A&P has agreed to pay a $2,500 fine and to retrain some of its employes after Montgomery County consumer inspectors said the food chain allegedly had shortweighted meat at all five of its stores in the county.
George Rose, chief of the county consumer agency's weights and measures unit, said yesterday that 268 of 442 packages inspected at the five stores during a routine but unannounced inspection in mid-February contained less meat than the labels stated. In addition, 25 of 49 scales checked for accuracy were wrong, Rose said. A company official said yesterday the problems had been corrected.
Rose estimated yesterday that the shortweightings averaged 2 percent per package. If the practice had continued over a period of a year, he said, it could have cost consumers as much as $100,000 -- or about 2 percent of the $5 million in meat sales that the five stores would ring up in one year based on industry averages, Rose said.
As a result, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc., which operates 51 supermarkets in the Washington area, signed an agreement yesterday with Montgomery County promising to teach store employes the proper method of weighing and packaging products. The agreement applies only to the stores in Montogomery County.
In addition, the company said it will make spot checks of individual stores and, if violations occur, issue warning notices to employes that could result in disciplinary action.
Officials of A&P said yesterday that the agreement was not an admission of any violations of law.
John Repetti, an advertising director for the company, said all A&P stores are "constantly being checked by managers" to determine if there are problems and to correct them immediately when they are found.
He also discounted the consumer agency's estimate that errors in the Montgomery County stores had the potential to cost customers $100,000 a year.
"I think it is kind of ridiculous to make a statement like that because you are talking about something that is against company policy and has been corrected," Repetti said.
He said A&P had reprimanded all employes involved in the Montgomery County incidents and had reported all equipment problems to the scale companies for correction. Spot checks by the company in recent weeks have indicated that A&P is "following the proper method of weighting, packaging and labeling all products sold by weights and measures to assure consumer satisfaction," Repetti said.
Washington-area food store scales and packages are regularly checked for accuracy by government inspectors, according to consumer officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. When the inspector finds a shortweighted package in any of the jurisdictions, he typically orders it removed from sale. When he finds an inaccurate scale, he orders it repaired. In some cases, he may condemn the scale, thus barring its use until repairs are made.
Additional actions may be taken when there appears to be a pattern of violations or even several serious errors. In the District of Columbia, inspectors have issued citations against eight stores since September for short-weighting meat packages and for using inaccurate scales. The stores were assessed fines ranging from $50 to $500.
Two of the stores fined were operated by Safeway.
Larry Johnson, a Safeway representative, said the citations were issued on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and involved hams and turkeys. "The District doesn't allow for the soaker pad when it checks weights -- so the liquid that drains from the meat into that pad isn't considered," Johnson said.
The Safeway at 610 H St. NE was fined $300; the one at 801 17th St. NE was fined $200.
Other stores fined by the D.C. inspectors were small, independent groceries that could not be immediately reached for comment.
Earl Maxwell, chief of the District's weights and measures inspection agency, said the scales in the 40 chain stores and 482 independent food stores in the District are checked twice a year. In addition, inspectors make spot checks of stores.
In Prince George's County, the inspectors in the weights and meaures unit check scales and packages in an estimated 100 grocery stores three or four times a year.
When Prince George's inspectors find a pattern of shortweighting, they report the case to the state's attorney's office for possible prosecution, acting director Roy O'Conner said. He said no cases have been referred to that office so far this year.
In Northern Virginia, store inspections typically are conducted by state inspectors who monitor scales and packages. The Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs also has two inspectors who work with the state inspector.
Serious violations in Virginia are reported to the commonwealth attorney's office for prosecution. Charges are pending in five cases as a result of inspections. the state would not disclose any names of stores involved.