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    529 Plans: A Tax-Free Way to Save for College


    As ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported, the cost of sending your child to college has escalated faster than practically any other family expense.

    These days, many families are forced to choose between money set aside for retirement or dipping into, or even depleting, those funds to pay for their children's education. It doesn't appear that college costs are going to come down any time soon. So what can you do to prepare for this ever-increasing financial burden?

    One solution that appears to be gaining in popularity is the state-sponsored 529 college savings plan. This plan allows you to save money free of state and federal taxes and to use it tax-free, providing you use it for a qualified form of higher education, such as public or private colleges and universities. Clown school might not pertain.

    If you wonder where the "529" came from, that's the number of the section in the Internal Revenue Code describing the tax advantages of state-sponsored college savings plans. While 48 states and the District of Columbia each have their own 529 plan, there are actually only two distinct types.

    The first is a prepaid plan that lets you buy tuition credits at today's rates and then use those credits when your child goes to college. The idea here is to head off tuition inflation.

    The second type is a savings plan that allows you to put money into an account and to have that money grow tax free over time.

    Both work best when you start the plan early, such as when your child, or grandchild, is in pre-school, or even still in the crib.

    Twenty seven states and the District of Columbia even allow residents to deduct part of what they contribute to their home state's plans on their state income tax returns. Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Maine offer up-front state tax deductions for 529 contributions.

    How much these tax benefits help will depend on your tax bracket as well as what you invest in. If the investment option, such as a mutual fund you're putting money into isn't growing more than 5%, you may want to shift to a fund with a better return.

    Muddy Waters

    Created by Congress ten years ago, 529 plans were slow to attract attention at first, possibly because there was so much confusion over how much the plans cost in terms of fees and what they had to offer in investment options. To further muddy the waters, each state has its own plans and some plans are more attractive than others.

    But the combination of skyrocketing education costs and Congress' recent action to make permanent the plans' tax-free element as long as the money is used for education is prompting more parents to consider them.

    By the end of last year, assets in 529 savings plans reached nearly $91 billion. The consulting firm, Financial Research, says by 2011, those assets are expected to nearly triple to more than $257 billion.

    Many plans are offering more investment options and have even lowered their fees by as much as 50%. This reduction is important because high management fees could erase any gains from the tax benefit. According to savingforcollege.com, low-cost plans tend to charge under 0.6% in annual fees on their cheapest options that invest in equities. Ohio has the lowest fee of 0.25%. New York's 529 Savings Plan charges 0.55%.

    It may be surprising to learn that you don't have to live in the state that sponsors the plan you use. Since each state's plan is slightly different, with varied investment options and differing costs, it pays to shop around for the right plan.

    However, to attract residents to their plan, some states offer extra incentives, so make sure you check those out as well.

    Check out your own state's 529 plan first because 31 states and the District of Columbia offer benefits such as tax deductions to residents for investing in their plan. If you live in a different state, chances are your state won't offer a tax break if you invest in another state's plan.

    Then compare the tax breaks to the investment costs. If your state plan offers a tax break without low-cost investment options, you may want to look at other plans. Other states still have high fees and poor investment options and some don't offer the same tax breaks. To do this comparison shopping, go to www.savingforcollege.com or www.collegesavings.org.

    If you didn't start saving when your child was a toddler, that's OK. Parents of high school seniors can still take advantage of 529 plans. That's because they can deposit up to five years' worth of contributions, or $120,000, without getting hit with gift taxes provided they don't add any more money for the next five years.

    Other Options

    Keep in mind there are other college-savings options to think about. There's something called a "Coverdell Account" and custodial accounts for minor children created under the Unified Gift to Minors Act. Coverdell accounts have been around as long as 529 savings plans; custodial accounts have been around much longer.

    An advantage for 529 savings plans is that they allow you to change the account beneficiary. If one child doesn't need it because they receive a scholarship or decide to make a career out of auditioning for "American Idol," you can use the account for another child.

    Some states let you shift the funds into a retirement account and use it yourself; by contrast, money in custodial accounts technically belongs to the child, who could take control of it once he or she reaches legal age, which, depending on the state, is either 18 or 21.

    Lately, grandparents have been putting money into 529 plans for their grandchildren. The benefit here is that by removing assets from their estates, it could mean less tax for their heirs to pay when the grandparent dies.

    One last cautionary note: some brokers have been caught selling clients more expensive out-of-state 529 savings plan rather than an in-state plan with tax breaks as a way of boosting their commissions. The lesson here is to deal with someone you trust who will help you work through the maze of plans, each with different investment options, costs, and features.

    As ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported, the cost of sending your child to college has escalated faster than practically any other family expense....
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    Subprime Lending Out Of Favor At Freddie Mac

    Subprime Mortgage Money Dries Up, Putting Downward Pressure on Real Estate Prices

    Freddie Mac, one of the nation's largest buyers of home mortgages, has taken the first step to distance itself from subprime lending, as are other lenders large and small. Shutting off the mortgage spigot is likely to further cool the already chilly housing market.

    The company has announced a series of tough new standards for the loans it purchases, and makes it clear it plans to pass on a number of riskier types of loans that have been linked to increased default rates.

    Subprime loans are targeted to homebuyers with little or no established credit. They often offset the increased risk with much higher rates, making it even harder for consumers to keep up their payments. They are often blamed for recent increases in the foreclosure rate.

    "First, Freddie Mac will only buy subprime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) -- and mortgage-related securities backed by these subprime loans -- that qualify borrowers at the fully-indexed and fully-amortizing rate," the company said in a statement. "The goal is to protect future borrowers from the payment shock that could occur when their adjustable rate mortgages increase."

    Freddie Mac said it will also limit the use of low-documentation underwriting for these types of mortgages to help ensure that future borrowers have the income necessary to afford their homes.

    In addition, Freddie Mac will strongly recommend that mortgage lenders collect escrow accounts for borrowers' taxes and insurance payments.

    Consumer advocates reacted positively. Martin Eakes, CEO of the Center for Responsible Lending, said Freddie Mac was "leading the way toward better underwriting practices in the subprime market."

    "Freddie Mac's announcement represents a major step toward ensuring that homeowners receive loans they will be able to repay. With home foreclosures rising in every region of the country, Freddie Mac's action could not be more timely," he said.

    Other lenders are also cutting back on subprime loans, and with less subprime mortgage money in the pipeline, the real estate market is increasingly relying on borrowers who have well-documented income and enough cash to make a substantial down payment.

    The effect is to shut lower-income consumers out of the housing market, thus driving down real estate prices even further. That's good news for higher-income buyers but bad news for sellers, and for those lower-income consumers hoping to get a toehold in home ownership.

    Freddie Mac's Timetable

    In keeping with its statutory responsibility to provide stability to the mortgage market, Freddie Mac said it will implement the new investment requirements for mortgages originated on or after September 1, 2007, to avoid market disruptions.

    As an alternative for consumers with impaired credit, the company said it is also developing fixed-rate and hybrid ARM products that will provide lenders with more choices to offer subprime borrowers. For example, in contrast to the payment structures of many of today's "2/28" ARMs, Freddie Mac's new hybrid ARMs will limit payment shock by offering reduced adjustable rate margins; longer fixed-rate terms; and longer reset periods.

    Freddie Mac will require originators to underwrite these products at the fully indexed and amortizing rate. The company plans to commit significant capital to purchasing these loans into its retained portfolio.

    "Freddie Mac has long played a leading role in combating predatory lending and putting families into homes they can afford and keep," said Richard F. Syron, chairman and CEO of Freddie Mac. "The steps we are taking today will provide more protection to consumers and enhance the level of underwriting standards in the market."

    Freddie Mac's new requirements cover what are commonly referred to as 2/28 and 3/27 hybrid ARMs, which currently comprise roughly three-quarters of the subprime market. Specifically, the company is requiring that borrowers applying for these products be underwritten at the fully-indexed and amortizing rate, as opposed to the initial "teaser" rate. The company also will limit the use of low-documentation products in combination with these loans.

    For example, the company will no longer purchase "No Income, No Asset" documentation loans and will limit "Stated Income, Stated Assets" products to borrowers whose incomes derive from hard-to-verify sources, such as the self-employed and those in the "cash economy." There will be a reasonableness standard for stated incomes.

    In addition, Freddie Mac will require that loans be underwritten to include taxes and insurance and will strongly recommend that the subprime industry collect escrows for taxes and insurance, as is the norm in the prime sector. Because the maintenance of escrow accounts requires significant infrastructure and is not widely used in the subprime sector, Freddie Mac does not believe it is practical to unilaterally mandate it as a purchase requirement at this time.

    "Escrowing for taxes and insurance clearly provides an added layer of consumer protection," Syron said. "It is our hope that this universal practice in prime lending today becomes the universal practice in subprime lending tomorrow."

    Freddie Mac is a stockholder-owned company established by Congress in 1970 to support homeownership and rental housing. It purchases residential mortgages and mortgage-related securities, which it finances primarily by issuing mortgage-related securities and debt instruments in the capital markets.

    Subprime Lending Out Of Favor At Freddie Mac...
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    Congress Fails to Curb Magazine Sales Abuses

    February 27, 2007
    The National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) are calling on Congress to enact protections for the thousands of teenagers and young adults who are abused and cheated by the traveling magazine sales industry.

    The organizations cited a recent New York Times article that documented the abuse and mistreatment young people commonly encounter when they are roped into traveling magazine sales schemes.

    The groups said they welcomed the Times story but were disappointed at Congress' failure to act.

    "Why hasn't Congress acted," asked Darlene Adkins, NCL vice president and CLC coordinator. "There's been legislation introduced year after year that addresses this problem and the reaction has been disinterest and a shrug."

    Two decades ago, in 1987, a Congressional investigation of the magazine sales industry uncovered a track record of abuse, fraud, and indentured servitude involving its often teenage or young adult salespersons. Nothing came of it.

    As the Times article put it: "More than two decades after a Senate investigation revealed widespread problems with these itinerant sellers, and despite several highly publicized fatal accidents and violent crimes involving the sales crews in recent years, the industry remains almost entirely unregulated. And while the industry says it has changed, advocates and law enforcement officials say the abuses persist."

    In the 20 years since those hearings, the Young American Workers Bill of Rights (in 2003 renamed as Youth Worker Protection Act) has been introduced in Congress nine times.

    Sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D_CA), the bill would revise the nation's child labor laws to include a prohibition on minors under the age of 16 from working in door-to-door sales. This bill has never made it to the floor for a vote.

    In both 1999 and 2001, the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act was introduced. The lead sponsor is Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI). This bill would regulate the industry, close loopholes, and better protect salespersons in door-to-door sales. This bill has never made it to the floor for a vote either.

    "We do applaud the members of Congress who have valiantly raised this issue," says Adkins. "Despite their efforts, Congress has proved to be unwilling to step up to the plate and pass legislation that is sorely overdue."

    The NCL and the CLC are calling on Congress to enact protections for the thousands of teenagers and young adults who are abused and cheated by the travelin...
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      Industrial "Food" a Growing Menace

      Eating out in the U.S. a scary experience for British tourist

      One of the drawbacks of being a vagabond writer is the health risk that constant travel entails -- bandits with guns on third world borders, malaria in jungles and the occasional bout of Montezuma's revenge from a steak that hasn't been cooked properly.

      Food poisoning can hit the traveler anywhere and it pays to be on your guard. I was recently hanging out in a country where everyday around 200,000 people get sick from bad food, 900 are hospitalised and 14 die.

      All in all it was quite a scary experience eating out in the U.S.A.

      Of course, having grown up in England, I'd long been made paranoid that the hamburgers I'd eaten as a kid might come back to get me. Heating up frozen burgers and fries saved my parents the effort of preparing a real meal but once BSE (otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease) hit the news, we threw the burgers in the trash. The disease soon skipped the species barrier and infected humans under the variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease or vCJD.

      Estimates vary but it's thought that close to a million cows with BSE were eaten in the UK in the 1980's and it's still anyone's guess how long vCJD takes to incubate. The danger might have passed or else millions might yet die. You eats your burger, you takes your chance.

      Of course, until recently the American meat industry was adamant that there were no cows with BSE in the U.S. and, anyway, everyone was far too worried about E. coli to think too much about it. The outbreaks of E. coli poisoning at Jack in the Box outlets in 1993 drew everyone's attention to a potentially lethal and remarkably hardy pathogen that seemed to target children in particular.

      That particular incident put hundreds in the hospital in several different states and killed at least four.

      The Jack in the Box E. coli food poisoning was alarming for various reasons. While in some victims they caused mere stomach cramps, in others they caused kidney failure and heart attacks and the suffering of the victims, most of them children, can scarcely be imagined.

      E coli actually exists as a friendly presence in the human gut, helping digest food but this particular variety, E. coli 0157:H7, has the potential to release powerful toxins that can cause organ failure or even neurological damage.

      However, as dreadful as these cases were, the real cause for concern was that, in a single outbreak, individuals across four states were infected. Our modern economic infrastructure, industry practices and desire to make a buck have made it possible to poison with the same bacteria people who live hundreds of miles apart.

      I've been safe and sound in India the past few months but back in the States, they tell me, outbreaks of food poisoning from peanut butter, spinach, grilled chicken strips and tacos have chipped away at Americans' confidence about their food supply.

      A Fact of Life

      Food poisoning has been a fact of existence since the dawn of time but, in the past, cases were likely to be contained to a single locale. Someone in the kitchen forgot to wash their hands and kids at a school picnic or the clientele of a diner all got sick. The source could be quickly identified, appropriate action could be taken and that was the end of the story.

      The meat industry and fast food chains changed all of that.

      With the advent of franchising, pioneered by Ray Croc of McDonald's, the fashion was started of serving the exact same produce in any outlet up and down the country. The burgers had to look, smell and taste the same to create consumer trust.

      The success of McDonald's and its copycat competitors meant that the meat industry was obliged to change the way they delivered their meat.

      When I was young, I always wanted to be a cowboy. While I reckoned myself good gunslinger material, I would also have been happy to just be riding the plains, lassoing cattle and playing the harmonica around camp fires.

      Sadly, the ideal of the lone, independent rancher today faces economic ruin at the hands of the meat industry that, like so many others, consolidated under the Reagan administration. With fast food chains striving to serve ever-cheaper burgers, the meatpacking industry forces prices so low that independent ranchers just don't stand a chance.

      As the feedlots consolidated to meet the market demand of fast food and supermarket chains, so did the slaughter houses. Meat packing firms followed the example of McDonald's and observed that wages could be cut by operating plants as assembly lines. Henry Ford would have been so proud.

      Instead of paying skilled workers a living wage, immigrants, teenagers and itinerant workers are found to work parttime (often with only minimal benefits or insurance), performing the same function over and over again.

      The cattle are herded in and one person kills the cows, one after the other with barely a pause for the whole of his shift. Another scoops out the intestines and organs. Another makes the vital cuts.

      With the pressure to deliver more beef as fast as possible, the exhausted workers can barely look after their own health, much less worry about sterilising the knives they use.

      The E. coli Connection

      So what does all this have to with E. coli?

      The pathogen is spread by fecal matter and with cows raised together in crowded feedlots, slaughtered by the thousands each day in claustrophobic plants by overworked, under-skilled operatives, the chances of E. coli getting into the ground beef are unreasonably high.

      The ground beef is then made into uniform hamburger patties to serve the chains and provide that generic hamburger taste. It also means that one sample of E. coli could end up being spread up and down the country. As Eric Schlosser, renowned critic of the fast food industry points out:

      "The meat packing industry that evolved to serve the nation's fast food chains ... has proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease."

      Interestingly, although the fast food chains may in part be blamed for the proliferation of E. coli, they have since become significant players in bringing the meatpacking industry up to scratch. Not that the chains are exactly known for their altruism but safety simply had to be guaranteed if consumers weren't to be frightened away.

      It was Jack in the Box who came up with the "from the farm to the fork" program and they laid down strict rules for maintaining hygiene at each stage of production -- suppliers soon had come up to scratch if they wanted to do business with the chain.

      The trouble is, it's not just the packing of the meat that puts us at risk. It's how the cows are kept and fed, a process that breaks with hundreds of thousands of years of nature in the bid to raise cattle, destined to be ground up and slotted between two slices of processed bread. Which brings us back to BSE.

      Oprah's Revelation

      For many Americans, the truth about the process of raising cattle came from the lips of Oprah Winfrey.

      In a show that was to send beef prices tumbling and invite an unsuccessful lawsuit, Oprah invited a prominent activist, Howard Lyman, on her show to explain exactly what cows in America were fed. He explained that far from getting by only on grass and grain, cattle were routinely fed meat, blood, brains and intestines of other cows, sheep, poultry and even euthanized domestic animals -- pets, in other words.

      But as graphic as the idea of feeding the family dog to help raise a new batch of burger meat was, Lyman stressed that the most striking aspect was that of feeding cows beef:

      "We've not only turned them into carnivores, we've turned them into cannibals." he said.

      English scientists had long indicated that it was the process of recycling dead animals into cattle feed that had led to the BSE pandemic. What made the process any different in America?

      Speaking later to the press in the wake of the lawsuit, Oprah summed it up: "Cows eating cows is alarming." Good old Oprah.

      For years, the American meat industry refused to acknowledge the presence of BSE in American cattle. The disease had never been found in the U.S., they declared, and they were absolutely right. Of course, the fact that no one had really looked that hard for it also comes to mind.

      While some countries test every cow that enters the food chain, the U.S. tests around 1% of the cows destined for your plate.

      There have only been 3 cases of BSE found in the U.S., which would seem to be very few. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, however.

      Thousands of cows die at farms each year from unknown causes and meatpackers are relied upon to conduct tests themselves. Unsurprisingly, few are willing to jeopardise their business by testing unstable, aggressive cows, ones that display BSE symptoms.

      So what's being done about the dangers of E. coli and BSE? Surely the meat industry doesn't want to poison the nation?

      The spirit of the response can be seen in the comments of the American Meat Institute shortly after the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. A spokesperson declared:

      "This outbreak sheds light on a nationwide problem: inconsistent information about proper cooking temperatures for hamburgers."

      You know, nothing to do with the manure spilled all over processing plants.

      But if big business is too worried about losing money to take more care over meat production, feed cows natural food or introduce mandatory testing, surely a democratic government wouldn't stand by and just watch while its population is poisoned and infected?

      And, indeed, various administrations have acted to introduce testing protocols and place limits on just what may be fed to cattle. Trouble is, the guidelines have been more or less voluntary.

      Overworked supervisors at meatpacking plants have been shown to regularly falsify reports and cows are still allowed to eat cattle blood in their feed, plus the bodies of pigs, sheep, horses and chickens. Chickens, incidentally, also get to eat dead cattle.

      Why would the meatpacking industry be allowed to get away with this and why can't companies be forced to recall burgers that are suspected to be infected? The answer goes back to the close ties the industry has with Congress.

      With strong allies in the Republican Party in particular, financial donations and the threat of closing plants and creating massive unemployment by moving to another state, has meant that politicians have long danced to the tune of the meat industry.

      Take, for example, Creekstone Farms in Kansas, who want to test all their cows for BSE to increase consumer confidence.

      All well and good but unfortunately the federal government wouldn't allow them to. Under pressure from the meatpacking industry, scared that they might be obliged to follow suit, the government cited an obscure regulation dating back to 1913 that prevented companies from selling the testing kits for BSE to Creekstone.

      Home Cooking

      I'm often asked if I get sick a lot in my travels. It happens from time to time, but when I go to the market in Mexico and see chickens that are yellow from eating corn all their lives, I feel much more confident than when I order some fried chicken back home that was probably fed a whole zoo of dead ground animals to fatten it up.

      The assembly line was an evolution in 20th century industries that provided cheap products for the consumer. Cars, clothes, hi-tech products, most of us could finally afford them. What is genuinely disturbing though is when we apply the same principles to the food that we eat.

      A chicken is not a nugget. And a cow is not a burger.

      No one knows this better than those who work in and around the American food business. Ivan Fail drove a refrigerated truck hauling chickens and other livestock for 16 years, many of the loads originating at Tyson chicken plants in Arkansas and Missouri.

      "Now since I was a farm boy who grew up in Kansas and had to clean chicken houses frequently, I soon lost my taste for chicken and for years had to struggle to choke down an egg," Fail told us.

      "But when I started hauling loads of dead chicken out of Tyson plants in Rogers, Arkansas and Monett, Missouri my aversion to chicken was enhanced several times over. The Monett plant was the most foul (no pun intended) smelling plant imaginable."

      Food has simply never been prepared like this in the history of humanity. If we persist in delivering uniform, cheap meat in unregulated, large-scale production, then we're just asking for trouble.

      New food pathogens are found every year. They don't make the news because people's ability to remember Latin names and acronyms is limited. But if we don't begin to ask serious questions about what we put on our dinner plates and how it arrived there, then E. coli and BSE may be quite forgotten in the face of new horrors to come.

      ---

      Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com -- The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.


      One of the drawbacks of being a vagabond writer is the health risk that constant travel entails -- bandits with guns on third world borders....
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      Drug May Help Down Syndrome

      February 26, 2007
      A once-a-day, short-term treatment with a drug compound substantially improved learning and memory in mice with Down syndrome symptoms, say researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. What's more, the gains lasted for months after the treatment was discontinued.

      The researchers are now considering a clinical trial to test whether the compound has a similar effect in humans with Down syndrome.

      "This treatment has remarkable potential," said Craig Garner, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of Stanford's Down Syndrome Research Center. "So many other drugs have been tried that had no effect all. Our findings clearly open a new avenue for considering how cognitive dysfunction in individuals with Down syndrome might be treated."

      There is a catch, though. After some brief, inconclusive studies on cognition enhancement in elderly or mentally impaired people in the 1950s, the FDA withdrew approval for the use the drug -- pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ -- in humans in 1982 because no clear clinical benefit had been established. Until now, that is.

      The research, published Feb. 25 in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, was conducted by Fabian Fernandez, a graduate student in Garner's laboratory.

      Fernandez found that affected mice were significantly better able to identify novel objects and navigate a maze -- tasks that simulate difficulties faced by children and adults with Down syndrome -- after being fed 17 daily doses of milk containing a compound called pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ. Treated mice performed as well as their wild-type counterparts for up to two months after drug treatment was discontinued.

      "Somehow the drug treatment creates a new capacity for learning," said Garner, who cautions that this new ability may decay over longer periods of time as older, drug-experienced neurons are replaced by younger cells.

      The researchers believe that the key to the improvement lies in the fact that PTZ blocks the action of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA. Normal brains maintain a precise ratio between neuronal excitation and inhibition that allows efficient learning. In contrast, it's thought that Down syndrome patients have too much GABA-related inhibition, making it difficult to process information.

      "In general, learning involves neuronal excitation in certain parts of the brain," said Garner. "For example, caffeine, which is a stimulant, can make us more attentive and aware, and enhance learning. Conversely, alcohol or sedatives impair our ability to learn."

      "My idea was that it might be possible to harness this excitation effect, which at higher doses can be pathological, to benefit people with Down syndrome," said Fernandez.

      More than 300,000 people nationwide have Down syndrome, which is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. It is the leading cause of mental retardation in the country, and it is also associated with childhood heart disease, leukemia and early onset Alzheimer's disease.



      Drug May Help Down Syndrome...
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      Irradiation Debate Flares Amid Food Poisoning Outbreaks

      Critics say safer food handling would be even better

      Irradiation of food would save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives annually by reducing the incidence of Salmonella, E. coli and other toxins food. Or would it?

      A consumer group says irradiation is "expensive, ineffective, and impractical" technology for addressing food safety and claims it could harm the texture, taste and nutritional value of food.

      Who's right?

      Consumer reporter John F. Stossel, co-anchor of the ABC News show "20/20" is promoting a new book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," in which he skewers anti-irradiation activists for blocking widespread adoption of technology that most food scientists believe could have stopped some or all of the latest food poisoning episodes that have shaken Americans' confidence in their food supply.

      "The irradiation process would give consumers wonderful new options: strawberries that stay fresh three weeks, and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kill six hundred Americans every year, and cause countless cases of food poisoning," says Stossel.

      Agreeing with Stossel is Dennis G. Maki, M.D., author of a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

      Irradiation of high-risk foods after processing could greatly reduce the incidence of all bacterial foodborne disease and save hundreds of lives each year, Maki argues.

      "Irradiation kills or markedly reduces counts of food pathogens without impairing the nutritional value of the food or making it toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive," according to Maki, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

      Irradiation of food is already approved in the United States for most perishable foods and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, CDC, FDA, USDA, American Medical Association, and European Commission Scientific Committee on Food.

      "A number of food products are already commonly irradiated, with no evidence of harmful effects, and for decades, we have sterilized hundreds of millions of implanted medical devices through irradiation each year," Maki wrote.

      The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has estimated that irradiation of high-risk foods could prevent up to a million cases of bacterial foodborne disease that result in the hospitalization of more than 50,000 persons and kill many hundreds each year in North America.

      Irradiation increases the shelf life of foods, while decreasing losses resulting from spoilage and pests; irradiation also controls pathogens and parasites, and inhibits the sprouting of vegetables, another to an earlierNew England Journal of Medicine article.

      Irradiation is cheap, costing consumers less than five cents per pound for meat or poultry, when done on large volumes of food products.

      Not the Answer

      But Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based organization, contends that irradiation is not the answer to food safety problems.

      "That 5,000 people in the United States die every year from foodborne illnesses is tragic," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "Food producers need to address the source of the problem -- too fast processing lines and dirty conditions at plants -- not promote an expensive, impractical and ineffective technology like irradiation."

      Irradiation does not kill all the bacteria in food and may undermine other food safety efforts by masking filthy conditions and encouraging improper handling, Hauter said.

      She said irradiation can mask filthy conditions in today's mega-sized livestock slaughterhouses and food processing plants. Slaughterhouses process up to 400 cows per hour or 200 birds per minute, posing an enormous sanitation challenge where E. coli, Salmonella and other potentially deadly food-borne pathogens can be spread through feces, urine and pus.

      "Americans do not want to eat feces and pus even if it has been irradiated," Hauter said. "Instead of encouraging expensive treatments like irradiation, USDA should give meat inspectors the tools to test products at the plant and ensure that contaminated meat never reaches restaurants or supermarket shelves."

      Food & Water Watch also argues that irradiating the U.S. food supply would be extraordinarily expensive, requiring about 80 multimillion dollar irradiation facilities.

      Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved irradiation of many foods, Food & Water Watch claims the supporting data were "paltry and flawed."

      Weighing in to support irradiation is the American Council on Science and Health, which yesterday said irradiation "could greatly reduce illness from foodborne pathogens and make our already safe food supply even safer."



      Irradiation Debate Flares Amid Food Poisoning Outbreaks...
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      Rats! New York KFC Store Has A Problem

      Rats in the Colonel's belfry ... and kitchen

      A country already shaken by salmonella in its peanut butter has another food worry. A TV news crew has photographed rats scampering across the floor of a KFC and Taco Bell store in Manhattan's trendy Greenwich Village.

      The footage, aired locally in the New York market, sent city health inspectors scurrying to the scene. It also produced a contrite statement from parent company Yum! Brands, which called the incident "completely unacceptable."

      The footage, shot through a window of the restaurant, shows several rats running around on the floor.

      Local restaurant officials said construction was going on at the time, and may have attracted the rodents. The restaurant was closed at the time of the taping.

      In fact, the restaurant may be closed for some time. City health inspectors ordered the facility to shut its doors pending further investigation.

      Rats have been an ongoing problem in New York City. While they're a common sight in subway tunnels, some New Yorkers expressed shock as seeing them running freely through a fast food restaurant.



      A TV news crew has photographed rats scampering across the floor of a KFC and Taco Bell store in Manhattan's trendy Greenwich Village. Rats have been an on...
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      Passengers Applaud Airline Measures Against Unruly Kids

      Passengers sympathize with AirTran's recent action

      Even when they don't have to deal with lost luggage, interminable tarmac delays, or charges of surly service, airlines have another issue to add to their growing list of problems: children who won't obey flight attendants, parents, or rules of decent behavior.

      AirTran seized the bull by the horns in December by forcibly disembarking a Massachusetts couple whose 3-year-old daughter refused to take her seat, buckle her seat belt, or stop screaming.

      The family got seats on another flight to Boston plus three free seats on any future AirTran flight. They took the first offer but declined the second.

      What happened next boggles the mind: AirTran got 14,000 calls and emails endorsing their action.

      Fourteen-thousand!

      If George W. Bush had won Florida by that many votes seven years ago, Al Gore supporters could stop singing Hail to the Thief.

      The bottom line is that most airline passengers pack little patience for little kids. Syndicated columnist Eileen Ogintz, whose "Taking the Kids: column has a website of the same name, said she received emails from passengers who wanted to ban all children under age 5.

      Worcester Telegram writer Dianne Williamson, who broke the story of the AirTran incident, also received enormous feedback -- mostly from people who sided with the airline.

      "I guess people really don't like kids on planes," she conceded.

      Since parents with children board first, perhaps the problem can best be addressed by seating them in the same general section, in the back of the plane. They would be close to the restrooms they need so frequently but far from most of the adults who prefer to sleep, read, or travel in whatever peace is possible on a plane.

      Grouping traveling children -- rather than spreading them all over the aircraft -- would provide inflight playmates as well as inflight peace. It would also help prevent screaming kids from running up and down aircraft aisles when they need to use the facilities.

      In addition, since families with kids invariably carry extra paraphernalia that requires more time to store above and below their seats, boarding them in the back should speed up the boarding process and make quick turnarounds and on-time departures more likely.

      To be sure, air travel is difficult these days. Heavy security checks, with rules that seem to change daily, raise the stress level for passengers long before they board. Then there are noisy airport seating areas -- rife with inane cell-phone chatter and a constant cacophony of noise from the omnipresent CNN Airport Channel -- and the overpacked planes. Airplane seats are cramped and food, if available at all, comes with a price. And did anyone mention the word delay?

      Unruly passengers of any age only compound the felony. When they won't listen to reason, the results can be unreasonable.

      AirTran insists the involuntary bumping of Julie and Gerry Kulesza was a safety issue: federal regulations require all passengers over the age of 24 months to sit in a seat with seat belt fastened during takeoff and landing.

      The Atlanta-based discounter also admitted it could have handled the situation better. The 14,000 people who applauded its action don't necessarily agree.



      Passengers Applaud Airline Measure Against Unruly Kids...
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      FDA Wants Stronger Warning for Asthma Drug

      Xolair may cause severe allergic reaction

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has requested that Genentech, Inc. add a boxed warning to the product label for omalizumab, marketed as Xolair.

      The drug was approved in 2003 to treat adults and adolescents (12 years of age and above) with moderate to severe persistent asthma who have tested positive for a perennial allergen -- like pollen, grass or dust -- and whose symptoms are inadequately controlled with inhaled steroids.

      The boxed warning emphasizes that Xolair, used to treat patients with asthma related to allergies, may cause anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis may include trouble breathing, chest tightness, dizziness, fainting, itching and hives, and swelling of the mouth and throat.

      In addition, FDA has asked Genentech to revise the Xolair label and provide a Medication Guide for patients to strengthen the existing warning for anaphylaxis.

      Anaphylaxis was reported following administration of Xolair in clinical trials and was therefore, discussed in the initial product labeling. The cases were reported at a frequency of approximately one in a thousand patients (0.1%).

      Due to the nature of continued reports in the post-marketing experience, including their life-threatening potential, frequency, and the possibility for the delayed onset of anaphylaxis, FDA has now requested that Genentech, Inc., add the boxed warning and strengthen the existing warning.

      The strengthened warning includes the possibility of a patient developing anaphylaxis after any dose of Xolair, even if there was no reaction to the first dose. Also, anaphylaxis after administration of Xolair may be delayed up to 24 hours after the dose is given.

      Health care providers should be prepared to manage life-threatening anaphylaxis following Xolair administration and observe patients for at least two hours after an injection. Following administration of Xolair, patients should also carry and know how to initiate emergency self-treatment for anaphylaxis.



      FDA Wants Stronger Warning for Asthma Drug...
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      Second Death Linked To Tainted Peanut Butter

      Doctors Warn Salmonella "Nothing to be Taken Lightly"

      An elderly Chicago area man may be the second person to die after eating tainted peanut butter. George Baldwin was said to be in relatively good health just before his recent death from complications of food poisoning. His family believes he was killed by his fondness for Peter Pan peanut butter.

      "He puts the peanut butter on toast, eats the toast, in six hours he develops fever, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting -- all of which are signs of salmonella poisoning," Baldwin family attorney Don McGarrah told WBBM-TV.

      An independent lab is reportedly testing the jar of peanut butter from the Baldwin household. A family member says its lid bore the code number 2111, marking it as among the potentially tainted product.

      A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman's death last month is also allegedly linked to the salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia died from complications of food poisoning, and family members contend she too ate peanut butter shortly before her death. The family has hired an attorney who has filed suit against the manufacturer, ConAgra.

      So far, at least 300 cases of illnesses have been linked to the outbreak, although one attorney who had already filed a class action lawsuit claims to have been contacted by more than 2,000 alleged victims.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 70 complaints from consumers who say they became ill. Many did not seek medical care and those who did were often misdiagnosed.

      Potentially Fatal

      Most of the consumers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com have "toughed it out," taking over-the-counter medications and hoping for the best, but doctors warn that Salmonella is dangerous and requires medical attention.

      "Salmonella is nothing to be taken lightly. It's very serious and it's potentially fatal," said Henry J. Fishman, M.D., ConsumerAffairs.com's medical correspondent.

      Consumers who think they may have it should, "call a doctor or go to an emergency roomm" Fishman said. "People with a depressed immune system would be at an even greater risk. That includes the very young and elderly people, chemo patients and those with HIV."

      Fishman, a practicing internist and allergist in Washington, D.C., warned that intense vomiting and diarrhea can cause not only dehydration, but also an electrolyte imbalance, possibly leading to a fatal heart arrythmia.

      Consumers who have fallen ill need to drink lots of fluids to counteract that but, more importantly, they need to seek medical attention and may require IVs to administer high doses of antibiotics and to maintain fluid balance.

      Misdiagnosed?

      But going to the emergency room or to one's private physician doesn't guarantee appropriate treatment. Wilma of Mooresville, N.C., said she went to the emergency room after being sick for several days.

      "I was feeling dizzy, still nauseated, and numb on the left side of my face. I thought I might be having a stroke. The ER did a CAT scan and came back with the general idea that I was suffering from a sinus infection due to the fact that they saw that my nasal passages were clogged," she said.

      "They gave me prescriptions for antibiotics, and decongestants for my lungs which did not help at all, since I did not have a sinus infection," she said.

      Patricia of Spirit Lake, Fla., became alarmed after she and her four children became ill after eating the recalled peanut butter. She called and emergency room and was told there is no test for Salmonella poisoning.

      In fact, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, salmonellosis is diagnosed through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

      Physicians and public health officials are concerned by reports that consumers are trying to "tough it out" and are not seeking medical care for Salmonella, especially when the ill person is a senior, a child or has an existing medical condition.

      "Individuals who have recently eaten the affected Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter and who have experienced any symptoms of Salmonella infection should contact their health care provider immediately," according to the FDA.

      "Symptoms include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. For persons in poor health or with weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections."

      The tainted peanut butter was marketed under the Peter Pan and generic Great Value brands and was sold after March 2006. The company says the suspect jars can be identified by a number on the jar lid that begins with the number 2111.



      Death Linked To Tainted Peanut Butter...
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      Salmonella Confirmed in Peanut Butter, CDC Reports

      At Least Two Deaths Blamed on Tainted Peanut Butter So Far

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has confirmed the presence of Salmonella in peanut butter produced by ConAgra Foods' Georgia plant. At least two people are believed to have died and hundreds have been sickened.

      The agency says it has confirmed the presence of Salmonella in opened jars supplied by consumers who were sickened in New York, Oklahoma and Iowa. The question now, said CDC spokesman Dave Daigle, is how the contamination occurred.

      Dirty jars and equipment are the most likely suspects. Since the peanut butter itself is heated to high temperatures that would normally be expected to kill any germs, the containers and packaging equipment are the prime suspects.

      CDC investigators noted that a similar outbreak in Australia during the mid-1990s was blamed on unsanity plant conditions.

      An elderly Chicago area man may be the second person to die after eating tainted peanut butter. George Baldwin was said to be in relatively good health just before his recent death from complications of food poisoning. His family believes he was killed by his fondness for Peter Pan peanut butter.

      "He puts the peanut butter on toast, eats the toast, in six hours he develops fever, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting -- all of which are signs of salmonella poisoning," Baldwin family attorney Don McGarrah told WBBM-TV.

      A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman's death last month is also allegedly linked to the salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia died from complications of food poisoning, and family members contend she too ate peanut butter shortly before her death. The family has hired an attorney who has filed suit against the manufacturer, ConAgra.

      Company Contrite

      ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin vowed the company will take "all reasonable steps to remedy the situation."

      "We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products may have caused," Rodkin said.

      The plant was last inspected by the Food and Drug Administration in February 2005 and no problems were found, according to the FDA.

      The Sylvester plant is the sole maker of the nationally distributed Peter Pan brand, and the recall covers all peanut butter produced by the plant since May 2006. Shoppers are being asked to toss out jars having a product code on the lid beginning with "2111." The jars or their lids can be returned to the store where they were purchased for a refund.

      So far, at least 329 cases of illnesses have been linked to the outbreak, although one attorney who had already filed a class action lawsuit claims to have been contacted by more than 2,000 alleged victims.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 70 complaints from consumers who say they became ill. Many did not seek medical care and those who did were often misdiagnosed.

      Potentially Fatal

      Most of the consumers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com have "toughed it out," taking over-the-counter medications and hoping for the best, but doctors warn that Salmonella is dangerous and requires medical attention.

      "Salmonella is nothing to be taken lightly. It's very serious and it's potentially fatal," said Henry J. Fishman, M.D., ConsumerAffairs.com's medical correspondent.

      Consumers who think they may have it should, "call a doctor or go to an emergency roomm" Fishman said. "People with a depressed immune system would be at an even greater risk. That includes the very young and elderly people, chemo patients and those with HIV."

      Fishman, a practicing internist and allergist in Washington, D.C., warned that intense vomiting and diarrhea can cause not only dehydration, but also an electrolyte imbalance, possibly leading to a fatal heart arrythmia.

      Consumers who have fallen ill need to drink lots of fluids to counteract that but, more importantly, they need to seek medical attention and may require IVs to administer high doses of antibiotics and to maintain fluid balance.

      Misdiagnosed?

      But going to the emergency room or to one's private physician doesn't guarantee appropriate treatment. Wilma of Mooresville, N.C., said she went to the emergency room after being sick for several days.

      "I was feeling dizzy, still nauseated, and numb on the left side of my face. I thought I might be having a stroke. The ER did a CAT scan and came back with the general idea that I was suffering from a sinus infection due to the fact that they saw that my nasal passages were clogged," she said.

      "They gave me prescriptions for antibiotics, and decongestants for my lungs which did not help at all, since I did not have a sinus infection," she said.

      Patricia of Spirit Lake, Fla., became alarmed after she and her four children became ill after eating the recalled peanut butter. She called and emergency room and was told there is no test for Salmonella poisoning.

      In fact, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, salmonellosis is diagnosed through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

      Physicians and public health officials are concerned by reports that consumers are trying to "tough it out" and are not seeking medical care for Salmonella, especially when the ill person is a senior, a child or has an existing medical condition.

      "Individuals who have recently eaten the affected Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter and who have experienced any symptoms of Salmonella infection should contact their health care provider immediately," according to the FDA.

      "Symptoms include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. For persons in poor health or with weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections."

      The tainted peanut butter was marketed under the Peter Pan and generic Great Value brands and was sold after March 2006. The company says the suspect jars can be identified by a number on the jar lid that begins with the number 2111.

      Great Value peanut butter is a Wal-Mart Stores house brand made by several manufacturers. Great Value peanut butter that does not have the "2111" code is not included in the recall.



      Salmonella Confirmed in Peanut Butter, CDC Reports...
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      JetBlue CEO Wins Top Grades for Crisis Management

      Ice storm put his airline in the deep freeze

      The chief executive of beleaguered JetBlue is winning kudos from crisis management experts less than 10 days after the ice storm that put his airline into the deep freeze.

      A contrite David Neeleman has issued profuse public apologies on network television, on the video-sharing site YouTube, on newspaper front pages, and on the JetBlue website.

      He's not only offered millions of dollars in compensation but issued a consumer-friendly Passenger Bill of Rights, retroactive to cover the victims of the newest St. Valentine's Day massacre, with vows to enforce it.

      He's told employees -- the prime target of customer wrath -- to put on the friendly face JetBlue patrons experienced prior to the Feb. 14 fiasco.

      Most importantly, Neeleman has looked and sounded sincere in all his public appearances.

      Crisis management experts have noticed.

      "People see through it when the typical CEO hides behind the podium or the press release," said Bernstein Crisis Management president Jonathan Bernstein. "(Neeleman) gave the public ample face time and did so with passion in his voice. He talks the talk of everyman, which is exactly what he needed to do."

      Fellow Californian Alex Anolik, a San Francisco attorney who represents travel agents and tour operators, agreed. He called JetBlue's Passenger Bill of Rights "a good PR move."

      Richard Levick, president of the Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications, went even further. "JetBlue has run to the crisis, taking responsibility not just for itself but for the entire industry."

      According to Levick, JetBlue's CEO met all five key tenets of sound crisis management:

      1. Run to it. Avoid "duck and cover."
      2. All companies will have a crisis. Be prepared.
      3. Know your crisis team. Now.
      4. Make a sacrifice. Companies often want to win it all.
      5. Avoid saying "no comment." A crisis abhors a vacuum.

      "The critical role is to run to the crisis," he said. Accepting responsibility with sincerity also may defray legal consequences.

      "People don't want to sue people they like and trust," Levick noted. "What happens so often is that CEOs lawyer-up and say nothing."

      Such actions often hurt the company, he said, because media reports are based solely on the reactions of victims and their elected representatives.

      For his part, Neeleman admitted to being "humiliated and mortified" by the weather-caused snafu that kept seven flights on the JFK airport tarmac for times that ranged from six-and-a-half to nearly ten-and-a-half hours. Food, water, working toilets, and patience ran out.

      It took six days -- and a total of 1,000 cancelled flights -- to get JetBlue's schedule back to normal.

      Neeleman swears that won't happen again. Now he has to hope that prospective passengers believe him.


      JetBlue CEO Wins Top Grades for Crisis Management...
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      Mysterious Computer Theft Hits Mystery Shopping Company


      Speedmark, a marketing services firm that employs "mystery shoppers" to observe employee behavior for client companies, was hit with a data breach when thieves stole computers containing some shoppers' personal data from the company's Woodlands, Texas office.

      Several computers were taken, one of which contained a database with personally identifying information on mystery shoppers working for Speedmark. The information included names, addresses, e-mail accounts, and Social Security numbers of Speedmark employees and contractors.

      The theft was discovered on Dec. 16, 2006, but many shoppers contracted to Speedmark did not receive letters notifying them of the breach until mid-February, 2007.

      Many shoppers for Speedmark were frustrated at the length of time the company took to disclose the breach, and by the fact that the letters were mailed as standard postage rather than email or overnight mail, according to comments posted on Volition.com, an online message board that caters to mystery shoppers and independent contractors.

      "I received my letter today, over two months after this happened!" fumed shopper "NatashaM." "In my opinion, two months is entirely too long to hear about this. I agree with another poster that stated an e-mail should have been sent immediately (as in the same week of the event) and then they could follow it up with this badly xeroxed letter mailed substandard class."

      One reader posted a transcript of the notification letter from Speedmark president Scott Hiller. In the letter, Hiller said that the information on the computer was password-protected, and that the company had notified local law enforcement of the theft.

      "Speedmark takes the security of your personal data seriously," Hiller said. "Accordingly, we have taken steps to ensure the security of our premises and equipment to the best of our ability, including security guards during non-business hours until further notice."

      Another shopper contacted Speedmark's customer service to get more information.

      The company replied that breach notification had taken so long because they company had to "first restore the data from back-ups, identify those who were possibly affected, and contract with a vendor to produce and mail 35,000 letters."

      "Notice was provided via mail because we did not have agreements from our shoppers to use email as an acceptable mode of notification," the company said. You must actually stipulate that email (or fax) is acceptable notice to you, or any formal notice must be delivered via US Postal Service in order to be considered a valid delivery attempt of the notice. Without the stipulation, email would not have been sufficient legal notice."

      However, an attorney consulted by ConsumerAffairs.com said there was nothing stopping the company from sending emails as a courtesy and following up with a letter.

      "It is the height of absurdity to say that because postal mail is the specified form of legal notification, the company's managers couldn't take five minutes to send everyone an e-mail telling them about the theft and alerting them to watch their mail," said the attorney, who asked not to be identified because she did not have first-hand knowledge of the case.

      Speedmark representatives refused to comment on the case to ConsumerAffairs.com.

      Don't Mess With Texas Data

      Under Texas state law, disclosure of data breaches must occur "as quickly as possible," unless law enforcement requests a delay while investigating the incident or "or as necessary to determine the scope of the breach and restore the reasonable integrity of the data system."

      William Ballard, the detective assigned to the case, told ConsumerAffairs.com that after two months, the case had "no leads and nowhere to go."

      "We have no suspects, the fingerprints we got from the scene aren't usable, and no information," he said. Ballard was investigating the possibility that the Speedmark break-in was part of a ring of computer thefts in the Dallas and Houston areas, as he claimed he had seen a "rash" of cases in recent weeks.

      "They just vanish into thin air," Ballard said.

      The Mysteries Of Mystery Shopping

      The Speedmark case is not only the latest example of a data breach arising from computer theft, but also an indicator of how affected customers and employees can have difficulty addressing the problem.

      Mystery shoppers are often employed to work for big companies by third-party vendors such as Speedmark. As such, they are treated as independent contractors, and have to furnish personal information to the hiring vendor for tax purposes -- even if they never get any offers to work for a client.

      In addition, mystery shoppers are often easy prey for scammers and con artists looking to cajole cash out of the unsuspecting, often through unneeded "fees" or phisher e-mails.

      A mystery shopper who asked to remain anonymous tipped ConsumerAffairs.com regarding the breach. The person noted that the non-disclosure agreements mystery shoppers sign when working for clients would make it difficult to notify authorities and media regarding the theft.

      "Are they violating [non-disclosure agreements] with others by admitting they are a mystery shopper?" they asked. "Of course, they blow cover if they appear publicly and can no longer work. You see the conundrum the shoppers are in?"

      Mysterious Computer Theft Hits Mystery Shopping Company...
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      Safety Agency Denies It Ignored Lead in Children's Lunch Boxes


      The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is denying an Associated Press report that pointed to potential flaws in the agency's testing procedures of children's vinyl lunch boxes, despite actions by New York and Connecticut to remove the lunbh boxes from store shelves.

      The AP story suggests that the CPSC may have hidden the true levels of lead found in the lunch boxes, a charge the agency denies.

      A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the AP yielded 1,500 pages of documents that show the CPSC tested 60 vinyl lunch boxes in 2005 and that one in five of those boxes contained hazardous levels of lead.

      Yet after the testing process, the CPSC publicly said that it found "no instances of hazardous levels."

      In November 2005, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached an agreement with Fast Forward, LLC, a wholesaler of consumer products, to recall thousands of children's lunch boxes containing lead. Wal-Mart and Target said they had voluntarily pulled those lunch boxes from their shelves.

      In December 2005, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal demanded that stores immediately stop selling the lunch boxes.

      "Lead, lunch and children are a perilous mix," Blumenthal said. "The discovery of lead -- 12 times the allowable limit -- in children's lunchboxes is appalling. Our law is clear: Lead-laden lunchboxes are illegal.

      CPSC's Tests

      The CPSC's scientists used two tests: One that tested the percent of lead found in dissolved chunks of the vinyl and another that tested how much lead would rub off the exterior.

      With the first test, one in five contained more than the federal minimum for paints and other products. One bag contained 16 times the acceptable percentage of lead.

      But the results of those tests were not used. Instead the agency focused on the second tests, which yielded lower levels of lead, especially after the scientists changed their testing protocol.

      The scientists originally tested the boxes with a few swipes, but then found that if they swiped the same spot over and over, the average result was lower. The CPSC went with the average result for their final verdict.

      "The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find," CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese explained to the AP. "With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic."

      Also, the scientists tested only the outside of the vinyl boxes. Vallese said this was because food in lunch boxes "may be" contained in foil or a bag.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a different opinion when the CPSC shared its previously secret results. The FDA sent letters to the vinyl lunch box manufacturers warning them that their products may contain dangerous levels of lead.

      Outside researchers have agreed with the CPSC's original results that the levels of lead in the lunch boxes are dangerous.

      In reaction to the thousands of newspapers and websites that have syndicated the AP's story, the CPSC responded yesterday saying, "Recent news reports and postings on special interest group Web sites have provided information that incorrectly interprets the findings of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in testing vinyl lunchboxes."

      "Under CPSC Federal law, total lead does not dictate action. Instead decisions must consider the real world interaction of child and product and the accessibility of lead from the product," the statement continues. "No matter how the data are analyzed, the staff risk assessment would still conclude that the lead exposure from vinyl lunchboxes does not present a risk to health for action under CPSC's law."

      The statement also notes that "more recently, the CPSC began rulemaking to consider banning lead from children's metal jewelry."

      However, as ConsumerAffairs.com has reported, the commission currently cannot proceed on any rulemaking because there are not enough commissioners to constitute a quorum. Also, in an interview last week, Vallese told ConsumerAffairs.com that the commission was still in the research phase of the children's jewelry issue and nowhere close to a rulemaking.

      Safety Agency Denies It Ignored Lead in Children's Lunch Boxes...
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      Salmonella Outbreaks: A Recent History

      There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs

      There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs, but as the last few years have shown the potentially deadly pathogen can show up in all kinds of foods.

      A few of the more recent examples:

      Peanut Butter Peter Pan, Great Value peanut butter blamed for sickening an unknown number of consumers nationwide.

      Tomatoes In November 2006, tainted tomatoes served in restaurants caused 183 reported cases of illness in 21 states.

      Cadbury Schweppes Chocolate Bars British food company Cadbury Schweppes recalled one million chocolate bars over salmonella concerns in June 2006.

      Hershey's Chocolate In November 2006, Hershey recalled a number of candy products made at one of its Canadian plants. Candy produced in the U.S. was not affected, the company said.

      "Wild Kitty" Cat Food Earlier this month, FDA said it detected Salmonella in frozen raw Wild Kitty Cat Food.

      Basil In April 2005, Majestic International Spice Corporation of Montebello, CA, recalled its dried "Extra Fancy Basil."

      Orange Juice In July 2005, FDA warned against drinking unpasteurized orange juice products distributed under a variety of brand names by Orchid Island Juice Company because of Salmonella incidents.

      Soft Cheese In March 2005, FDA said some cheeses that are made with raw milk present a health risk, especially to high-risk groups such as pregnant women, newborns, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

      Raw Milk Following a 2005 outbreak in the state of Washington, FDA warned the public against drinking raw milk because it may contain harmful bacteria that can cause life-threatening illnesses. Raw milk is not treated or pasteurized to remove disease-causing bacteria.

      Almonds In 2004, Paramount Farms extended an earlier recall of natural raw almonds sold under the Kirkland Signature, Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands. Paramount said that from now on it would "pasteurize" all almonds before shipping.

      Frozen Chicken In April 2005, USDA said it had linked cases of Salmonella infections in people to stuffed frozen chicken products sold in Minnesota and Michigan.

      Perhaps surprisingly, there have been no recent major incidents involving chicken eggs.



      There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs but the potentially deadly pathogen can show up in all kinds of foods....
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      Salmonella: What It Is

      Incidence Rising in Western Nations

      Food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses, estimated to afflict from 2 to 4 million Americans annually.

      The disease is widespread in animals, especially in poultry and swine. Environmental sources of the organism include water, soil, insects, factory surfaces, kitchen surfaces, animal feces, raw meats, raw poultry, and raw seafoods, to name only a few.

      Foods generally associated with Salmonella include raw meats, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products, fish, shrimp, frog legs, yeast, coconut, sauces and salad dressing, cake mixes, cream-filled desserts and toppings, dried gelatin, peanut butter, cocoa, and chocolate.

      Various Salmonella species have long been isolated from the outside of egg shells. The present situation is complicated by the presence of the organism inside the egg, in the yolk.

      As few as 15 cells can cause the disease, depending on the age and health of the infected person and the strength of the various strains. Onset time is usually 6 to 48 hours.

      Acute symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, minal diarrhea, fever, and headache. Arthritic symptoms may follow 3-4 weeks after the onset of acute symptoms.

      Acute symptoms may last for 1 to 2 days or may be prolonged, again depending on host factors, ingested dose, and strain characteristics.

      Diagnosis is through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

      The incidence of salmonellosis appears to be rising both in the U.S. and in other industrialized nations. The strain known as S. enteritidis has shown a dramatic rise in the past decade, particularly in the northeast United States, and the increase in human infections is spreading south and west, with sporadic outbreaks in other regions.

      Safety Tips

      The USDA recommends cooking poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Farenheit. Egg yolks should be cooked thoroughly so that they are not "runny."

      Food preparation surfaces must be kept clean and cooking instruments, including sponges and dish towels, must be washed thoroughly after each use.

      Consumers with food safety questions can phone the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE. The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time), Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

      Ready to Cook, Not Ready to Eat

      Products labeled with phrases such as "Cook and Serve," "Ready to Cook," and "Oven Ready" are intended to convey to the consumer that the product is not ready-to-eat and must be fully cooked for safety. Although products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, such products should be handled and prepared no differently than raw product.

      Many frozen entrees containing stuffed poultry products, such as a poultry product stuffed with cheese and other ingredients, typically are not-ready-to-eat and must be fully cooked as if they were raw.

      Consumers must always follow the microwave instructions completely.

      If using a microwave oven to cook meat and poultry products, be sure to take multiple temperature readings at different locations throughout the product due to the non-uniformity of the heating process and the creation of "cold spots."

      Because a microwave oven typically cooks product at non-uniform rates, it is important to ensure that the product is covered sufficiently for steam to build in the product, and that the product is set aside for a sufficient time for the heat to uniformly spread throughout the product at the completion of the microwave cycle. This will ensure that there are no "cold spots."

      Sources: USDA, FDA



      Salmonella Increasingly Common...
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      JetBlue Unveils "Passengers Bill Of Rights"

      Airline stranded passengers for hours after big storm

      Before the St. Valentines Day ice storm that froze operations at New York's JFK Airport, JetBlue had a good reputation with consumers, who liked its high level of service and low fares.

      But after the airline stranded passengers aboard jetliners for eight hours or more and cancelled many of its flights, the airline is scrambling to recover from a PR meltdown.

      Perhaps anticipating Congressional action spurred by its highly publicized problems, JetBlue has introduced a "Passengers' Bill of Rights" that it says it will observe. Lawmakers are currently drafting their own version for the entire industry.

      Under the JetBlue version, passengers will be compensated when a flight lands but is delayed in taxiing to the gate by more than 30 minutes. Passengers aboard flights delayed in deplaning between one and two hours will receive a $100 travel voucher.

      If two hours pass and the plane still hasn't deplaned, passengers will receive a voucher equal to their one-way fare. After four hours, the airline will refund the entire roundtrip ticket. There will be lesser penalties paid to passengers for ground delays on departure.

      "This was a big wake-up call for JetBlue," said JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman. "If there's a silver lining, it is the fact that our airline is going to be stronger and even better prepared to serve our customers."

      "In addition, I want to publicly apologize to JetBlue's crewmembers -- the best in the industry -- and I promise to get the right resources, tools and support for them going forward, so that they in turn can deliver the JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us."

      Part of the airline's Bill of Rights requires the airline to notify customers when there are delays prior to a scheduled departure, of when there are cancellations or diversions of flights. If a plane is ground delayed for five hours or more, the airline said it will take the necessary action to deplane passengers, though captains will have discretion if the aircraft is positioned and almost ready for take-off.

      In addition, the airline said it will form a customer advisory council, who will be consulted with regarding ongoing improvement programs.

      JetBlue also said it is taking immediate actions to address inefficiencies in its response plans. Actions already taken include new communication strategies with inflight and pilot crewmembers in the event of a system disruption, so that the airline can reset the operation faster, after the external disruption event ends.

      The provisions to the Passengers' Bill of Rights have been made retroactive to February 14, 2007.



      JetBlue Unveils Passengers Bill Of Rights...
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      Rheem, Ruud, Richmond Tankless Water Heaters

      February 21, 2007
      Tankless water heaters sold under the Rheem, Ruud and Richmond brands are being recalled because of a carbon monoxide poisoning risk.

      Components inside the water heater may shift during transit, causing an air filter door switch to operate improperly. If the switch fails and the air filter door is out of place, the water heater could continue to operate and dust and lint could build up, posing a carbon monoxide poisoning hazard.

      The recall involves indoor models of the Power Vent 199,900 BTUH tankless water heaters. The brands and model numbers included in this recall are listed below and are located on the front of the unit and the rating plate. The water heaters have a cream jacket or gray jacket enclosure with the piping on the top and bottom of the unit. The rating plate is a silver label located the front of the unit, in the lower right hand corner.

      BrandModels
      PalomaPTG-74PVN; PTG-74PVP; PTG-74PVN-1; PTG-74PVP-1; PTG-74PVNH; PTG-74PVPH; PTG-74PVNUH; PTG-74PVPUH and PH-28RIFSN; PH-28RIFSP; PH-28RIFSN-1; PH-28RIFSP-1; PH-28CIFSN; PH-28CIFSP; PH-28CIFSN-1; PH-28CIFSP-1
      RheemRTG-74PVN; RTG-74PVP; RTG-74PVN-1; RTG-74PVP-1
      RuudRUTG-74PVN; RUTG-74PVP; RUTG-74PVN-1; RUTG-74PVP-1
      Rheem-RuudGT-199PV-N; GT-199PV-P; GT-199PV-N-1; GT-199PV-P-1
      RichmondRMTG-74PVN; RMTG-74PVP; RMTG-74PVN-1; RMTG-74PVP-1; RMTG-74PVNH; RMTG-74PVPH; RMTG-74PVNUH; RMTG-74PVPUH

      The units were sold by retailers nationwide and through plumbing wholesale distributors to plumbers, contractors and consumers from May 2004 through December 2006 for between $800 and $1,300.

      Consumers with the recalled water heaters should stop using them immediately, if the air filter door is not in place. Consumers who have not already been contacted by an authorized contractor should immediately contact their installer or Rheem Manufacturing Company to arrange for a free, on-site repair. Consumers are reminded to use the air filter door for these water heaters to avoid a carbon monoxide hazard.

      Consumer Contact: For more information, contact Rheem toll-free at (866) 369-4786 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Saturday and Sunday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.tankless-recall.com

      Note: Regardless of the type of water heater that is used, every home should have a CO alarm outside all sleeping areas, and consumers should ensure that their CO alarms have working batteries.

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      Rheem, Ruud, Richmond Tankless Water Heaters...
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      JetBlue Wants to be Travelers' Valentine Once More

      Offers Profuse Apologies, Passenger Bill of Rights

      Within the space of a week, JetBlue is trying to spring from the source of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to its former role as the airline industry's leader of the pack.

      The seven-year-old carrier, once known as a master innovator and paragon of customer service, seems so determined to recapture that reputation that it has issued a passengers-rights doctrine heavily loaded in favor of consumers.

      The document, issued earlier this week, should not only soften threatened Congressional hearings but should also reverberate in the offices of other airlines, who don't want to be categorized as not caring about their customers.

      Planes packed with passengers have sat on airport tarmacs for interminable stretches of time -- often without food, working toilets, or adequate communications from carriers.

      The problem peaked on Valentine's Day, when nine JetBlue flights sat within sight of gates at the airline's John F. Kennedy International hub. The outbound flights were trying to wait out an ice storm without losing their places in line, while the inbound flights were waiting for gates occupied by other aircraft. Although JetBlue is the largest airline at JFK, it did not have the gate space to accommodate so many planes at once.

      It took six days -- and multiple cancellations -- for the discounter to resume its regular schedule.

      By then, pundits were calling it JetBlack-and-Blue and CEO David Neeleman was trying to explain himself to David Letterman on national television.

      Lots of Company

      Although JetBlue's February 14 fiasco was the most notorious of the trapped-and-stranded incidents because it involved so many planes, it wasn't the only one.

      Less than two months earlier, an American Airlines plane sat on an Austin tarmac for nearly nine hours after it was diverted from Dallas by thunderstorms.

      United Express passengers diverted from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyo. by a winter storm Dec. 20 were left stranded when their planes left without them.

      The same thing happened again on Feb. 8, when Denver-bound United Express and American Connection flights (both operated by Trans States Airlines of St. Louis) were diverted to Scottsbluff, Neb. Both left without passengers six hours later. In both the Dec. 20 and Feb. 8 diversions, passengers eventually reached Denver by bus -- but without kind words for their carriers.

      Although an ancient Chinese proverb suggests that those who forget the lessons of history are designed to repeat them, the airlines seem to have a short memory.

      Less than eight years ago, Northwest passengers sat on the Detroit tarmac for nine years while a winter storm raged. The airline eventually paid a seven-figure, court-imposed settlement but admitted no wrongdoing.

      That was hardly the case with JetBlue. The same airline that started with a Declaration of Independence seven years ago has now added a Passengers' Bill of Rights it intends to enforce, according to its CEO.

      Among the provisions are a $25 voucher to arriving passengers whose planes are delayed on the tarmac for 30-60 minutes; a $100 voucher for delays of 3-4 hours; and a voucher equivalent to the roundtrip ticket cost if a runway delay lasts longer than four hours.

      Arrivals kept from gates for two hours will receive vouchers for their one-way fare, while incoming passengers kept from deplaning more than four hours will receive vouchers valid for the value of their roundtrip tickets. Outbound passengers would also receive vouchers of varying amounts for tarmac delays.

      All customers caught in the Feb. 14 ice storm would be eligible for those and other benefits, since JetBlue decided to make its new rules retroactive.

      "This was a big wake-up call for JetBlue," said Neeleman, whose Bill of Rights also includes full refunds for passengers on flights cancelled within 12 hours of departure for reasons within the carrier's control. "(I promise that) our airline is going to be stronger aned even better prepared to serve our customers."

      Neeleman not only apologized to passengers but also to employees, whom he called "the best in the industry."

      "I promise to get (them) the right resources, tools, and support for them ... so that they in turn can deliver the JetBlue Experience (passengers) have come to expect from us," he said.

      Customer Council

      Toward that end, Neeleman noted that JetBlue would create a Customer Advisory Council that will be the first of its type in the airline industry. It will have input into customer improvement and future airline operations.

      Better communications -- both with passengers and crew -- will be a priority, he said.

      JetBlue cancelled 250 of 505 scheduled flights on Feb. 14 but might have avoided the tarmac problems by cancelling more rather than relying on uncertain weather forecasts. One plane wound up sitting on the tarmac for nearly 11 hours.

      Returning to its regular schedule required the discount airline to scrap another 750 flights through the President's Day holiday on Feb. 19. Estimated losses, including the free travel doled out as compensation, could top $30 million.

      Before the ice storm that gave it so much bad publicity, JetBlue was the envy of the airline industry: a startup so successful that it was named "Best Domestic Airline" five years in a row by members of the North American Travel Journalists Association [NATJA].

      The JFK-based carrier, which serves more than 50 destinations, features planes with leather seats, ample legroom, 36 channels of free DirecTV for every passenger, and XM Satellite Radio on many flights. There is no charge for soft drinks, snacks, or exit-row seating and no requirements for Saturday night stayovers to ensure the lowest fares.

      In addition, both inflight and airport personnel working for JetBlue tend to be polite and professional -- at least in normal circumstances.

      Those circumstances may have changed forever on Feb. 14, for both JetBlue and other carriers. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) both promise legislation mandating a three-hour limited for passengers to be kept on grounded planes, guaranteeing food and sanitary conditions aboard planes, and requiring airlines to provide regular updates regarding delays.

      JetBlue hopes its self-imposed rules will make such legislation unnecessary. They might -- but only if other airlines fall into line as quickly as they do when one proposes a fare increase, and only if FAA rules are modified to allow aircraft to return to the gate without losing their place in line.



      JetBlue Wants to be Travelers' Valentine Once More...
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      Hackers Map Phishing Expeditions with Google Maps


      Identity thieves have shown a new level of technical expertise, spreading malicious code through spam email, then using Google maps to identify the physical location of the hijacked computers.

      The attack has been launched against computer users in Australia, Germany, and the U.S., according to a report in PC World.

      In Australia, victims have been enticed to download a Trojan and backdoor code by clicking a link to read a false news story claiming Australian Prime Minister John Howard had suffered a heart attack. Once installed, the code allows the hacker to log the users' key strokes.

      The code gives the hacker the precise number of infected machines around the world, and links to a corresponding Google map to reveal the physical location. The report said the maps server is used to translate each IP address into an actual physical address.

      Some security experts believe the physical address could be a key piece of information for the hacker, helping him steal the infected computer user's identity. They say knowing the physical address may make it easier to access bank accounts and other sensitive information.

      It's possible that the hackers will change the subject matter of the email to information more relevant for U.S. computer users as the scam gains ground. Currently, users who click on the link will see a "404 Error" page but that may also change as the scam develops.

      John Howard is the latest in a long line of public figures to be used as bait by malware authors and hackers. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and P.W. Botha have been have been used in the past.

      Also, the promise of glimpses of glamorous celebrities like Halle Berry, Anna Kournikova, Julia Robers and Britney Spears have previously been used to help viruses spread.

      "It seems the hackers are back to their old tricks of spamming out sensational headlines in the hope that computer users will forget to think before they click, and visit the website hosting the malignant code," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos.

      "The scammers have registered several domain names that appear to be associated with 'The Australian' newspaper, and have gone to effort to make people think that they really are visiting the genuine site by pointing to the real error page. Everyone should be on their guard against this kind of email con-trick, or risk having their PC infected."

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Identity thieves have shown a new level of technical expertise, spreading malicious code through spam email, then using Google maps to identify the locatio...
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