Kansas City, Mo. — An ounce of filet mignon can cost you $1 at your grocery store -- and the butcher won't hesitate to quote you the price.
But the cost of ink for your computer's printer? It can rival the cost of caviar -- and you won't be able to pin down the price because the companies that make those expensive little cartridges don't want to tell you how much ink they contain.
The price of printer cartridges has long irritated consumers and their advocates, and they say the lack of information from manufacturers only aggravates the situation. One recent study even estimated that consumers could save billions of dollars a year if they were armed with full information about how much it would cost to operate various printers.
Consumer advocates' push for more information has been getting some attention lately, setting up a showdown between regulators and cartridge manufacturers over how the cartridges are labeled.
Manufacturers of printer cartridges say they aren't required to follow laws such as the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, so they usually don't say how much ink is in a cartridge. They prefer instead to estimate how many pages your printer will churn out before you need to replace the cartridge.
That irks consumer advocates, who question why cartridges can cost $30, $40 or more while containing only a fraction of an ounce of ink that, on its own, costs the manufacturer less than $1. In addition, they say, the tests that produce the page-printing estimates have their own problems. At the very least, adding the ink volume information would be useful for consumers wanting to make comparisons.
Now the National Conference on Weights and Measures, a group of state weights and measures officials, plans to take up the issue at its meeting this month in Nashville.
A decision by that body can have effects across the country.
"It's time to sort all of this out," said Max Gray, chief of Florida's Bureau of Weights and Measures, who originally submitted the issue to the national group.
The industry has already told weights and measures officials they can expect a fight. Lexmark International Inc., one company that sells the cartridges, argued in a recent letter that disclosing ink volumes would actually be misleading to consumers.
The cartridges, which Lexmark calls micro-machines, can use varying amounts of ink based on print quality and the amount of ink deposited on a page, so a comparison based on quantity of ink would be misleading, the company says. And the cost of the ink is only a small part of the cartridges' cost, the letter said.
"Treating these sophisticated machines as though they were mere containers for ink is inappropriate," said Charles Kratzer, an attorney for Lexmark.
The letter goes on to note that for decades, ink, including that in ink cartridges, has been exempted from labeling laws.
But that position was recently rejected by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has a unit that helps oversee weights and measures laws. Ink cartridges need a statement of "liquid measure" to comply with regulations, the institute said.
Most printer manufacturers, except Kodak, sell the printers at low cost and then earn big profits on the cartridges. The American Consumer Institute in a study in late 2008 said that consumers were being lured into a bad deal by buying the lower-cost printers and then overpaying an estimated $6 billion per year for the cartridges.
Critics say that telling consumers only the estimated number of pages a cartridge will produce doesn't give them enough information. The industry standard allows the page count to be off as much as 10%, and there is no standard for the number of photos a cartridge will produce. The information on page counts also is usually not verified by state weights and measures officials, in part because there are hundreds of printer models.
The cartridge manufacturers say the page counts, though offering a comparison, have to be used carefully. The test involves printing pages of graphics and text until they begin to fade. Hewlett-Packard, a cartridge manufacturer, says that actual page yield depends on the "content of the printed pages, frequency of printing, ink used in printer setup and other factors."
Using a printer infrequently would also lower the page count because some ink is used to clear the printer's nozzles when it is started. That means if 1,000 pages were printed all at once, less ink would be needed than if 1,000 pages were printed over six months because the printer was turned off and on.
Critics also say that, in at least some cases, manufacturers could easily provide more ink in the cartridges.
Everly writes for the Kansas City Star.