Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Store manager Bob Finn peruses the potato package selection at Wegmans in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.
A proposal to remove Pennsylvania's weight restrictions on potato packages may soon hit the governor's desk. In the meantime, stores and packagers that have run afoul of state law look on.
Bob Finn, store manager at Wegmans in Cumberland County, admits this is small potatoes, but he's still been tripped up by the state law requiring taters to be sold in bags weighing three pounds, five pounds, 10 pounds, 15, 20, 25, 50 pounds, and multiples of 100 pounds.
Finn said a five-pound bag came under scrutiny years ago - it contained the fixings for salt potatoes, a dish popular in upstate New York.
"The potatoes were four-and-a-quarter pounds in the bag and there was a three-quarter pound bag of salt in there," said Finn. "We received a call from the Department of Agriculture that it was illegal to sell that bag. It had to be five pounds of potatoes and if we wanted salt in there, we could do that above the five pounds."
The remedy? The potato supplier had to make a separate bag, just for distribution in Pennsylvania, that had five pounds of potatoes and three-quarter pounds of salt.
Finn said it might have been a bigger hassle for the potato packager supplying the products.
"I would imagine it's a hardship on them," he said. "We had to create a separate order on our order guide, so we had to make sure we ordered the right potatoes so that we were in compliance and there would have been a separate slot in the warehouse for these."
A proposal poised for a final vote in the state Senate would remove all weight restrictions on potato sales (the bill sped through the both chambers of the state Legislature, but a technical amendment in the House means it needs one more final vote in the Senate). The restrictions date back to 1913, though the original intent of specific weight rules remains a mystery.
Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill), who sponsors the bill, has scoffed at the weight requirements as his plan to erase them chugs through the Legislature. "I am thankful that we are one step closer to repealing this obsolete restriction and allowing the market to dictate potato packaging," he said in a written statement last month.
Roger Springer, general manager of the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers, said as food prices increase, potato packagers would like to be able to do as their competition does: sell a smaller quantity of their product without changing the price. But plans to keep a 10-pound bag price and stick it on an eight-pound bag of spuds are foiled by state law (you'll notice eight-pound bags are not among the specified packages allowed).
"I don't want to say we're deceiving the public, but if you look at everything else in supermarket, you're seeing the quantities are being reduced and the prices are staying the same," Springer said.
He added that the weight restrictions lead to additional costs for in-state potato packagers, which then get undercut by out-of-state potato businesses.
"Right now, we're getting bombarded by very low costs of potatoes coming into the state," Springer said. "And how can we compete?"
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