"Weights & Measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life to every individual of human society."-John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. president
On a wall loaded with commendations in Kathleen Thuner's tiny Kearny Mesa office hangs a small, wood-framed glimpse-Adams' quotation-into America's past that still reverberates today, albeit for the most part underneath the public radar.
More than 183 years ago, Adams might have known the importance of Weights & Measures in most facets of everyday life when his prescient words appeared in a report from the U.S. Secretary of State, but it's unlikely he ever imagined just how complex the job would become in 2004.
For 21 years, the straight-talking Thuner has had the distinction of holding two job titles that few county residents probably know anything about-agriculture commissioner and sealer of Weights & Measures. Despite her relative low profile, the duel responsibilities continue to beguile and fascinate the Fallbrook resident.
"I don't think the average consumer really thinks that there's a possibility that when it says 7.4 fluid ounces on something that there's a chance that somebody's shorting you just enough so that every tenth jar is on you," Thuner told CityBeat in a recent interview. Shoppers, she added, tend to rely on "a lot of faith."
That faith may be a result of the sheer antiquity of the sealer's job. "Knowing that you're getting a pound or a gallon and knowing that you're being paid fairly for what you've sold are two things that go back to the Bible," Thuner explained.
Within county government, the weights-and-measures program is the oldest, dating back to 1850-the year California became the 31st state in the union. It would be another 31 years before the role of agriculture commissioner would emerge from the state Legislature, which Thuner said had "decided that this was possibly the Eden of the world, California, because if you added water to this desert you could essentially grow anything you wanted." Soon, exotic plants imported from around the globe brought with them exotic pests no one wanted, and a state bureaucracy was born to guard against such foreign infestations.
Diseased cattle coming north from Mexico prompted the creation of the country's first animal laboratory in 1933, and for 30 years it operated out of the San Diego Zoo's own veterinary hospital. Once a part of the county's Department of Health, it now is overseen by Thuner in a sprawling, 1960s-style, campus-like setting just west of Ruffin Road.
Same for the county's brush-management program, which started out in the late '60s as part of the Department of Agriculture's Weights & Measures division, moved over to fire services, and then returned when county supervisors eliminated most fire-related responsibilities in 1982.
Even though the 143 employees within Thuner's department work with little fanfare, their impact quietly ripples throughout the county.
"I feel for the folks that work in that department," said Michael Shames, executive director of the local watchdog group Utility Consumers' Action Network. "They serve an under-appreciated function that is essential to keeping the consumer marketplace functioning smoothly."
Inspectors on the agriculture side are the unheralded frontline soldiers trying to keep exotic-pest invasion and plant and livestock disease from devastating San Diego County's $1.3 billion agriculture industry. They also attempt to ensure the safe use of pesticides everywhere from outlying farmland to urban homes in need of termite fumigation.
In the Weights & Measures division, a dozen inspectors scatter across the county every weekday to check and certify gas pumps and every conceivable type of commercial weighing scales (such as those found at grocery stores, jewelry shops and truck stops), meters (electric, gas, water and taxi) and electronic retail scanners. While most of the work is done in clearly marked county vehicles, inspectors occasionally operate undercover, posing as customers to make test purchases to check the weight, contents and pricing of just about anything consumers can buy.
"If you just think foods," said Kurt Floren, department deputy director, "every jar of jelly, every bag of potato chips or package of pasta has a quantity statement on it, and part of our job is to ensure that those packages contain what they say they contain. But that also extends to boxes of nails that are labeled 1,000, a garden hose that's labeled 40 feet long.... It's a matter of keeping people honest. It's also a matter of keeping [businesses] from being negligent."
Companies that have crossed paths with the department and failed to pass muster include a host of small businesses and national chains, including most recently San Diego pet-retailer Petco (fines, penalties and price-tracking improvements totaling about $900,000) as well as grocer Albertsons ($1.85 million), Rite Aid ($2.8 million) and even a local packing company for Norwegian fertilizer behemoth Hydro Agri for under-filling, or "shorting," its 50-pound bags by an average of a half-pound each (more than $2 million, including restitution to consumers).
"We took 140,000 bags of that product off-sale just here in San Diego," said Floren, noting that the case eventually garnered statewide interest. "This happens to be the world's largest manufacturer of mineral fertilizers and a multi-billion-dollar business."
With the move by most retailers from cash registers to electronic-scanning machines, the Weights & Measures division finds itself smack dab in the 21st century-and busier than ever. In 1999, the county enacted a price-verification program requiring all retailers using automated price-lookup systems to obtain permits. The fees from those permits have funded routine inspections of businesses throughout the county for the last five years, and the results appear impressive. In 2002-the most recent year statistics are available-134 of 259 scanner inspections, or 52 percent, led to the discovery of overcharges. Nearly half the complaints the department now receives each year from the public are "scanner-related," Floren said.
On its website, the county lists businesses that have been fined in the last two years for what it calls "repeated price accuracy violations." The names are familiar ones-Albertson's (eight different stores), Longs Drugs (seven stores), Sav-On Drugs (six), Wal-Mart (five), Michael's (four), along with a smattering of Home Depots, Radio Shacks, Office Depots and Smart & Finals, among others of the 74 listed.
The penalties run from $100 to $1,500 for overcharges ranging from six cents to $50-the higher fines are reserved for repeat offenders. Frequently, these overcharges will be found on sale items.
"The work we're doing is, of course, consumer protection, to make sure the consumer isn't cheated, in effect, through these overcharges," Floren explained. "But the other half of the job is to ensure a level playing field. We're concerned with fair competition, and retailing as a whole is incredibly competitive."
But for all the big-ticket cases that draw a trickle of media attention, the bulk of the work by Thuner's inspectors happens with little notice.
On a recent afternoon, inspector Brad Shipley could be found at a Loma Portal gas station, moving his large white county truck from bay to bay, making sure the amount of gas pumped registered accurately on each pump's digital display. He did this by filling a series of shiny measuring devices that, for this station, found the displays to be adequately accurate. He then applied the department's serrated-edged seals of approval below each pump. In 2002, the department inspected more than 14,000 gas and diesel pumps at nearly 800 gas stations.
Shipley said he enjoys his job even if the public may be unaware of his role in consumer protection. "We're just not known," he said, "unless there's a problem." Still, he added, when gas prices rise, complaints take an upswing, suggesting that the public's awareness is growing.
Up north, inspector John Gionfriddo was busy hoisting 500-pound metal blocks by crane onto a weighing scale in the livestock area at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The scale-used for hogs that will later be auctioned off by the pound-had failed an earlier inspection, and Gionfriddo was back to recheck it. This time it passed.
The 500-pound weights must be accurate to within a tenth of an ounce, he said, and he carries 3,500 pounds of certifying weight on the back of his county truck. "You definitely don't want to stop in a hurry," he said about driving around with that kind of payload.
He agreed that his job goes fairly unnoticed, but occasionally people will come up and ask what he's doing. "Then it's, "Oh, you're the guys! Glad you're out here,'" he said. "Mexicans say, "You should be doing this in Mexico. They're cheating us there.'"
After certifying the scale, Gionfriddo was off to an Escondido recycler to check on a complaint that the scale there was inaccurate.
For Thuner, there's obvious pride in her employees. "Even if they're assigned to inspecting [pest] traps every day, they're looking for things that will have real impact."
Floren, her deputy, agreed. "There's a good deal of immediate reward, whether we're testing devices or testing eggs or inspecting for pests on a shipment," he said. "So you're able to take away with every day a real accomplishment, either facilitating business or protecting the consumer immediately by taking immediate action."
But like any government agency, budgets are tight. Thuner is particularly concerned about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed slashing of the state's high-risk pest-exclusion program from $5.5 million to $1 million. Thuner fears the cuts-five inspectors might have to be eliminated-would put the county at risk of another quarantine, which would be disastrous for county farmers.
Floren said it cost $22 million last year to eradicate an infestation of crop-destroying Mexican fruit flies in Valley Center and likely cost farmers another $30 million in lost crops, which can't be sold from a quarantined area.
The U.S. government's focus on homeland security has also had an impact on produce inspections at the Mexico border. While Thuner estimates that inspectors keep one exotic pest a week from taking hold in the county, cutbacks by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resulted in a "huge diminishment of finds at the port since they transitioned to homeland security."
Last year, the two agencies conducted what she called a "30-day blitz" with a fully staffed phalanx of border inspectors and found that "17 percent of the vehicles that they pulled over had a prohibitive product, and that was just incredible to me."
Still, Thuner doesn't mind leaving her Fallbrook home at 5:15 a.m. every weekday to get to work by 6 to continue the county's fight against pests, negligent business owners and the like. She pulls out a clipping she recently found that gives her a momentary laugh.
"If the facts are against you, you pound on the law," she said. "If the law is against you, you pound on the facts. And if the law and the facts are against you, you pound on the table. I cut that out because I've met all those people!"