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Oregon observes National Weights and Measures Week

ODA inspection activities ensure consumers get what they pay for

Oregon consumers and businesses will be happy to know that someone is looking at the thousands of weighing and measuring devices used in everyday commerce. The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s 20 inspectors with the Weights and Measures Program ensure fairness in the marketplace throughout the state. National Weights and Measures Week, March 1-7, gives the public an opportunity to become more aware of the consumer protection provided by the inspection program. 

The slogan for this year’s week, “Weights and measures officials, making sure the marketplace measures up”, attempts to capture the hard work of dedicated and highly trained regulatory officials who work behind the scenes every day to maintain integrity in commerce. The current chair of the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) says the concept of buyer beware isn’t good enough.

“Consumers can’t possibly protect themselves from inaccuracies in weighing and measurement,” says John Gaccione. “The same applies to business owners who rely on a level playing field if they are to make an honest profit. Specialized equipment and training is necessary for inspecting large and small scales, meters for petroleum, natural gas, cryogenics, asphalt, and fertilizer, testing any sort of packaged commodity for net contents, sampling petroleum products, testing against standards, and much more.”

The vast scope of inspection activities may sound like an expensive proposition. But the protection afforded consumers and businesses by state weights and measures programs comes at a very affordable cost to taxpayers. Nationally, on average, it costs each resident only about 70 cents per year for this fundamental regulatory presence in the marketplace. Consumers can lose more than that on a single package of short-weight ground beef or a few gallons of mis-measured gasoline.

“Each year in Oregon, as much as $97 billion of goods make their way across more than 56,000 weighing and measuring devices that we license and test for accuracy,” says Jason Barber, director of ODA’s Internal Services and Consumer Protection programs. “In many cases, more than half a family’s income is spent on items sold by weight, measure, or count.”

It may surprise consumers that weights and measures programs may be part of departments of agriculture. Historically, commodities like wheat, corn, and cattle were sold by weight or measure, so inspection programs were placed with other regulatory agricultural programs. Today, many items in commercial transactions are non-agricultural, but the programs remain in state agriculture departments.

The devices used in commercial transactions have become incredibly sophisticated, but highly trained inspectors are able to offer expertise ranging from software security to motor fuel chemistry.

The systematic efforts of ODA’s inspectors maintain a great amount of trust in the marketplace.

“It’s not uncommon for our inspectors to get thanked in the grocery store or at the gas station by the public and by businesses,” says Barber. “But I’m sure a lot of people would be amazed to find out that someone is out there doing the inspection in the first place to essentially prevent consumer fraud.”

Purchases at grocery stores rely on accurate check stand scales. ODA inspectors annually check approximately 18,300 scales in Oregon that weigh produce, meat, seafood, and many other items. ODA also tests gas pump meters and administers the motor fuel quality program.

“There are more than 29,000 motor fuel dispensers in the state, and we will check the majority of them over 12 months while testing for accuracy,” says Barber. “When people go to the pump, they can rest assured that, in most cases, if they pay for 10 or 20 gallons of fuel, they will actually get that amount.”

Inspections indicate most devices operate correctly. At times, some may need adjustment, but most Oregon retailers sell an accurate measure of goods. When there are problems, the consumer often benefits.

“In many instances, the business may be giving away too much product.” Says Barber. “You can imagine that after we test 36 fuel dispensers at a retail gas station, and the owner finds out eight of them have been giving away too much fuel, that could add up to thousands of dollars in losses. We’re not only doing consumer protection work, but in most cases, the businesses we inspect also like to see us show up.”

Honest retailers who are trying to compete in the marketplace appreciate the fact that the business down the street is also going to be inspected for accurate devices. The goal is to make sure everyone is on a level playing field and not gaining an advantage by shorting the customer.

Inspectors also work closely with Oregon's agriculture industry, examining farm produce scales, grain elevator scales, livestock scales, seafood processing scales, truck scales, railroad scales, and automatic bulk weighing systems to assure Oregon products are accurately weighed.

ODA inspectors rely on consumers to play an important role in the marketplace.

“When you buy anything by weight or measure, the device measuring that item should read zero before it starts,” says Barber. “When you go to the gas pump, before they start pumping gasoline, the meter should read zero. Before produce is weighed at the grocery store, the scale should read zero. If it doesn’t, you will end up paying for not only that product, but also the product that was already registered on the meter or scale. If the meter or scale does not read zero to start with, tell the attendant or cashier. Be aware of what’s going on."

Consumers with questions or concerns should bring them up with the retailer. Those not satisfied with the response can contact ODA’s Weights and Measures Program at (503) 986-4670 or by email. Consumers can also file general consumer complaints or fuel complaints online.

The next time you go to a grocery store or fill up at a gas station, remember that someone with the Oregon Department of Agriculture has been watching out for you.

For more information, contact Jason Barber at (503) 986-4767.

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