Maryland grocers last year were naughty with their scales. The state's weights and measures department slapped them with thousands of dollars in fines for things like mislabeled meat prices, incorrectly weighed produce, and poorly calibrated scales. Major chains and tiny ethnic eateries alike got nailed; violations were many, penalties stiff, and store apologies quick.
The contrast with Virginia's food suppliers couldn't be more pronounced. They are just masters of scaling propriety, if the public record is any indication. The report for Loudoun County is a blank page. The city of Alexandria had no violators. Fairfax County, three. Arlington, one.
Are supermarkets in Virginia so scrupulous that nary a store shorted a customer? Do stores in Leesburg calibrate their scales so exactly that not one inspection turned up an imprecisely weighed pack of riblets? Not exactly. Turns out there were no violations in Loudoun last year because no inspections were conducted.
Right now the Virginia Dept. of Agriculture has exactly two inspectors from weights and measures assigned to Northern Virginia. That’s two men to check roughly 6,000 devices every year, and that includes every gas pump in the region. Program manager Dale Saunders says his department is so short-staffed and underfunded he can devote only 10 percent of his inspectors’ time to grocery inspections.
“We’re struggling down here,” says Saunders. “Every year we go into the General Assembly and say please give us more money. We can really do our job here. They just blow it off and say no.”
Saunders says his current budget doesn’t allow for the yearly routine inspections that take place in Maryland. Routine audits in Virginia are rare (a store might get a visit every two to three years); the staff saves most of its limited grocery time for stores that customers complain about.
But relying on customers to catch errors can’t do the job, as Saunders has learned. “As time goes on, I realize they’re not really paying to much attention unless it’s an eyeball catcher,” he says, like a small package with a dramatically heavy weight printed on it. “Unless the customer’s paying attention to how much it weighs, they’re not going to find this kind of error.”
Like many departments, Saunders has seen his budget reduced or flatlined in the last five or six years. At one point, the budget was reduced but the assembly allowed the department to charge a device fee of $9. That was reduced to $4 and eventually eliminated. The money cut from the budget was never replenished.
Saunders says he’d love to give raises but it’s out of the question. “I’ve had two people retire this year, and I really can’t afford to replace them just yet,” he says. “We just limp along.”
It’s hard to estimate the cost to the consumer when grocery scales are out of whack. But in just one report from a Giant in Fairfax County, eight of 15 tested items failed to weigh in at the number printed on the package---and the disparity favored, well, guess who? A pack of spiced shrimp priced at $9.99 a pound clocked in at three percent less than its stated weight, which translates to 29 cents. A rockfish fillet was less than two percent off, but at $14.99 a pound, that comes to almost 27 cents a pound in overcharges. Add up the number of purchases a day every day and the store is taking in a significant amount more than it should.
Those findings stem from a routine inspection on Jan. 6. Saunders says there’s supposed to be follow-up 30 days after an inspection like that, but his people haven’t been able to get to it. “Look, these guys are out there every day,” he says, usually outside at gas pumps. “They work a full day out there in the heat and cold everything.” Without a champion in the state legislature---“we have no lobbyist”---the department isn’t likely to see much of a bump in next year’s budget.
Don Onwiler of the National Conference of Weights and Measures says the strain on Virginia’s inspectors isn’t unusual when compared to other states. “It’s happening in different ways,” he says. “Some programs are being cut. They’re having to reduce their staffing levels so they’re reducing what they’re going to inspect.” Kansas privatized its scale inspections years ago but ended up still having to train agents continuously. “It’s really not saving money,” Onwiler says. “Now instead of regulating devices, they’re regulating people. And people are harder to regulate than devices.” New Hampshire is also considering legislation to privatize weights and measures inspectors, and Virginia nearly passed a similar measure in 2009.
Onwiler points out that the scale inspection provides protection to retailers as much as consumers. “If their scales are giving away product, it’s going to hurt them in a competitive market,” he says. “It can work against them or for them. So really the inspector is there to protect the retailer as well.”