Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bread Fraud? In 1915 Cheating Omaha Bakers Hauled to Court!

The shocking Omaha Bee headline on February 28, 1915: 

The price of flour inflated. Loaves of bread shrank.

One hundred years ago Omaha families noticed they were getting smaller loaves of bread than they had been promised. Bakers and grocers where hauled into court to face the consequences of their stinginess.

Mirroring today’s battles overs government regulation, consumer protection, and balancing price with serving size, the great Omaha bread wars made front page of The Omaha Bee in 1915.
Omaha Bee, February 28, 1915

At the time the size of a loaf of bread was regulated by city ordinance to assure people were getting what they paid for. According to an article in The Bee “The present bread ordinance was passed
 nearly twenty years ago (that would be around 1895) and provides 
that a loaf of bread shall weigh sixteen 
ounces and that a double loaf shall weigh
 thirty-two ounces, no mention being made
 as to price.”

The professional bakers in town didn’t like being told what size bread they could sell and proposed the city council get rid of the law.

The bakers, however, were not making any allies by ignoring the ordinance and selling lighter loaves. It seems as the price of flour went up, the bakers wanted to keep the price of a loaf steady at five cents for sixteen ounces of bread.

Customers, according to The Bee, complained to city hall.  “In response to complaints made by
 citizens at the office of the city sealer of 
weights and measures, that official has 
started to get busy.”

John Grant Pegg, Omaha’s “sealer of weights and measures, the stalwart protector of the consumer, led the investigation. Some loaves baked by the Jay Burns Baking Company under the "Holsum" brand were up to three ounces short of the promised weight. Charges were filed against both bakers and the grocers. (Pegg explained to the newspaper charges against the grocers were necessary so “he can get evidence against the man who baked the bread.”)

1913 Holsum Bread Ad
The city prosecutor, much to Pegg’s distress, was not a zealous and dawdled on advancing the bread fraud cases to district court. The indignant weights and measures man told the reporter from The Bee “he does not feel warranted in
making other arrests on the existing
bread ordinance as long as these cases
are pending.”

The paper discovered apparent collusion among the bakers.

“A south side grocer said he was given to understand that within the last two weeks the master bakers met and decided to reduce the weight of loaves two ounces on the sixteen ounce loaves rather than raise the price from 5 to 6 cents,” noted the article in the Bee. The common term today would be “price fixing.”

Omaha no longer regulates bread.