Legislation frees spud sellers to overturn weight restrictions in Pennsylvania

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HARRISBURG -- The end is near for the long Pennsylvania ban on selling potatoes in bags of unauthorized size.

Since the 1960s, potato sales in the state have been limited to sacks of particular sizes: 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 50, 100 or several hundred pounds. (To the relief of smaller households, perhaps, vendors in the 1990s gained permission also to sell less than 3 pounds at a time.)

These restrictions did loosen a 1913 law that mandated potatoes be sold only in 60-pound units. But they have stood in the way as Sterman Masser, a large producer in western Schuylkill and northern Dauphin counties, saw growth -- in other states -- in the market for 8-pound bags.

"I think people were seeing the 10-pound bag was just a little too much," said company vice president Julie Masser Ballay. "And so the 8-pound bag was a good size for a lot of people."

Nationally, sales of 8-pound bags account for just 2.5 percent of retail volume, small potatoes in comparison to the 41.9 percent of volume made up by 5-pound bags, according to the United States Potato Board. But the 8-pound bag is growing in popularity, said Meredith Myers, a spokeswoman.

While Pennsylvania is not among the top spud-growing states, it does produce potatoes: $36 million worth in the fall of 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

No one seems to be quite sure why policymakers here saw fit to restrict potato packages in the first place. The legislative record makes no note, said a Senate aide who looked into the matter.

"We know they've been in place for years," said Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, who brought forward legislation to end the weight restrictions after being approached by a member of the Masser family. "No one has any idea why."

Nor did anyone oppose the change. Mr. Argall's bill passed unanimously through the House and Senate and is supported by Gov. Tom Corbett.

To mark the accomplishment, the senator's staff gave him a small memento: a Mr. Potato Head doll.

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.

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