IT'S A RARE day that I measure milk. Most of the time I use whatever fills the cup or bowl, and when the carton is empty, it's empty. But last winter, while making a traditional family recipe that calls for careful measurement, the quart of milk I'd bought for the purpose came up short; the last cup was only three-quarters of a cup. Too slight a matter to warrant a formal complaint, I muttered a few traditional curses in the direction of the dairy and juggled the recipe to fit.
Such short-fills, it turns out, are not a slight matter at all.
In recent sampling by the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies, some 40 percent of packaged milk and juice didn't measure up to their stated quantity. Prompted by occasional reports of shortfills over the past few years, the study was designed to find out whether the shortages were scattered, localized, or widespread. The result? "Widespread," says FTC official Louise Jung.
It is a rare day when a government study offers such an unequivocal answer, but in the case of shortfills, that day has arrived. Milk and juice packagers are not giving us the amount we think we're paying for.
In Montana, 54 percent of the inspectors found shortfills; Washington was somewhat better, with only 37 percent of the lots failing to meet measurement standards. Occasional overfills were also found, but not enough to make up for the number of shortfills.
At 1 to 6 percent, the individual losses are modest; who is going to notice an ounce or two missing from a gallon of juice? For that matter, who -- unless she is measuring carefully to appease the ancestors -- would even notice an ounce or two out ot a quart?
What seems a slight matter at the consumer level ceases to be slight at the producer or industry level. Even if the average reduction is only a few percent overall, 2 percent of $8 billion (which dairies earned for fluid milk in 1996) is still $60 million -- a nice serving of profit.
The practice of shortfilling is unintentional, according to a dairy spokesman, and the FTC says the industry has "reacted swiftly" to rectify the situation. But I have a feeling we won't see dairies simply wedging the extra percent from existing profits.
Between an aggressive "national education program" with "technical experts" identifying "appropriate methods and procedures," we're probably looking at new instruments, new quality control personnel and new oversight procedures, adding up in the end to a price hike -- just enough to pay for what we thought we were getting in the first place.
When and if that price hike comes do we blame government for meddling in business? Do we call on Congress to cut funding for the FTC, the Agriculture Department and the Department of Commerce?
When a welfare mother skims a few percent from taxpayers, it's fraud; when a whole industry does, it's an innocent mistake.
What the FTC graciously calls shortfills is also known as cheating. In a country where we pride ourselves on hard work and an honest buck, we also take an ounce here and a gram there: not enough to deprive babies of their milk or senior citizens of their orange juice; not enough to warrant a complaint; just enough to err in favor the bottom line.
If overfills equaled shortfills we could chalk it up to a simple margin of error, but when nearly half of the products on the shelf are shortchanged, more than inaccuracy is at work.
Asta Bowen writes from Montana.
Pub Date: 8/11/97