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Making Sure the Price is Right: Q&A with Kathleen Thuner, Consumer Interest Forum Vice Chair


Consumers are a valuable part of the standards development process, providing critical, first-hand perspectives on how products will be perceived and used in the marketplace.

As part of an ongoing Q&A series with consumer advocates, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) spoke with Kathleen Thuner, vice-chair of ANSI’s Consumer Interest Forum and director, Palomar College Independent Citizens Oversight Committee. Thuner spoke on her extensive involvement in early efforts to promote fair price labeling and accurate price scanning in retail stores.

ANSI: How did you get involved in standards?

Thuner: To tell you how I got involved, I have to briefly share some California state history. In the 1920s, when California began regularly shipping produce to the East Coast, buyers wanted to know what they were getting, and so California literally invented fruit and vegetable standardization. For example, when shipping lettuce, they put ice in the railroad cars and numbered the standard sized boxes with the content—usually 24 heads. The term iceberg lettuce is believed to have come from the ice in the railroad cars! By the 1950s, California had standards from asparagus to zucchini.

I started in standards in 1970 when I was hired as an agricultural biologist/inspector in Alameda County, CA. I was assigned to the Oakland/San Francisco produce markets, and was one of the inspectors who walked from one wholesaler to another, inspecting what had been brought in from the various producers and making sure that it met the standards for that particular product. I had a little device with round holes that let me measure how big the asparagus was; I could put one stalk in there and say, “Oh yes, it’s a ‘Jumbo.’” I would unpack the lemons in the box and make sure the count matched the number on the box. My first three and a half years were spent literally doing fruits, nuts, vegetables, and eggs quality and quantity control. We certified and we inspected on a daily basis, both in retail and in wholesale locations.

In 1979, everything changed because of Proposition 13. As a result of the passage of the proposition, the local Board of Supervisors lost the ability to raise local property taxes to cover services and programs like standardization. In response, some producers and growers of fruits and vegetables formed commissions that assessed themselves enough to retain the programs. It was the start of the California Avocado Commission, the California Shell Egg Advisory Committee, the California Apiary Board, and numerous others. The state-wide standardization program was gone; instead, it became “let the buyer beware,” especially at the retail level. Today, I sometimes stand in the produce section of the market and look at the limes and wish there was still a standard for a minimum diameter.

ANSI: What do you wish consumers and regulators knew about the value of standards in the marketplace?

Thuner: I wish people understood some of the history. Consumers don't know what they are missing when standards are gone. It’s not just radishes or limes; for instance, there even was a standard for a loaf of bread. It used to be that it had to be a half of a pound, or a pound, or a pound and a half. Now, you can get every kind of permutation of ounces. As a result, [without standards] it is almost impossible to make any value comparison.

ANSI: You were the first woman to serve as a California county agricultural commissioner. Were there many women in California in agriculture?

Thuner: In California, while there are some huge farming operations, there are also a lot of small farms with specialty products, and many women do that smaller, specialty product farming. In San Diego County, there are more farms of any county in the U.S.—about 5,000—and about half have women as the principal producer. From 1983 to 1989, I was the only woman agricultural commissioner/sealer in the state, but with so many women farmers in the county, it was an unusual circumstance for all of us.

For many years, the Big 5—corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and hay—dominated the agenda at USDA. But about 20 years ago, the government finally started to look at specialty crops (with the urging of Congress and Senator Dianne Feinstein), and there began to be some recognition of the significance of specialty crops. That changed the dynamic. You don't feed America on stuff that goes to cattle! And in San Diego County, women are a significant part of the actual production agriculture.

The average age of the American farmer is a significant issue, too. It keeps getting older. That's alarming, because we need somehow to help sustain American agriculture.

ANSI: What do you think consumers should know about the state offices of weights and measures, and how valuable they are as public servants? That has been a big part of your work.

Thuner: It's funny, because I never got the fire in my belly about that until I became the Agriculture Commissioner here in San Diego … and the funniest thing is, it started because I went to a grocery store.

My eight-month-old daughter was allergic to my milk, so we had to have her on soy milk. I purchased one can of Isomil powder, but they charged me for six cans, because they were entered into the system as a unit of six. I said, “No, I'm purchasing one. It's sitting there on the shelf by itself, so it should not be the same as six cans.” And after much dispute, finally the manager came over and agreed that they had perhaps charged me the wrong amount.

The next morning, I went to my Weight and Measures Division and said, “I think we have a problem here.” That was the beginning of the crusade I initiated about scanner accuracy. I actually became known as the “scanner lady.” I wanted to make sure that scanners were being accurate in what they charged consumers. After one meeting, a representative from a store came up to me and said, “Do you know you're the most expensive quality control person we’ve ever met?” He said that the fines were too large. I said, “Well, you get your stuff together, and you won't get fined anymore. I can raise the ante even more if you keep not complying with state law.”

With the support of the California District Attorneys Association, we had filed a multi-county civil penalty case that was just over a million dollars, and that was at least 25 years ago. We worked to make sure consumers understood that they have the right to get the price that is posted or displayed. I see those signs in stores and I have to smile, because that's one of the things I assured was mandatory to post at the point of sale.

I'll never forget when I took my daughter shopping at a department store when she was about 13. She went to purchase an item, and it was posted as 50% off. It was $14 originally, so it was supposed to be on sale for $7, and she was paying for it with her own ten dollar bill. The cashier said, “That will be $14 and some change,” and my daughter said, “No, it says right over there, it's 50% off.” And the cashier said, “Well, it scans as $14 plus tax.” And then my daughter said, “But I don't care what it scans at. It’s posted at 50%, and half of 14 is 7.” I remember thinking, if my 13 year old understands this, the department stores should get it right, too.

And now, many stores have their own scanners that the customer can use to verify the price. That, too, was part of several of our lawsuits. Consumers should not have a surprise at the checkout. The fact that I can walk into a store now and see employees of the company checking that item prices are correct, using handheld scanners, makes me think that maybe all of the effort was worth it.

Headshot of Kathleen Thuner


Jana Zabinski

Senior Director, Communications & Public Relations


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Beth Goodbaum

Journalist/Communications Specialist


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