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Prepared Remarks
NIST Acting Director Robert Hebner
President's Address
National Conference on Weights and Measures
Chicago, Illinois
July 22, 1997


  • Good afternoon. It is especially rewarding to be able to speak with you today. I have spent most of my career working in laboratory-based research focusing on measurements and standards, and I have long understood their importance to the development and commercialization of new technologies. Even in my formative years, I had significant exposure to weights and measures.

  • I grew up on the Texas coastal plain at a time when cotton was king. My first salaried job was in a cotton gin, a small belt-driven factory that separated the cotton from its seed and compressed the cotton into bales. At that time, cotton was still picked by hand largely by crews of migrant workers augmented by locals with a little spare time.

  • The pickers were paid by the pound of cotton that they picked. Those of us who have ever done it appreciate how much work goes into picking a pound of cotton. The cotton was put into bags and when your picking sack was full, you took it to the trailer parked at the edge of the field. Attached to the side of the trailer was a rudimentary balance. You would weigh your sack, the farmer would record your name and how much you picked.

  • It is easy to imagine how either the farmers or the pickers could cheat using this system, and even when I'm in my most nostalgic mood, I know that people were not fundamentally more honest back in those days. So a system of checks involving the cotton gin evolved.

  • The farmer and one or more pickers would bring the trailer to the cotton gin. I would weigh the trailer, vacuum the cotton out of the trailer, reweigh the trailer to determine the tare, and calculate the weight of cotton. I would then calculate the total weight as determined by totaling each picker's weight as measured in the field. I would then use my determination of the total weight to re-calculate each picker's fair share. This was a weights and measures check and correction, done with pencil and paper, leaning against a tractor, with every step being checked in real time by both concerned parties. Thus, I have great empathy for inspectors who can't hide behind an anonymous letter, but who look people in the eye and say based on my measurements and calculations, there is a problem here and corrective action must be taken.

  • While it's a long way from the cotton fields of Texas, working as NIST's senior manager for the past six months has given me an even greater appreciation for the vital nature of our work in measurements and standards, especially as it relates to trends in trade, technology and international competitiveness.

  • I also have had the opportunity to do a bit of preaching about how the weights and measures function is crucial to equity in the marketplace and to consumer and industrial confidence in our system of trade. The reaction I usually get when I start spouting off on this subject is one of polite but sometimes feigned interest -- until I hit on a weights and measures issue that's really close to home.

  • The new study of milk and dairy product packaging that several of you in this room took part in is a perfect case in point. It's exactly the kind of weights and measures issue that everyone can relate to. I'll have a few words to say about that study a bit later.

Technology and Trade Changes

  • While touring the museum of the Patent and Trademark Office, like NIST another agency in the Department of Commerce, I recently learned that in 1266, England passed a law that required all bakers to put a distinguishing mark on each loaf of bread that they baked. This is considered to be an early use of a trademark. The purpose of this trademark was not advertising, however. It was to identify bakers who were making loaves that were too light. Clearly, what was important in the 13th century remains critical for trade as we enter the 21st century. I suppose this supports the old axiom that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

  • But there's obviously much that has changed in the world of weights and measures and the marketplace, and I think it is critical that this community both reflect on those changes and anticipate what the future may bring.

  • There are two major themes to these changes: advances in technology and expanding global trade and competition. Clearly, the two are related.

  • Let's take a look back. Twenty years ago, how many among us would have predicted that the marketplace would be populated with digital weighing devices, that everything from bunches of grapes to truckloads of asphalt and concrete would be weighed by electronic scales?

  • Twenty years ago, how many among us would have predicted that electronic scanners would be ubiquitous in the marketplace, that they would become the way of doing business not just in supermarkets but in nearly every kind of retail operation?

  • It's fair to say that the speed and market penetration of these technologies took most of us by surprise. But fortunately, I think we can point to these changes with some pride, because this community has done amazingly well in coping with these changes, in adapting to them, and in making them work for consumers, industry and regulatory officials alike.

  • Does that mean that there haven't been some pretty annoying bumps in the road? Of course not. There is plenty of work to do as we deal with these two electronic-based technology applications. A federal report that NIST was involved with last year reminded us that nothing is magic about price scanners, and that regulatory officials and businesses need to be vigilant to assure that consumers receive what they pay for and that there is equity in the marketplace.

  • The electronics revolution is dramatically changing the environment for weights and measures in the U.S. But digital scales and price scanners are minor innovations compared with the headlong rush that we are experiencing with new modes of electronic commerce and the expanding potential of the Internet.

  • Along with all of the promise -- and the considerable hype -- there are plenty of barriers to making electronic commerce a seamless vehicle for conducting business, for exchanging goods and services.

  • NIST worries about this a lot. We are answering three key questions about what the United States needs to do to enable electronic commerce -- and then to address these needs. First, what are the measurement and standards needs? Next, what are the technology development needs? And third, how can we get the needed technology to our smaller businesses?

  • The weights and measures community needs to be asking questions also. What are the implications of the digital marketplace on the weights and measures infrastructure? How will the roles of the weights and measures officials and the industry weights and measures expert change? And perhaps the most intriguing question that needs to be answered: how can the weights and measures community take better advantage of electronic commerce and the Internet? At NIST we've got some ideas about that last question, and I will share them with you shortly.

  • For all of the changes that technology is bringing, they may be dwarfed by the changes that are occurring in our increasingly global marketplace.

  • Gone are the days when most companies' customers were down the road or across the country. Competitors and customers both may be located on the opposite side of the world, and U.S. firms that fail to recognize this change and respond to it promptly run the risk of a much greater failure as they see their business evaporate. A question of particular importance to this group is "What is the role of a state-based weights and measures program?" If we do our job well, it will be more important in a global market.

  • Specifically, as global market competition becomes more technology intensive and as trade becomes a more significant determinant of the health of the U.S. economy, the nation's measurement and standards infrastructure grows in economic importance and strategic value.

  • But even as global trade takes greater hold, it is being restrained by technical barriers to trade that are related to measurements, conformity assurance, and standards. NIST is assigned as the federal agency that should worry and help do something about those barriers, working with other agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector. I would like to review with you some of our responsibilities here.

  • We know that greater acceptance of uniform measurement, test and evaluation methods, and standards on a worldwide basis would make global commerce more efficient and less costly for the private sector. Recognizing the importance of standards in enhancing global commerce, other countries and trading regions aggressively advance their standards in the international arena in hopes of achieving a competitive advantage. The well organized efforts of the European Union, in particular, pose technical barriers to trade for U.S. industry.

  • NIST believes that if there is fair and open competition, U.S. companies can and will do well. Thus, the NIST approach is to reduce the measurement and standards-based technical barriers to trade faced by U.S. industry as follows:

    • Develop the required measurements and standards infrastructure to support international trade. We are responsible for taking the lead in setting the nation's measurements and standards agenda for the future;

    • Promote the harmonization of standards, codes and regulations; and assist industry in the cooperative development and acceptance of international standards;

    • Assist our trading partners in converting to international or American standards;

    • Promote the adoption of American standards as international standards, where appropriate;.

    • Promote international acceptance of U.S. measurement and accreditation systems;

    • Provide training in measurements and standards; and

    • Work with U.S. industry to overcome specific technical trade barriers.

  • For NIST, this means that we need to work with a variety of overseas and domestic organizations and individuals -- including NCWM -- to tackle these problems.

  • For the weights and measures experts, it means that we all must invest greater resources in learning about overseas requirements and restrictions on trade. These trade barriers are real -- and you know they are real if you find your goods barred from being unloaded at a foreign port.

  • If we are to level the international playing field, if we are to ensure that U.S. companies can compete on a fair basis, the weights and measures officials can and must help. As a first step, you must make learning more about international requirements an action item on your agenda. Ignorance is never good business, and ignorance about these changing requirements for product labeling, for instance, can do great harm to our U.S. businesses. Uniformity in the marketplace is a goal to strive for both here and overseas. Today, NIST is working so that U.S. package labeling practices are recognized worldwide. Your work to ensure NCWM requirements are technically rigorous and objectively based makes worldwide acceptance easier.

  • As a community, we have made much progress but there is still room for improvement in fostering marketplace uniformity. That's why I think the National Conference on Weights and Measures Chairman's theme for the next year is particularly appropriate: "Working Together for Equity." In the next few moments, I'd like to review some of our accomplishments and the goals which remain before us.

FDA Proposed Regulation

  • As many of you know, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed adopting NIST Handbook 133, "Checking the Net Contents of Packaged Goods." This action will establish a national standard for testing the net contents of packaged foods based on NIST Handbook 133. The proposed rule is a result of 5 years of hard work by the National Conference on Weights and Measures and the FDA. The FDA will be accepting public comments on the proposed rule until September 2.

  • Although some of us may disagree with some of the details in the proposed rule, having a standard is very important. Once the standard is in place, we will have a level playing field. Without one, the discrepancies among state regulations will only add confusion to the marketplace.

  • Although most states have adopted Handbook 133, many have not adopted the most current edition or the newest supplement. Adopting Handbook 133 as our national standard will even out the marketplace for industries in all 50 states. It also will help to ensure that packagers from state to state are using the same rules for compliance in packaging.

  • Adopting this rule and the inspection procedures laid out in Handbook 133 takes us a step closer toward equity in the marketplace. It also assists in leveling the competitive playing field for industry. This is of utmost importance as it will codify inspection procedures for all packaged foods in the United States.

  • Industry will be sure that from state to state, its products will be assessed by inspectors using the same procedures with the same training and education offered through NIST's Office of Weights and Measures. Consumers will have assurance that inspectors are using the most technically accurate and up-to-date methods for determining net content.

  • A consistent approach to the inspection of packaged goods will better position the U.S. to modify the procedures, if necessary, to stimulate the export of U.S. made products.

Milk Example

  • Let me give you an example of how Handbook 133 is being used to level the playing field in the dairy industry. A new federal/state study of short-filling of milk, other dairy products and juice found that over 40 percent of the groups of packages inspected contained less product than stated on their labels -- between 1 and 6 percent less.

  • This study, coordinated by the Federal Trade Commission, the NIST Office of Weights and Measures, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration, was carried out by weights and measures personnel in 20 states chosen for broad geographic distribution. This study could not have been accomplished without this exemplary cooperation among the states and federal agencies.

  • A detailed report, "Milk: Does it Measure Up?" covers the study findings as well as steps already underway to prevent short-filling of milk and juice containers. State inspectors checked 1,638 lots of milk, other dairy products and juice in dairies, packaging plants, retailers, universities, schools and hospitals.

  • Just over 40 percent of the lots were rejected based on the inspection criteria. Results varied widely from state to state, dairy to dairy and even among carton sizes. The report concludes that "inadequate quality control in the packaging plants and a lack of strict oversight by manufacturers and distributors is the cause of many short-filling problems."

  • This study also points to the need for a uniform national standard for inspecting net contents. When the study results were released, one dairy in one state expressed concern about whether it failed based on the larger of its labeled net contents given in milliliters and ounces. The dairy in question had apparently misinterpreted labeling requirements and labeled with a higher metric volume than the equivalent fluid ounces. While the dairy's lots failed based on either the metric or English net content, industry and weights and measures officials would all benefit by having a uniform national inspection procedure.

  • As a result of the milk study, the NIST Office of Weights and Measures will provide training for dairy industry representatives in several locations around the United States in the coming months. We already have strong public statements from the dairy industry pledging that they are committed to solving this problem, and that's a welcome response for consumers, weights and measures officials, and competitors alike. This study should serve both as an incentive and a warning sign that we need to pay more attention to weights and measures in all parts of our community.

  • Weights and measures work is important to consumers to maintain confidence in an efficient system of commerce. It is important to companies to assure that their competitors play by the same rules they do. This story drives home the point that what you are doing is critically important to the economy.

Training

  • Another important aspect to this story is that we are trying to eliminate any future problems through training.

  • Training to address a specific problem, such as under-filling of milk, is just one of the training and education services offered by NIST's Office of Weights and Measures.

  • NIST and the National Conference on Weights and Measures began the Instructor Training Program in 1995. Without this training, national studies, such as the milk survey, would not be possible.

  • To date, the Office of Weights and Measures has held 24 Instructor Training Schools for weights and measures officials and industry combined on NIST Handbook 133 "Checking the Net Content of Packaged Goods" and other topics.

  • The students trained in these courses agreed to implement Handbook 133 in their field inspection activities, to train other weights and measures inspectors within their states, and to serve as trainers for Office of Weights and Measures courses in other regions of the country. From the core of 40 students who completed Handbook 133 instructor training in 1995, more than 1,200 other officials have been trained.

  • I would like to emphasize just what an important link these trained weights and measures officials are in our efforts to work together for equity in the marketplace. Consumers in each state rely on them. Industry in each state relies on them. Fair and equitable trade across the entire country rests on their shoulders.

  • Just as a baseball game requires an umpire, trade requires weights and measures officials. Thus, weights and measures officials must be people of recognized integrity and people of recognized competence. Education at the state and national level are available to strengthen this link.

  • We have made training a top priority for NIST. It enables us to be a leader in solving equity problems quickly. It enables us to participate in national surveys in a potential problem area, rather than seeing only isolated symptoms of a problem in a single geographic area.

National Studies and National Database

  • The milk study was the fourth which we -- that is, NIST and the states -- have conducted in response to marketplace equity problems that have been called to our attention. Last fall the Federal Trade Commission released our joint price verification report on electronic scanner accuracy. We've also addressed equity in net content labeling in mulch and ketchup.

  • In each of these cases, we responded to problems or concerns presented to us by industry, by consumers and by the media. I would like to propose a new mode, a pro-active mode, for alerting us to potential marketplace equity problems. A nationally-accessible database of weights and measures inspections would be a new and improved way to do our jobs. A database like that could potentially flag a problem with a particular commodity early on.

  • Here's how it would work. The database could be maintained by the National Conference on Weights and Measures or the NIST Office of Weights and Measures. All states would be welcome to participate and participation would be completely voluntary.

  • The database would keep records of inspection results for various products by state. The database also would include routines for randomly selecting products or devices for inspection. For example, if inspectors in Kansas found problems with short-weighting of beans, they would enter their findings in the database. Other states then could be asked to conduct inspections. If a widespread problem is uncovered, it could be addressed with a coordinated effort and fixed rapidly.

  • The database could help us further our pursuit of equity by stimulating the conduct of inspections on a truly random basis. It could help us to identify and correct problems swiftly. This is important since those who are properly filling their packages suffer an unfair disadvantage when others short-weight theirs. The database would improve the effectiveness of weights and measures inspection programs as inspectors across the country could rapidly share information, and it could save considerable resources that could be put to use improving other aspects of the weights and measures system.

  • As I mentioned before, we need to take advantage of Internet capabilities. The potential for augmenting training by up-to-date information and individualized distance learning is tremendous. Improved information technology could stimulate national and regional cooperation that will make our local efforts better focused and more effective.

Equipment Loan Program

  • The success of our Instructor Training Schools has called to our attention another problem that we would like to help solve. There is a shortage or total lack of basic equipment and standards in many jurisdictions.

  • To address this need, the Office of Weights and Measures is sponsoring an equipment loan program. Glassware, thermometers and weight kits, for example, are available on a limited basis. You are eligible to receive equipment or standards if you or someone from your jurisdiction has attended the appropriate Instructor Training School.

  • Our approach is based on the assumption that if we loan you the tools you need, you can demonstrate the benefit to your jurisdiction. This should allow you to purchase the equipment that you need to do your jobs.

  • I regret that we do not have enough equipment for everyone. Equipment will be loaned out on a first come/most needed basis. If the need is greater than we anticipate, the Office of Weights and Measures will make every effort to obtain additional standards. All we ask is that you maintain the equipment and standards in proper working condition.

1525 Agreement

  • Another matter I'd like to call to your attention is the so-called "1525 Agreement" which will clarify and formalize the relationship between NIST and the National Conference on Weights and Measures.

  • Under paragraph 1525 of Title 15 of the U.S. Code, the Commerce Department, which NIST is part of, has authority to enter into agreements with nonprofit organizations to carry out programs of mutual benefit.

  • In a strategic planning meeting in June, National Conference of Weights and Measures officers decided to go forward with a memorandum of understanding between the NCWM and NIST. Historically, no such agreement has existed since NCWM was formed in 1905. The agreement will acknowledge the relationship between NIST and the NCWM. This agreement won't improve the technical quality of what we do together. It will, however, tidy up a detail which was heretofore, overlooked.

Conclusion

  • I said earlier that it's hard to get the general public's attention for weights and measures matters unless you can give them an example that hits home -- and often that means something that hits them in their wallets or pocketbooks. I want to encourage each of you to carry some basic figures around with you in your wallets and pocketbooks, and to use these figures as frequently as you can.

  • Weights and measures regulations involve a large segment of our economy -- a huge segment, in fact. Last year, weights and measures regulations impacted on transactions of more than $4.13 trillion, or 54.5 percent of the $7.57 trillion U.S. Gross Domestic Product. That's plenty of reason for everyone to take the weights and measures function more seriously, and to give it the support that is so sorely needed.

  • Let me end by commending you for setting high goals and for doing good work. During the discussions with the Senate staff on the milk short- filling issue, the Federal Trade Commission representative called the state weights and measures officials the "unsung heros of fair trade." American industry and consumers owe you a debt of gratitude for your continued diligence in working together for equity.

  • I also want to extend my thanks and congratulations to those of you from industry who are working hard to deal with weights and measures issues every day -- and to urge you to work even harder to improve our system.

  • Thank you.