Maybe it was the wet weather clogging the bagging machine or poor quality control with the distributors, but whatever the reason, inspectors with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have failed more than 35,000 bags of fertilizer for improper weight during recent inspections.
“Our inspectors spend the month of March inspecting bagged fertilizer across the state,” said John Gurkin, area supervisor with the department’s Standards Division. “We make a special effort to inspect the half dozen or so facilities that bag their own, distribution centers and then a sampling of retail stores. If more than one bag from a sample lot of 24 weighs less than the maximum allowable variance, we have to issue a stop sale on the whole lot.”
Companies that are issued a stop sale have two options: Send the fertilizer back and provide the Standards Division a copy of the packing slip showing the return, or re-bag the fertilizer and agree to another inspection.
“We have definitely seen more problems this year than usual,” said Gurkin. “One reason could be the wet weather is causing the fertilizer to stick to the sides of the hopper when bagging. Another reason could be the company is just not doing the spot checks at the beginning and end of bagging that need to be done to ensure the bag weighs the correct amount.”
“The cost of fertilizer is 30 to 35 cents a pound, which means that a residential consumer is probably out a dollar at most if they purchased bags that are not the correct weight,” Gurkin said. “However, if you consider a 5,000-bag lot of fertilizer, with the average shortage being a half pound, the total cost to consumers per lot could be up to $875.”
Inspectors receive training and follow standards and protocols adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Sample size is based upon the number of bags of fertilizer on the premises. Most sites have 251 to 3,200 bags, which require a sample lot of 24. Inspectors begin by counting the number of bags on site to determine the sample-lot quantity, then a bag of the fertilizer is emptied to determine the weight of the empty bag, or tare weight. The tare weight cannot be included in the weight of the product for sale. After the tare weight is determined, inspectors weigh each bag to determine if it falls within an acceptable range. Most fertilizer comes in 50-pound bags, which means that the maximum allowable variance is a half-pound shortage. Companies are not penalized for bags that are overweight, although the company is notified that they are over the stated weight.
As inspections have continued, problems with fertilizers have decreased. Many of the earlier issues were caught at the bagging facilities and distribution centers before being sent to retail locations. Gurkin and his team recently inspected a retail location in Tarboro. This business was selling 10-10-10 fertilizer from a plant in Chesapeake, Va. At this location, all but one of the bags of fertilizer came in above 50 pounds. The average overage was about a half pound.
North Carolina is one of the few states that inspects the weight of bagged fertilizer. “Sometimes a distributor will come in from out of state to sell fertilizer and not be aware of our inspections,” said Gurkin. “A few of the companies we’ve had issues with this year will most likely be more careful with the products they provide North Carolina in the future.”
“We want companies to fix the problem,” said Stephen Benjamin, director of the Standards Division. “If inspectors return to a business and the problem is still there, that’s when we issue a notice of violation.” Notices of violation can carry a civil penalty of up to $5,000.
Standards Division inspectors provide seasonal inspections for several products, including checking that scales at pick-your-own farms and farmers markets are calibrated correctly, taxi cab meters work properly, bagged mulch weighs the amount stated on the package, and right before the holiday season, hams and turkeys sold at grocery stores are being sold at the correct weight. These seasonal inspections are done in addition to routine inspections on gas pumps, price scanners and retail scales throughout the state.
“The division can check any product sold by weight,” said Benjamin. “When consumers buy a product, we want them to be confident that the weight listed on the product is the correct weight.”