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CONSUMER AFFAIRS / DENISE GELLENE

Budget Cuts Threaten Market-Checkout Scanner Inspections

April 30, 1993|DENISE GELLENE

Among the myriad government functions threatened by the budget ax this year is Los Angeles County's inspection of supermarket-checkout scanners.

The program is run by the county Division of Weights and Measures, which stands to lose up to $1 million in taxpayer funding, said the division's consumer protection chief, Bob Atkins. He said cuts of that size could reduce his staff of 10 inspectors to two or three.

That would leave the division with enough inspectors to check on consumer complaints, Atkins said, but not enough to conduct the sort of investigation that led to criminal charges against Ralphs last summer. Ralphs ended up paying $3,500 in fines to settle charges that it overcharged customers on sale items.

The division investigated 118 overcharging cases last year, usually involving sale items. Overcharging occurs when the price posted on the grocery shelf is lowered, but the price stored in the computer is not. When the item is electronically scanned, the customer is charged too much.

Atkins credits the program with reducing the county's error rate to an average of 2% to 3% from 18% five years ago.

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Scanner survey: The state Department of Food and Agriculture is expected to announce the results of its annual statewide scanner survey today. Kathleen Thuner, agricultural commissioner in San Diego County, gave us the highlights:

* An error occurs on one of every 50 items scanned.

* A scanning error occurred in 45% of stores surveyed.

* Only 10% of the scanning errors were large enough to warrant enforcement action.

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Lockout: The American Automobile Assn. wants car makers to make design changes so people can't lock themselves out of cars.

AAA said this week that the number of service calls from people locked out of their cars has soared over the last 20 years, mostly because of power door locks that allow drivers to lock all the doors by pushing a single button. AAA said one in 10 service calls last year--or 2.2 million calls--were to help people get into locked cars.

AAA wants car makers to design cars so they lock from the outside with a key or with a combination lock. Though some cars do lock from the outside, it's doubtful the entire industry will make the changes.

"AAA is tired of making service calls," said Ford spokesman Mike Parris, noting the company's research shows people prefer slamming the door shut.

Parris told us that Ford is addressing the lockout problem. People who buy 1993 models get plastic spare keys that are about as slim as a credit card and fit into a wallet. The key can open doors in emergencies but won't work in the ignition.

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A real eye-opener: Quaker Oats Co. on Thursday stopped selling Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes containing a "popper" toy linked to 36 facial and eye injuries to children.

The toy--a 2-inch half-sphere that gets its name by "popping" back to its original shape after being pushed in--was put into 8.3 million 15- and 16-ounce packages of Cap'n Crunch cereals.

Children apparently hurt themselves by putting the toys on their eyes. The company said that though some children had bruised and bloodshot eyes, no injuries were permanent.

Quaker said the cereal itself is safe to eat but that the toy should be thrown away. The company said it will remove the boxes that haven't already reached consumers and has warned retailers about the toy. The toy promotion began about three weeks ago.

Consumers with questions may contact Quaker Oats at (800) 258-5400.

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