Media By Bridget White

Suppliers have been slow to react to the most recent weights and measures regulation changes. But with Scotts' plans for bag label adjustments this month, these four-year-old changes are starting to have real world meaning.

Formal regulations governing Weights & Measures auditing of mulches and soil mixes were instituted in the 1970s. Since that time, there has been an ongoing struggle to define how mulches and soils will be measured in order to comply with these standards as well as how much variance from the standard is allowable.

The most recent changes to W&M regulations were adopted in 1998 at the 83rd National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM). The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which publishes the standard acceptable testing methods for auditing goods for weights and volumes, plans to publish the regulation changes in the near future. In the meantime, state regulatory officials are aware of and using the revised testing method.

The new measurement method is dramatically different from the method that was used for many years. As suppliers begin to react to the new testing method, growers need to understand and anticipate any changes.

A Bit Of History

Each state in the U.S. controls the Weights & Measures objective of ensuring the customer is not cheated in product packaging. States are also responsible for their W&M regulations and enforcement. Therefore, these regulations have not always been uniform.

Because of this disparity, a national organization, the NCWM, was formed to promote uniformity in W&M regulations. The NCWM adopted the first formal W&M regulations in 1959. The 1970s marked the institution of W&M auditing of mulch, which had been sold by either weight or volume. Because of questionable practices by some packagers (adding weight to the product with water), the NCWM mandated that mulch be sold only by volume. However, due to the physical composition/configuration of the product, accurate volume auditing was difficult.

In response, the National Bark and Soils Procedures Association (NBSPA) petitioned the NCWM for a specific procedure for mulch volume measurement. The procedure used a container approximating the dimensions of the package in which the mulch was sold Ð e.g., 2 or 3 cu. ft. Later, in 1983, NBSPA requested an amendment to the procedure for the use of a smaller 1 cu. ft. box due to volume loss experienced from compression in using the larger container. NIST denied the request because the 1 cu. ft. box did not approximate the package in which the mulch was sold.

In addition to adopting a standard measurement procedure, the 1970 regulations also established two inspection requirements for mulch. The first was that the average of all packages inspected must equal or exceed the labeled quantity. For example, if 12 bags of 2 cu. ft. mulch were inspected, the average volume of these 12 bags must equal or exceed 2 cu. ft. The second requirement was that no individual bag in the inspection lot could fall below the maximum allowable variation (MAV). The NBSPA was successful in establishing a “special 5 percent MAV” for mulches (most commodities only had a 1 percent MAV).

In 1995-1996, mulch regulatory audit activity increased and stop sales procedures for volume deficiencies were instituted. In addition, retail soil mixes were scrutinized, but under different and less tolerant regulatory guidelines than were mulches. Since there were no specific, established procedures for soils, they were subjected to very stringent tolerances (1 percent MAV) and varying and questionable methodologies (most of which encouraged settling of contents by shaking).

Because of auditing variability and the resulting penalties, the NBSPA and NIST moved to jointly address the soils packaging problems. These efforts resulted in a proposal to combine the mulch and soil auditing procedures to include the following provisions:

• The measuring container should approximate the package size

• The measuring container is not to be shaken

• A 1 percent MAV is allowed per 12-bag sample

• Soils and mulches are both allowed 5 percent MAV from labeled volume

However, this proposal was not universally received or accepted. The net result was a delay marked by many years of debate and further research to resolve the issue. Finally, in 1998, at the 83rd National Conference, state delegates voted to adopt the proposed changes to the regulations for soils and mulches.

The New Regulations

Five basic points for regulation are detailed in the new procedure, though only three have actually changed from the traditional industry standard.

Sampling Plan. Although the specific sampling plan for mulches and soils remains unchanged, it is important to realize that inspections must follow this plan to be legally defensible and statistically valid. The plan specifies the number of packages to be inspected based on the size of the inspection lot. The number of packages inspected can only be one of the following: 1 through 12, 24 or 48.

Inspection Requirements. The two basic requirements remain the same: the average of all packages sampled must meet or exceed the labeled quantity and individual packages are subject to the specified MAV.

Measuring Container. The new measuring container must approximate the volume of the package being audited. Thus, a 3 cu. ft. bag will be measured in a standard columnar 3 cu. ft. box (such as a 9″L x 16″W x 38″H or 12″L x 12″W x 38″H). Previously, no standard container was recognized by the regulations, although industry practice largely utilized a 1 cu. ft. vessel.

MAV. The 5 percent MAV for mulches is now applied to volume soils as well. As an example, a 3 cu. ft. bag of soil would have an MAV of .15 cu. ft. In other words, a minimum of 2.85 cu. ft. is allowable for a 3 cu. ft. bag. The old applicable MAV for soil was 1 percent of the stated volume on the bag (or 2.97 cu. ft.).

MAV Allowance. Under the new rule, one MAV is permitted for a 12-bag sample, two MAVs for 24 and four MAVs for 48. Previously, no MAVs were allowed for 12- and 24-bag samples and only one MAV was allowed for a 48-bag sample.

Implications Of the New Regulations

Although the new regulations are more forgiving with respect to individual package variability (the MAV provisions), the new test container has some significant trade-offs. On the positive side, the new container results in a simple procedure with better accuracy (one pouring and reading versus multiple pourings and readings). However, the down side of the method is that it results in some loss of volume in the test container due to compression. The single vessel creates a situation where the product weight, stacked in a column, compresses the material. Such compression was minimized in smaller (i.e., 1 cu. ft.) measures used in practice by the industry for years.

It is important to understand that this “apparent volume loss” happens only in the test container (a regulatory instrument) and would not affect volumes in a decompressed state, specifically, as growers use the product in pots. For instance, a bag may yield 3 cu. ft. using the old conventional 1 cu. ft. method. The same bag measured with the new method may only yield 2.8 cu. ft. But most importantly, both bags would fill the same number of grower pots because they have the same amount of material in the bag.

More Information

The most pertinent handbook for the professional soil industry is HB-133 “Checking the Net Contents of Packaged Goods.” This is the reference containing the standard inspection procedures for all commodities sold in the United States. More information about Weights & Measures regulations can also be obtained by contacting NBSPA at (703) 257-0111 or NIST at (301) 975-4868.

Bridget White

Bridget White is associate editor of GPN.

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