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Are you getting what you pay for?

David Sander, an inspector with Wisconsin's Weights and Measures office, tests the weight of pre-packaged sausage. Inspectors use a random sample to determine if food and other items meet the weight standards set by the state. Photo by Jeff Holmquist

Ever wonder if you're receiving all the gasoline you've paid for at the pump?

Or wondered if the scale at the grocery store's checkout counter is accurately weighing your bag of grapes?

Wonder no more.

For the most part, customers across Wisconsin are getting what they pay for from businesses.

That fact is, in part, thanks to a cadre of state-employed inspectors who are assigned the sometimes tedious task of testing equipment around Wisconsin.

The inspectors are employees of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In these parts, Weights and Measures inspector David Sander of Woodville keeps an eye on things. He's responsible for regularly inspecting businesses in St. Croix, Pierce, Pepin, Dunn, Eau Claire, Chippewa, Clark and Taylor counties.

Last week, he stopped by Family Fresh Market in New Richmond to demonstrate the standard procedures for all inspections.

Each stop along his route can last anywhere from three to five hours.

"All of our visits are unannounced," Sander said. "And we try to inspect every location at least once a year."

In a grocery store, Sander will use his accurate weight set to test the scales at the deli, meat and checkout counters. The weights will be shifted to each corner of the scale, to ensure that the scale weighs accurately no matter where the product is placed.

Next he'll randomly select 50 items from the store shelves, noting the lowest posted price. He then checks that price against the price that comes up when the product is scanned up front.

If more than two items are found to be incorrectly priced, Sander cites the store for the problem and the managers are given a deadline for correcting the issue.

When he returns to check if the store has taken action and things haven't changed, a store could face fines. Often the fine isn't enough to have a huge impact on a business, Sander admitted, but the resulting negative publicity about stores shorting customers can hurt their bottom line.

"Some facilities choose not to maintain their equipment," Sander said. "It usually costs them in the end."

At a convenience store, Sander will not only do a similar scale inspection, but he'll also bring out the five-gallon test gas cans from his truck to make sure that the quantity showing on the pump matches the actual quantity pumped.

Pumps are only allowed a small variation from the actual quantity or the pump is taken out of service until it is fixed.

At a feed mill, scales will be checked to make sure farmers aren't getting ripped off.

"In a feed mill, scales take a beating," Sander said. "Sometimes they can be off."

When he stops at a local car wash, Sander uses quarters to find out if the time motorists are paying for matches the time that the equipment runs.

At a scrap yard, Sander will inspect scales to see if those people dropping off metal are getting paid what they're due.

Weights and Measures inspectors, who number 13 in Wisconsin, are also responsible for checking the accuracy of truck scales, bulk fuel tank distribution systems, coffee bean scales and candy store scales.

"It's quite a range of things we inspect," Sander said. "It's something new every day."

When he's done with an inspection, Sander will present the business with a written report of his findings. If any corrective action is required, managers are given seven days to get things squared away.

If a piece of equipment is inaccurate in favor of the customers, thus shorting the business, Sander notifies the business of that problem as well.

"It's a two-way street," he said. "But in that case, it's up to them if they want to fix the problem."

If a scale or other equipment passes, a special seal declaring that it's been inspected by Weights and Measures is affixed to the scale or scanner. Also on the sticker is a toll-free phone number, (800) 422-7128, that consumers can call if they have a complaint or a question.

"We follow up on 100 percent of the complaints," Sander said.

For the most part, Sander said, scales across Wisconsin are pretty accurate. About 99.5 percent are certified as accurate following an inspection. Gas pumps have been deemed 99.9 percent accurate. As for price scanners, about 98.4 percent are certified as accurate during the year.

Also, for the most part, pre-packaged goods usually fall within the maximum allowable variation test that inspectors apply to products they review. About 96.7 percent of packaged goods are found to be accurately weighed.

"Consumers are getting what they paid for," Sander said.

The nation's first weights and measures law was signed into effect in 1799 by President John Adams. Wisconsin's Weights and Measures program dates back to 1839.

In 2009, inspectors conducted 178,844 inspections across the state. The state's inspection program costs taxpayers less than $1 per person per year, yet saves the average family $600 a year, according to state officials.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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