Whole Foods Accused of Overcharging by Exaggerating Weight of Packaged Foods, Officials Say

PHOTO: A sign for a Whole Foods Market is viewed in Brooklyn on May 7, 2014 in New York.PlayGetty Images
WATCH Whole Foods Accused of Overcharging in NY, Officials Say

Investigators have found that Whole Foods locations in New York City "routinely overstated" the weight of pre-packaged contents and overcharged customers, according to an announcement by the city's Department of Consumer Affairs.

Beginning last fall, DCA tested 80 types of pre-packaged products, including meats, dairy and baked goods, and found they all had mislabeled weights. The overcharges ranged from 80 cents for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp, the agency said. Whole Foods denies the allegations.

“Our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers, which DCA and New Yorkers will not tolerate," DCA commissioner Julie Menin said in a statement. "As a large chain grocery store, Whole Foods has the money and resources to ensure greater accuracy and to correct what appears to be a widespread problem—the city’s shoppers deserve to be correctly charged.”

The company could be fined thousands of dollars by the city, the announcement said. In New York City, the fine for falsely labeling a package is as much as $950 for the first violation and up to $1,700 for a subsequent violation. Since, 2011, the city's Whole Foods stores have racked up more than 75 violations with more than 500 total counts for those violations, a department spokeswoman told ABC News. The city said inspections found a few instances of under-weighing goods, the spokeswoman said.

The result of those violations was not immediately clear.

The inspection looked at eight of the nine stores that are currently open in the city. The city encourages New Yorkers who have been overcharged at any supermarket to file an online complaint at nyc.gov/consumers or by calling 311. The city's website indicates that the complaint may lead to a mediation process so the business and consumer can "reach and agreement and settle the matter."

“We disagree with the DCA’s overreaching allegations and we are vigorously defending ourselves," Whole Foods said in a statement. "We cooperated fully with the DCA from the beginning until we disagreed with their grossly excessive monetary demands.

"Despite our requests to the DCA, they have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us.”

In California, Whole Foods agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties after an investigation that began in 2012 found pricing irregularities in Whole Foods stores in Santa Monica, Los Angeles and San Diego, New York officials said.

Nearly 89 percent of the packages tested did not meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from its actual weight, set by the U.S. Department of Commerce. It was not clear what the average deviation was.

"The overcharges were especially prevalent in packages that had been labeled with exactly the same weight when it would be practically impossible for all of the packages to weigh the same amount," DCA said in a statement. These products included berries, vegetables, seafood, nuts and other snack products, such as flavored almonds, pecan panko and corn nuts.

It was not clear if consumers had any recourse.

The city said in some cases, this issue was found for the same exact products at multiple stores.

Some examples of overcharges included:

1. Vegetable platters (8 packages inspected)

Paying $20 per platter, consumers who bought these were overcharged by $2.50 on average, the city claimed, while one package was overpriced by $6.15.

2. Chicken tenders (8 packages inspected)

Priced at $9.99 per pound, these packages were, on average, overpriced by $4.13, the city claims, while one package was overpriced by $4.85.

3. Berries (8 packages inspected)

Consumers were asked to pay $8.58 per package, but on average they were overcharged by $1.15, the city claims, while one package was overpriced by $1.84.