The long and short of it

Sleuths: The Weights and Measures division of the Maryland Department of Agriculture tries to ensure that consumers get their money's worth.

June 01, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

David A. Coleman has learned the hard way that Maryland consumers expect to get as much as they pay for -- in his case a cord of firewood.

The Sudlersville resident, who sells firewood from his home, was recently sentenced to two months in jail for not delivering the full measure of oak firewood.

"This was the extreme; the vast majority of the violations we detect are settled with just a warning," said Louis E. Straub, chief of the Weights and Measures division of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which took enforcement action against Coleman.

Weights and Measures, a little-known state agency, checks the accuracy of gasoline pumps and grocery store scales. The agency verifies the weight and volume of thousands of packages, ranging from a box of cornflakes to a bucket of drywall joint compound.

With the emergence of spring, complaints about shortages on firewood sales have pretty much ended. "The big problem now," Straub said, "has to do with mulch that people buy at garden centers."

In recent spot inspections, state field workers found that nearly one in six bags of mulch contain less than the amount specified on the label.

"In some cases, the two- or three-cubic-feet bags are short by a much as 25 percent," said Robert D. Eaves, a program manager with Weights and Measures.

But mulch bags aren't the only containers failing to measure up.

Field workers found that 16 percent of the fuel oil delivery trucks they inspected were cheating their customers.

They found that 10 percent of the half-pint school milk cartons didn't contain the right amount and that between 35 percent and 40 percent of the propane tanks used to fire backyard barbecue grills were short by 10 percent or more.

Richard Shockley, another manager within the agency, said that many of the propane problems occurred at Home Depot, Hechinger and Safeway stores, where customers return empty propane containers when they purchase refilled containers.

"The problem was not with the stores," Shockley said. "It was with the propane suppliers. We met with the suppliers and told them, `Hey, either you guys get up to snuff or we are going to have to take action.' "

That is the approach usually taken by the division, according to Straub, who says the agency has two roles: "Level the playing field for all businesses and protect the consumer."

The agency, which traces its roots to the 1840s, attracts little attention. "A lot of people don't even know we exist," Straub said.

Weights and Measures operates with a staff of 21 field inspectors. That's down from 48 in 1992 because of budget cuts, according to Straub, who said the staff reduction has forced the division to cut inspections from one a year to one every 14 or 16 months.

While the division's staff has gotten smaller, the number of scales, pumps and other devices that need to be inspected has grown. The struggle to keep pace, Shockley said, is "an ongoing thing." Despite being stretched, the division manages to respond to consumer complaints within 24 hours. When a field inspector spots a violation, he or she generally informs and warns the violator.

"If that doesn't correct the problem, then we take more serious action," Shockley said.

When an error is detected, the business is notified, Straub explained, and a follow-up inspection is done within 45 days, then a third inspection in another 30 days.

He said some of the shortages are intentional and some are not. "If we get to the third violation, we feel that we have failed," said Straub. "We either have a problem communicating or there is total disregard for the law."

In a sign that the problems are growing rather than declining, the division has fined 13 violators this year. That compares with 19 during all of last year.

Sometimes the violations are honest mistakes.

Straub said that only about 6 percent of the more than 35,000 gasoline pumps the division inspected last year were dispensing the incorrect amount. Errors were attributed primarily to worn pump parts. In about half of the cases, he said, motorists were getting more gasoline than they were paying for.

During surprise inspections of grocery stores and supermarkets, field inspectors found that about 9 percent of the meat, seafood and produce packaged by the stores weighed less than indicated on the packages, Straub said.

"My honest opinion is that the majority of these cases were not intentional," Eaves said. He explained that a number of items, including ground beef, cured hams, grapes, apples and watermelon, can lose moisture and weight while sitting on the shelf.

He noted that ketchup can evaporate in the bottle.

When a weight or volume discrepancy is detected, the division halts the sale of the product until the error is corrected.

In recent months, the agency has stopped sales of dozens of products including pasta, egg nog, joint compound, sausage, beef, milk, spices, bacon, top soil, cement mix, horse feed, snowball syrup and seed corn.

"When the consumer buys a pound of coffee, we think they should get a pound of coffee," Straub said.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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