Safeway Stores Inc. has agreed to pay an $8,000 civil penalty for short-weighting meat packages or for having inaccurate scales in 21 of 22 supermarkets in Montgomery County, consumer officials said yesterday. They estimated that the short-weighting could have cost consumers $200,000 or more if continued for a year.
The penalty is the largest ever paid by a Washington-area supermarket in such a case, according to George Rose, the director of the county weights and measures unit of the Office of Consumer Affairs, which conducted the inspections. In a similar settlement signed in April, A & P agreed to pay Montgomery County a $2,500 civil penalty for short-weighting meat packages.
Safeway denied that it had violated the Montgomery County law prohibiting price misrepresentation. It also said in a statement that the company "vehemently denies any attempt by Sfeway or its employes to deliberately overcharge our customers," and said customers were actually undercharged in the majority of the packages checked.
Rose said that inspectors found short-weighting in 510 of 1,057 meat packages -- 48 percent -- checked during the 12-month period that ended April 1. He said the other 52 percent either contained precisely what the label stated or more, but had no breakdown on the amount of overweighting.
In its settlement with the county, the company promised to "use all steps reasonably necessary" to ensure accuracy in the future. Those steps include the estblishment of a training program for employes and spot checks of stores for package and scale accuracy.
Training programs have already begun, Safeway representative Ernest Moore said yesterday. Moore said that the programs are being conducted for employes of all 125 Safeway stores in the Washington area -- 59 in Maryland, 37 in Virginia and 29 in the District of Columbia.
Moore also said that Safeway had signed the settlement and agreed to pay the civil penalty because that was "more practical" than entering into prolonged and expensive litigation. The money will go into county general funds.
The agreement between Montgomery County and Safeway listed 11 stores where county inspectors found meat packages containing less weight than the label said and where check-out scales for unpackaged produce were inaccurate. Ten other stores named in the seven-page document had either a meat package or a scale error.
The average short-weighting found was 2 percent, Rose said.
He said that would amount to a loss of 1.6 ounces of meat for a customer buying a 5-pound roast. If the roast cost $3 a pound, the person would lose 30 cents in the transaction, he said.
Rose estimated that the total loss could be $200,000 or more over a year for customers at the 14 stores where inspectors found errors in meat weights. That estimate assumes the 14 stores would have meat sales collectively totaling $21 million a year, would short-weight 48 percent of the meat packages and would have an average short-weight per package of 2 percent.
Short-weighting at individual stores ranged from an average high of 33 percent on packages checked at the Safeway at 10171 New Hampshire Ave. in Silver Spring, where 30 of 54 products contained less weight than the label said, to no short-weighting or negligible short-weighting at eight other Safeways, Rose said.
He said inspectors found short-weighting in all 110 of the meat packages checked at the Safeway at 1117 Nelson St. in Rockville. The average shortage was 3 percent, Rose said.
Moore, the Safeway spokesman, blamed short-weighting on employe failure to follow company policy and allow for the weight of the packaging or for moisture losses when weighing meat.
In checking Safeway scales used by clerks to weight produce for the customer going through the checkout line, Montgomery County inspectors found defective scales at 18 of 22 Safeways. Some stores had more defective scales than others.
The Safeway at 116 University Blvd., West Silver Spring, for exmaple, had eight of nine scales tagged as defective by inspectors; two of the nine scales at the Safeway at 8325 Grubb Rd., Silver Spring, were defective.
Safeway's Moore said the problem scales were "those found not to be absolutely level at the time of inspection" -- a condition that, he said, could be caused by a customer or employe bumping the scale accidentally. Moore said Safeway had replaced defective scale mountings with more secure bases.
The Office of Consumer Affairs in Montgomery County took over responsibility for inspecting supermarket package weights and scales about one year ago, Rose said. Since then, inspectors have been visiting stores on a regular basis, compiling a record of test results and proceeding under the terms of the county's Consumer Protection Act, a civil law.
Previously, the county department responsible for supermarket weights and measures issued store warnings when inspectors found inaccuracies, Rose said, "but there weren't any civil penalties or settlements."
Results of inspections of other supermarkets, including Giant and Grand Union, will be released soon, Rose said.