquished by, among others, Australia. Whose ketchup packet is, tauntingly, on display in the video above. 

The loss, however, would also come from an unforced error on the part of the U.S. team. Because, of course, our ketchup packets—those sealed-foil little lumps that contain a squirt or two of vinegary, sugary tomato sauce—are weak, unskilled, and wholly unsuited to the game at hand. ​Not only are the packets too small to be-condiment an American-sized serving of fries; they are also, as technologies, aggressively unfriendly to users. First you find the little indentation in the corner of the packet. Then you tear it in that particular way that will expose a ketchup stream, but not result in a ketchup puddle. And once those two things are successfully accomplished, you have to coax out as much condiment as you can, knowing that a hefty proportion will be left behind, sacrificed to its own sorry packaging. 

The inadequacy of our ketchup packets ranks low, yes, on the long list of problems that require our attention. It is also understandable when you consider that, as far as most Americans are concerned, ketchup packaging hasn't changed in any meaningful way since 1955. That was the year when Harold Ross and Yale Kaplan received a patent for "Dispensing containers for liquids." Their design will be familiar to anyone who has ever ordered tater tots as take-out. Because it is the design that the common ketchup packet—the common condiment packet—still uses.

Petty, yes, but guys! We can do better. We must do better. And we're on our way to improvement: In 2010, Heinz announced its new Dip & Squeeze packet, which allows the option of either, yep, dipping into the ketchup or squeezing it out. The container was not genius, but it was a vast improvement on the foil packet. And despite a 2012 patent-infringement suit, the design is out there. It lives among us, in burger joints and fast-casual dining establishments and Seamless bags. The Dip & Squeeze is not yet common, but it's building its strength. It's developing its fan base. It could be the secret weapon that gives Team USA a fighting chance in the next Packet Olympics. 

Via The Interrobang

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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