05/11/2012 11:00 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Food Inspectors' Union Warns Consumers Overcharged

Flickr: Patrick Hoesly

Many customers are being overcharged when they buy some packaged foods in grocery stores, according to an inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Terri Lee, who is employed by the CFIA to inspect food items for safety and for fair labelling practices, agreed to speak to CBC News about her overcharging concerns, but not in an official capacity and only while she was off duty.

Lee, of Vancouver, is also a regional vice president of the Agriculture Union.

Lee says that often, foods like meats are weighed after they’re packaged in stores, resulting in consumers being charged extra for the packaging.

"People shouldn't be paying for the packaging. They should be paying for the product that they're consuming ... that's what the law is," Lee said. “When I'm buying product, I expect to get what I paid for."

CBC News reporter Lisa Johnson set out with Lee to some Vancouver stores to see some examples of overcharging due to improperly weighed groceries.

Lee said she finds instances of overcharging — or “short-weighing” — in most stores she visits, either as an inspector or as a shopper.

It happens most commonly with the kinds of foods that get packaged in a grocery store, like meat and fish and sometimes cheese.

The foods usually sit on a Styrofoam or cardboard tray or are put in a plastic tub covered in plastic wrapping, with a label that is supposed to specify the weight of the food product alone and what it costs per kilogram or per 100 grams.

The weight is not supposed to include the packaging.

Discrepancies common

They used a scale certified by Measurement Canada to be accurate within two grams and weighed all the suspect items and packaging.

Federal regulators allow a six-gram margin of error, which Lee and Johnson allowed in the stores’ favour and used in their calculations.

Still, they found they would had been overcharged $2.20 on a total bill of $80.

Lee said if she had found such results in an official inspection, she would have required store managers to pull the mislabelled products from the shelves and re-label them.

“It's an easy way for a company to make a lot of money on the meat counter. When you're thinking there's hundreds of packages on these meat counters, if they're overcharging a customer 30 or even 20 cents per package, it really brings up their profits,” Lee said.

Because it was an informal survey and did not include samples from all Metro Vancouver grocery chains, CBC News will not name the outlets where the purchases were made.

But Johnson did contact the three grocery retailers used in the survey to tell them what had been found.

One wrote back saying they have tightly managed procedures to avoid the overcharging problems.

"Although there is an allowable variance in the industry, we are disappointed to hear of your findings. We are looking into these specific products and we appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention," a grocery store spokesperson wrote.

Lee admits she was motivated to come forward to talk about the problem of overcharging through short-weighing because the Agriculture Union is worried federal government cuts will mean fewer inspectors in stores. She said some inspectors are not being replaced as they retire.

CFIA responds

A statement issued by CFIA has said there would be no cuts among “front-line” inspectors.

"The Agency’s job is to verify that what is on the label is in fact what is in the product. This is done through inspection activities and testing programs," said the statement.

"The CFIA is not reducing the number of front-line inspectors or activities aimed at verifying the accuracy of labels in the marketplace."

"Inspectors will continue to check labelling and advertising through a range of activities, including investigations into complaints, facility and retail inspections and laboratory testing."

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