One state agency that is fairly invisible but continues to do a good job for Utahns is the Utah Department of Agriculture's Division of Weights and Measures, headed by Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture Edison Stephens.
"Most Utahns take for granted being able to depend on accurate scales at the meat counter or accurate pumps at a gas station - and that's the way it should be," Stephens says.Stephens and the division's deputy director, Robert Smoot, manage a staff that inspects thousands of commercial weighing and measuring devices every year to make sure consumers in Utah get what they pay for. In just one area - gasoline - inspectors examine more than 35,500 gas pumps in more than 5,000 gas stations in Utah annually.
The division's staff protects merchants, consumers, food processors and everyone who does business by weight or measure.
Stephens points out that, often, discoveries of faulty scales, gas pumps or other measuring devices benefit merchants who may have been giving away portions of their products for free. If scales are found to be giving a short measure, merchants should be glad to know so they can correct the mistakes. Most merchants want to deal fairly with customers, he said.
"When you buy something at a food store, buy a tank full of gasoline or purchase anything by weight or measure, you probably think the transaction is just between you and the seller," Stephens said.
"But in reality, there is a third person involved in the sale. This third person is the weights and measures official who checked the scale or gas pump or other measuring device.
"The third person is always present in spirit, protecting both buyer and seller. He or she is dedicated to working quietly and tirelessly to save customers money and to safeguard vendors' businesses. Errors in either direction, over or under, will cause someone to suffer."
Smoot said inspectors try to check each business's weighing or measuring devices at least once a year, in a random pattern. In addition to supermarkets and gas stations, hundreds of other installations must be checked, including warehouses, processing plants, livestock auctions and other places.
"Among the many devices checked by weights and measures inspectors are checkstand scales, meat and deli scales, postal scales, doctors' and hospital scales, boxing and wrestling scales, livestock and truck stop scales and port of entry axle load scales," Smoot said.
"We also check wheel load weighers, belt conveyer scales, gas and heating oil truck meters, liquid propane gas meters, parking meters, fabric measuring devices, railroad scales, grain elevators, prescription scales, car wash and laundromat timing devices, gas pump and underground gasoline tanks and dairy farm milk tanks.
"Inspectors also check for quantity, labeling and the method of sale of prepackaged food, dairy and bakery products, medication pills, firewood and lumber, fencing wire, roofing materials, sealants, sod and turf, carpeting, polyethylene products, insulation, solid and liquid fuel products, precious metals, bark mulch, kerosene, camera film, paints, motor oils, auto cooling system antifreeze and windshield washer solvents, packaged seed, textile products, threads, yarn, pillows, cushions, comforters, mattress pads and sleeping bags."
Because the number of businesses in Utah is growing, inspectors can't check all the devices in use as often as they would like. "That is why consumer cooperation is important, not only with the Division of Weights and Measures, but with merchants, in pointing out possible measurement or quantity errors," Smoot said.
Stephens said statistics indicate the greatest amount of shortweight occurs in meats, fluid dairy products, solid dairy products, produce and flour products.
"Commodities such as candies, canned and bottled goods and frozen foods are more likely to be right at label weight," Stephens said.
Utah's Division of Weights and Measures has the power to pursue criminal action when measurement discrepancies occur, but usually the authority to order offending articles from the shelf is sufficient to correct a situation.
Weighing and measuring devices are mechanical instruments and are subject to error, wear and malfunction. A packaging line problem can result in a package not being filled with the stated amount.
"In most cases," Stephens said, "packages containing less weight or measure than indicated on the label are due to carelessness or lack of proper equipment care, not intentional cheating."
Consumers who feel they have been cheated or who find an underweight package or an incorrect measuring or weighing device should contact the Division of Weights and Measures, at 538-7158. "In the long run, everyone will benefit, consumers and merchants alike," Stephens said.