By Bill Hamond
Mintz's statistics do not hold up to inspection. He himself is guilty of overcharging - in that he's leveling exaggerated accusations against an entire industry.
In truth, the vast majority of the violations his inspectors turned up - 85% - had nothing to do with charging customers too much. The most common offense issued by his department - accounting for 51% of the fines - was for improper labeling, such as failing to include the correct sell-by date or the name and address of the company that did the packaging.
An additional 15% of the violations concerned item pricing, the outdated and labor-intensive requirement that grocers mark prices not just on the shelf, but also on individual items - so customers can double-check the scanner at the checkout.
Another 10% of the stores were fined for not having a properly working scale within 30 feet of their produce, deli and meat sections. They're supposed to be there so people can verify, which almost no one does, that they got the right amount of sliced turkey.
Even if you think all these laws make sense, violating them does not fit the definition of "overcharging."
But that doesn't stop Mintz from throwing the word around a lot. "Commissioner Calls for New Laws to Pay Consumers Overcharged at the Register," was part of the headline on his Aug. 18 press release.
"For too long, stores have enjoyed the rewards of their overcharges," Mintz was quoted as saying.
His proposed law is called the Grocery Shoppers Have Overcharge Protection Act - resulting in the cutesy acronym Grocery SHOP. If passed, Mintz said, it "would both give overcharged consumers 10 times the amount they were overcharged and that item for free, and also triple current city fines."
The release does explain the full range of violations. But average citizens could be forgiven for missing that - especially when it goes on to encourage consumers "to file an official overcharge complaint."
Again, the most common violation was for improper labeling - but that phrase just doesn't have the same pizzazz.
Even with the 15% of violations for overcharging, there is less than meets the eye. This category includes cases in which a store inadvertently charged sales tax for an item that should have been tax-exempt. This happens a lot, often because the state sales tax law is hairsplittingly crazy.
Cotton balls, for example, are tax-free if they're sterilized for medical use, but taxable if they're sold for removing makeup. And heated chicken wings are taxable, while unheated wings are not.
Occasionally mixing this stuff up is a far cry from what most people would call overcharging. For one thing, the stores don't keep the money, but pass it along to the city or state.
Also inflated is Mintz's 59% failure rate - which includes any store with even a single violation. That's like "failing" a student who scores 99% on a test. In fact, given the nitpickiness of the laws, and the huge volumes of products the stores process on a daily basis, the truly remarkable fact is that 41% of stores had perfect records.
Little wonder that supermarket operators feel like they're being picked on.
"I am not saying that there aren't violations or that inspectors shouldn't be checking," says Patricia Brodhagen of the Food Industry Alliance. "What I am saying is that the conclusions that are drawn, and the message that goes out in the press release, don't match the data."
I spoke to Mintz Monday, and he gave me another statistic: His inspectors test-purchased 25 items during each inspection and were overcharged for at least one item in one out of three cases.
That's not a 59% failure rate, but it still needs fixing - even if much of the time the overcharges are accidents rather than deliberate cheating.
So why not do what other counties have done: Allow stores to escape the hassle of item pricing if their scanners pass rigorous accuracy tests.
Meanwhile, stop beating up on otherwise honest businesses.