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Supermarkets Slapped With Nearly $1 Million in Consumer Violation Fines

By Jill Colvin | August 19, 2011 8:57am
Several Fairway locations are among the supermarkets hit with DCA fines.
Several Fairway locations are among the supermarkets hit with DCA fines.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

MANHATTAN — Supermarkets across the city racked up nearly $1 million in fines this year for violations ranging from overcharging customers to mislabeling and improperly taxing merchandise, Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz announced Thursday.

And soon they might have to pay even more under proposed legislation. The “Grocery Shoppers Have Overcharge Protection (SHOP) Act” would triple current city fines - which begin at $25 to $300 - and compensate customers by giving them any overcharged items for free as well as 10 times the amount they were overcharged.

DCA found that just 41 percent of the 1,980 supermarkets inspected in ramped-up efforts across the city managed to pass without violations. That was even worse than last year’s low of 48 percent, when more than $380,000 in fines were issued.

The numbers were even more dismal in Manhattan, where just 38 percent of the nearly 250 supermarkets inspected were deemed compliant — the worst of any borough in the city. Offenders included nearly every major chain, ranging from Fairway, Whole Foods and Gristedes to C-TOWN and Associated. 

“For too long stores have enjoyed the rewards of their overcharges and seen paying city fines as just ‘the cost of doing business.’ This year doubling the number of inspections and thus doubling that ‘cost of doing business’ still was not enough to get the city’s supermarkets to get it right at their check-out counters,” Mintz said in a statement.

But Food Industry Alliance of New York State spokeswoman Pat Brodhagen disputed the agency's data, arguing that the city is overplaying the severity of the violations and that many violations are issued in error.

“There’s zero back-up data to support this claim,” she said, citing one example in which an inspector allegedly spent more than four hours in a store and issued a single sales tax violation she said was a mistake.

Brodhagen also noted that the average supermarket has 15,000 to 45,000 items on display, with huge turnover, so that mistakes — like not checking to see whether a packer has printed their name and address on packaging — may be overlooked.

“There is a fairly large opportunity to make mistakes,” she said.

Last year, the DCA came under fire after it included inaccurate information in a press release that proclaimed Fairway and other Manhattan supermarkets among the city's "worst offenders" against consumer rights — but later sent out an e-mail saying they were wrong.

This year, the department declined to release a list of worst offenders, providing details only on how many times a supermarket was inspected, the number of inspections at that supermarket with at least one violation and a list of violation types.

The most common violations included failure to mark proper quantities on packages, charging taxes on items that are not taxable and charging too much during check-out — an error inspectors recorded for one in three items tested, the DCA said.

Overcharges accounted for 15 percent of the fines written over the year, according to city figures.

To aid its inspection efforts, the DCA recently launched a “#nickeled&dimed” initiative, which asks residents to submit tips about overcharges via Twitter and on the DCA’s Facebook page.