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Applying the scales of justice to business in L.A. County

March 04, 2009|Bob Pool
  • Victor Garcia of the Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures inspects a gas pump in North Hollywood. ?Motorists are grateful to see me and know they aren?t getting ripped off,? he says.
Victor Garcia of the Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Vincent Jauregui weighed the question carefully before giving a measured response. On the scale of things, how important is this week?

Being that March 1 to March 7 is National Weights and Measures Week, Jauregui seemed inclined to rate it at the top.

Jauregui, 38, is an inspector with Los Angeles County's weights and measures office, and he was at a San Fernando supermarket verifying the accuracy of a check stand scale.

"I feel like I'm making a difference. I feel the work we do is important," he said, placing his clipboard and two small carrying cases next to the cash register.

"I'll go from zero to 30 and do a shift test," he said, almost sounding like a driver about to test a new car.

But here in a Value Plus Food Warehouse on San Fernando Mission Boulevard he was talking pounds and ounces, not miles per hour.

Jauregui lifted a shiny, 2 1/2 -pound test weight from the larger of the two padded cases and placed it on the scale to see if the store's digital device would weigh it correctly. It did.

He pulled other carefully calibrated discs from the case and repeated the procedure, moving them around the top of the scale to make certain they didn't register heavier on one side than the other.

County inspectors lug 31 1/2 pounds of weights with them as they make yearly unannounced checks of scales in grocery stores, delicatessens and meat markets.

Other inspectors fill grocery carts with 100 different food items to determine whether check stand scanners are ringing things up at the posted price.

Retailers who are shorting customers are required to immediately repair faulty scales and scanners and could face fines.

Those whose equipment is erring on the side of consumers have a month to recalibrate their equipment.

The supermarket scale test took about four minutes, and Jauregui was careful not to interrupt shoppers in the checkout line.

He noted that most stores' equipment is found to be accurate, to the relief of shop managers.

But a day earlier, Jauregui -- who lives in Lancaster and has worked with the county for nine years -- found a scale at a Pacoima meat counter that was shorting customers by a tenth of a pound, a discrepancy that can add up.

"Most of the time the errors we find are in the customer's favor. Last year right before Memorial Day, I found a scale at an Albertsons in Northridge that was under-weighing things by about a half," he said. "Customers were getting a two-for-one deal in the meat department. The store was pretty happy I caught that."

Administrators of the Arcadia-based county Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures say 87,175 scales and pump meters in 13,036 stores and gas stations were inspected last year.

Nearly 4,000 violations were discovered.

Agricultural Commissioner Kurt Floren said the annual inspections not only help consumers but help businesses compete fairly with one another. These days, it's important that families trying to stretch their dollars not be cheated, even by a few pennies, said Jeff Humphreys, bureau chief in charge of the department's 60 field inspectors.

The monitoring of gas pump accuracy is a particularly sensitive issue. Humphreys pointed to a Paramount service station that last month was caught delivering 75% less gasoline to customers than its pumps claimed.

In North Hollywood, Victor Garcia, who has 20 years' experience checking pump meter accuracy, found the dispensers at a Union 76 station at Vineland Avenue and Vanowen Street working perfectly.

In his unannounced visit, he measured 5 gallons of each of the three grades of gasoline into special stainless steel containers mounted on his county truck. After the containers' gauges affirmed that the dispensed amount was correct, he returned the fuel to the station's underground tanks.

"I check the signs, too. Sometimes the price on the sign out front is lower than the price the pumps are actually charging," said Garcia, 52, of West Hills.

"Motorists are grateful to see me and know they aren't getting ripped off. The stations sometimes aren't that happy."

Although this week is also Return the Borrowed Books Week, National Sleep Awareness Week and No Cussing Week in Los Angeles County, only National Weights and Measures Week has the heft of the U.S. government behind it. It commemorates the anniversary of the nation's first weights and measures law passed in 1799 by Congress.

And that, say the accuracy inspectors, is a good gauge of its importance.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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