I receive all sorts of unsolicited ideas about column topics. They range from bizarre to excellent, yet all of them are welcome. I like hearing from readers, even the ones who think my elevator does not reach the top floor.
There are some suggestions that I can pretty much count on receiving a few times each month: lack of manners in business, poor follow up and assorted conspiracy theories.
Thanks to persistence, one column idea about the city of Spokane’s weights and measures department allowed me to spend an afternoon watching what the city does to protect businesses and customers. Allow me to introduce Steve Parker, Department of Weights and Measures. His official title is deputy sealer, and even after all our time together, I am not sure what that means. But one thing I do know is merchants are happy to see Steve, and anyone who pumps gas into their car or buys anything by the pound at the grocer’s should be equally happy to see him.
Steve and I headed to a local grocery store where he went about his normal scale checking. Yes, the city does verify accuracy of those scales at the checkstands, and the ones in the deli, bakery and meat counters. But what most of us don’t know is there is a deduction for packaging. So when you purchase a pound of shrimp, there is a reduction in weight programmed into the scale that makes sure you do not get charged for the package the product comes in. Who knew? Remember when grocers first started using that little diaper at the bottom of meat products to soak up the excess fluid? I often thought, “Well, I guess I get to pay for that, too.” No, we don’t, and Steve makes sure the correct deductions are programmed into each scale.
From my perspective, the store deducts a tad too much for packaging, but they do that to accommodate the many and varied wrappers food comes in these days. Steve tells me about finding scales that say you are buying a pound of hot wings, but you are really getting about a quarter pound more! That hurts the store. And that is why they are happy to see Steve.
Over the course of the afternoon we weighed prepackaged cheeses, set weights on the corners of the scales to be sure they were weighing fairly at all points, grabbed the rolls of ground beef to be sure they really were what they said, and even checked to see if the bakery scale that weighs the slices of cake deducted the correct amount for packaging.
Good thing we had lunch first.
In 2009, Steve researched 48 consumer complaints and checked each gas pump in the city, all the taxi cab meters and every food product scale.
Both Idaho and Washington have state weights and measures programs, and they try to get to each item once a year or so. But only Spokane and Seattle have city weights and measures departments.
The biggest challenge in measuring is gas pumps and taxi meters, much more so than the scales Steve and I checked. There are more variables at the gas pump, and when it comes to taxis, Steve reports most of the meters are off, one way or the other. But that would be another column.
Steve was full of stories – one about a small gas station that was charging for only about 60 percent of the gas dispensed. Then there was the independent butcher, now out of business, who would leave a knife on the back of the scale to try overcharging everything he weighed. But the best story was about a national brand of breaded fish. Steve got a call from a colleague in California about this box of frozen fish labeled and sold as 8 ounces but was in fact 6 ounces. A huge amount of underweight boxes had been discovered in California, and the word went out to spot check the product across the West. Steve and a co-worker found the fish here also were underweight, and they pulled more than 6,000 boxes out of the market.
Thanks, Steve. Just one more example of ongoing efforts to keep both sides of the market fair. And few of us even know it is happening.