Half an Ounce of Contention : Commerce: A state agency's plan to scale back the truth-in-labeling rules for certain food products draws consumer outrage.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state government switchboards were flooded by more than 200 angry phone calls a few days ago.

The cause of the callers' outrage? Not the state's budget stalemate. Not political corruption. Not tax increases or program cutbacks.

Their ire was directed at a technical regulation cooked up by an obscure division of the Department of Food and Agriculture. The agency is on the verge of altering California's tough truth-in-labeling rules for a number of products found on grocery store shelves, such as poultry and hot dogs.

Currently, the regulation states that a package containing one pound of chicken has to contain exactly one pound of chicken. The department wants to make that one pound, more or less half an ounce.

State officials say the new rule, already prevailing in most states, is necessary because of changes in weight between the time a piece of meat is packaged and when it reaches supermarket shelves. Food will often lose about 3% of its weight due to water evaporation or warming, officials say, and that it is unfair to penalize distributors for that natural weight loss.

But consumer advocates are livid. They believe the laxer standards would open the door to hordes of shady operators who will try to rip off the public.

"It's absolutely outrageous and I don't think California should stand for it," said Joan Schramm, chairman of the Santa Clara County Consumer Commission. "This would mean the breakdown of nothing less than the 16-ounce pound. California doesn't own the pound; it goes all the way back to the Magna Carta. And that's what they're trying to dismantle."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Robert Hatton, whose office opposes the new regulation, added: "This will mean an extra expense to consumers and a windfall for the packing industry. The policing of accuracy of labels will suffer under the new proposal and industry will take advantage of the looser enforcement to lower their standards."

While 3% may not seem like much, it can represent significant amounts of money for large poultry producers like Foster Farms of Merced County, which ships 10 million pounds of chicken a week to California stores. "A half-ounce adds up over a year. You're talking about millions of dollars," Hatton said.

The issue entered the public limelight when a radio talk show host in San Francisco made it the subject of a recent show. In mid-July, Art Finley, host of "Nightbeat" on KCBS, announced on the air that he was outraged by the proposed regulation and exhorted listeners to call state government to vent their anger.

As it happened, Finley directed his audience's wrath at the wrong target within the state bureaucracy. He told listeners to dial the Office of Administrative Law, where officials said they know nothing about the issue. The calls were then directed to the measurement standards division of the Food and Agriculture Department, the agency that came up with the 3% rule.

Administrators are still tinkering with the new regulation after holding a public hearing on the matter. When the agriculture department has finished its work, the new regulation will be placed before the Office of Administrative Law for a final decision. No legislation is required to implement the new standards, which are expected to become effective by the end of the year.

State officials note that this isn't the first time the weighing of food products has become a contentious issue.

"I recently found a letter that one of my predecessors in this position wrote to the county (inspectors), saying they should allow a moisture-loss allowance," said Darrell Guensler, chief of the measurement standards division. "But it was never adopted."

That letter was written in 1920. The state's weight regulations have traveled a tortuous road ever since.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law that allowed no "moisture-loss allowance" during the weighing of meat products was unfair to packers. The state responded by drafting new rules that allow inspectors to use their own discretion to allow a "reasonable" allowance for water and juices that a product loses during shipping.

Then in 1988 the National Conference on Weights and Measurements--which included representatives of industry, government and consumer organizations--suggested that all states allow a "gray area" of 3% when weighing flowers, hot dogs, poultry and other products that tend to dehydrate quickly.

Most states already follow the less rigid federal standards while California has had one of the most stringent weight regulations in the country. Not only has California not permitted a standard "moisture-loss allowance," but the state has been virtually alone in not computing the weight of the package when weighing food products, state officials said. That part of the regulation will not change, they said.

"The only difference is that now the moisture-loss allowance is based on the inspectors' discretion, which is very subjective," said Clifton Smith of the measurement standards division. "In the future, products will have a specific allowance."

Division chief Guensler added that the state will continue vigorous enforcement. "If an inspector finds a lot of packages in error, and if the error is in excess of the percent allowed, then the package will be taken off the shelf and the packer will be prosecuted," he said.

But that pledge of tough enforcement hasn't mollified consumer advocates. They argue that the new weight regulation would, for the first time, create a 3% tolerance for the "short-weighing" of products.

"This slimy regulation allows government to be in the business of legally misrepresenting the 16-ounce pound," said Schramm, a former weights and measures inspector. "It would make legal the 15 1/2-ounce pound. It would put the government in the position of allowing lying to the public."

She added: "This is going to dismantle the entire weights and measures protections that consumers now have in California."

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