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    FDA Confirms It Found Plastic in Tainted Pet Food

    Wheat Gluten from Asian is the Suspected Source

    It may not just be rat poison that's causing dogs and cats across the country to become sick and die after eating Menu Foods' tainted products.

    The Food and Drug Administration announced today that its scientists -- and an independent laboratory -- found a chemical commonly used in plastic in samples of the 60 million containers of wet pet food the Canadian company has recalled.

    The FDA said those tests found melamine -- a chemical used in floor tiles, kitchenware, and fire retardant fabrics -- in Menu's tainted pet food.

    Wheat gluten, a source of vegetable protein, is also used in some human foods, but the FDA emphasized it had found no indication that the contaminated ingredient had been used in food for people. The FDA said it would alert the public quickly if the melamine was found in any foods other than the recalled pet food.

    The FDA also found the chemical in the ingredient the FDA suspects is the source of the contamination -- the wheat gluten the company imports from China.

    And that melamine-contaminated wheat gluten, the FDA announced, might have been used to make dry dog food. If that's the case, the scope of this massive recall could be even wider.

    Already, Hill's Pet Nutrition recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry cat food. The food included wheat gluten from the same supplier that Menu Foods used. The recall doesn't involve any other Prescription Diet or Science Diet products, the company said.

    "I just knew this was going to happen," one worried pet owner wrote on the blog in response to today's news. "This is awful, just awful. Our poor beloved pets. They just don't stand a chance ... "

    The FDA isn't sure how melamine -- which is used as fertilizer in Asia -- would have poisoned pets, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

    He said the contaminated wheat gluten was shipped to an unnamed company that manufactures dry pet food.

    Only wet "cuts and gravy" style-pets food are involved in the Menu Foods recall.

    The FDA is now investigating whether the melamine-tainted wheat gluten -- also imported from China --- was used to make any dry pet foods.

    When asked if pet owners could be feeding unsafe food to their animals, Sundlof said: "It is possible, but I think we've been following every lead that we can. My sense is that we have gotten most of it under control."

    Last week, New York officials announced they discovered the toxin aminopterin -- used as rat poison in other countries and as a cancer drug in the United States -- in Menu's contaminated products.

    But the FDA said its tests -- and those by the outside lab -- did not reveal the rat poisoning in the recalled pet food. Or in the wheat gluten.

    Cornell University officials, however, now confirm they found melamine in the urine and kidney of a sick cat. New York officials say they've detected that chemical, too.

    Menu Foods has confirmed its recalled containers of pet food -- distributed throughout North America under 95 brands -- were made with wheat gluten from a new supplier.

    But the company said it stopped using that supplier after cats and dogs that ate the its food showed signs of kidney failure or died.

    Findings Support ASPCA

    Today's announcement by the FDA supports findings released earlier this week by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

    The animal rights group said data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed indicated other contaminants might be involved in the tainted pet foods.

    "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA said on March 27, 2007.

    Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA, added: "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure. But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

    Dr. Hansen said animals poisoned with aminopterin should have additional symptoms.

    "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he said. "This is the missing connection ... there are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants.

    "Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

    The FDA confirmed 16 cats and dogs have died after eating Menu's contaminated food, but it expects that number to dramatically increase. The governmental agency has received more than 8,000 complaints from pet owners and veterinarians, and is testing hundreds of customer-submitted samples.

    The contamination appears to be more deadly to cats than dogs, the FDA's Sundlof said.

    Earlier this week, the Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, announced its members have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food.

    The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats.

    The Web site also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' tainted products. The remaining five deaths did not list a species.

    In addition, VIN said its members have seen 471 cases of kidney failure since Menu Foods announced its massive recall on March 16, 2007.

    The Web site says it has -- as of March 30, 2007 -- received 2,400 unconfirmed reports of dog and cat deaths linked to Menu Foods.

    As the investigation continues, pet owners are advised to watch their dogs and cats for symptoms of kidney failure, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, excessive drinking and either excessive or no urination.

    Veterinarians, however, warn that animals do not show symptoms until about 70 percent of the kidney function is lost.

    A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available at Menu Food's Web site: or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.

    FDA Confirms It Found Plastic in Tainted Pet Food...
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    Parkinson's Drugs Withdrawn Because of Heart Valve Damage

    Permax and Generic Equivalents Being Withdrawn; Other Drugs Available

    Manufacturers of pergolide drug products, which are used to treat Parkinson's disease, will voluntarily remove the drugs from the market because of the risk of serious damage to patients' heart valves.

    The products being withdrawn are Permax, the trade name for pergolide marketed by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, and two generic versions of pergolide manufactured by Par and Teva.

    Pergolide is in a class of medications called dopamine agonists and is used with levodopa and carbidopa to manage the symptoms (tremors and slowness of movement) of Parkinson's disease.

    In 2006, an estimated 12,000 patients received prescriptions for pergolide from retail pharmacies in the United States. Patients taking pergolide should contact their doctors to discuss alternate treatments. Patients should not stop taking the medication, as stopping pergolide abruptly can be dangerous.

    There are alternative therapies available for Parkinson's disease, including three other dopamine agonists that have not been associated with valvular heart disease. The removal of pergolide products is not expected to adversely affect patient care because of the alternative therapies available, the FDA said.

    "Based on important new drug safety information, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been working with the manufacturers of pergolide products to voluntarily remove these drugs from the market," said Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., deputy director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "The FDA's increased evaluation of post-market safety is benefiting the public because, in this case, as new data about the product became available, we were able to remove a less safe drug from the market."

    Two recent New England Journal of Medicine studies confirm previous findings associating pergolide with increased chance of regurgitation (backflow of blood) of the mitral, tricuspid, and aortic valves of the heart.

    Valve regurgitation is a condition in which valves don't close tightly, allowing blood to flow backward across the valve. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and heart palpitations.

    In light of this additional post-market safety information, the companies that manufacture and sell pergolide will stop shipping pergolide for distribution and, in cooperation with FDA, will withdraw the products from the market.

    Permax was approved in 1988 for Eli Lilly and Company as an adjunctive therapy with levodopa in Parkinson's disease. Valvular heart disease was first described in association with pergolide in 2002. In 2003, FDA asked Lilly to add valvulopathy (abnormality of cardiac valves) to the warnings section of Permax labeling, at which time a Dear Healthcare Practitioner letter was sent by Lilly. In 2006, the warning was upgraded to a black box warning, the FDA's strongest form of warning, because of new data concerning risks of heart valve damage.

    FDA is issuing a Public Health Advisory (PHA) detailing the removal of pergolide products from the market. The PHA, which is available online includes information and recommended actions for physicians, pharmacists and patients.

    The effect of the voluntary withdrawal on supplies of pergolide currently in pharmacies will not be immediate. This delay will allow time for health care providers and patients to discuss appropriate treatment options and time to change treatments.

    Parkinson's Drugs Withdrawn Because of Heart Valve Damage...
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    The Healthy Geezer: Liver Spots Aren't All Dangerous

    The Healthy Geezer

    Q. Do liver spots have anything at all to do with the liver? A. No. This is a common question and a great starting point for a column about all those doohickeys that grow on our skin as we age.

    LIVER SPOTS The official name for liver or age spots is "lentigines" from the Latin for "lentil." These are flat, brown with rounded edges and are larger than freckles. They are not dangerous.

    KERATOSES Seborrheic keratoses are brown or black raised spots, or wart-like growths that appear to be stuck to the skin. They are harmless. Actinic keratoses are thick, warty, rough, reddish growths. They may be a precursor to skin cancer.

    CHERRY ANGIOMAS These are small, bright-red raised bumps created by dilated blood vessels. They occur in more than 85 percent of seniors, usually on the trunk. These are also not dangerous.

    TELANGIECTASIA These are dilated facial blood vessels.

    SKIN TAGS These are bits of skin that project outward. They may be smooth or irregular, flesh colored or more deeply pigmented. They can either be raised above the surrounding skin or have a stalk so that the tag hangs from the skin. They are benign.

    Now we get into the cancers of the skin.

    SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMAS These are in the outer layers of the skin. They are closely associated with aging. These are capable of spreading to other organs. They are small, firm, reddened nodules or flat growths. They may also be cone-shaped. Their surfaces may be scaly or crusted.

    BASAL CELL CARCINOMAS These are the most common of the skin cancers. They develop in the basal layer below the surface of the skin. Basal cell carcinomas seldom spread to other parts of the body. They usually appear as small, shiny bumps or pinpoint, red bleeding areas on the head, face, nose, neck or chest.

    MELANOMAS The melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas can spread to other organs and can be fatal. They usually appear as dark brown or black mole-like growths with irregular borders and variable colors. They usually arise in a pre-existing mole or other pigmented lesion.

    Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. About half of all Americans who live to 65 will have skin cancer. Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin.

    Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. All skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they spread. The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, especially a new growth or a sore that doesn't heal.

    Check your skin often. Look for changes in the size, shape, color, or feel of birthmarks, moles, and spots. And don't be reluctant to go to a doctor whenever you see anything on your skin that you suspect might be a problem.

    Dermatologists recommend that, if you are a fair-skinned senior, you should get a full-body skin exam once a year. This kind of check-up isn't a bad idea for any senior.

    All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

    The Healthy Geezer: Liver Spots Aren't All Dangerous...
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      Fed Chair Rethinks Easy Access To Credit

      Easy credit helped lead to implosion in housing market

      Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke recently commented that widespread access to credit may have contributed to the chain of events leading to the explosion in home prices and the subsequent implosion of lenders that cater to the "subprime" market. 

      Bernanke's comments came as part of a speech touting the benefits of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which insures that banks and lenders in a community provide services to low-income residents. The CRA was generally credited for helping families with low and moderate income levels achieve homeownership in greater numbers than before, but that the "results were not uniform," Bernanke said.

      Increased participation of nonbank lenders in the mortgage market and the expansion of available credit -- along with a corresponding relaxation of standards for lending -- also increased home ownership for many who might not have been able to purchase a first home otherwise. But, Bernanke cautioned, "recent problems in mortgage markets illustrate that an underlying assumption of the CRA -- that more lending equals better outcomes for local communities may not always hold."

      "Whether, and if so, how to try to differentiate "good" from "bad" lending in the CRA context is an issue that is likely to challenge us for some time," Bernanke said. "One possible strategy is to place more weight in CRA examinations on factors such as whether an institution provides services complementary to lending--for example, counseling and financial education."

      The collapse of the subprime market -- lenders who target loans at individuals with low incomes, or with bad or minimal credit histories -- has accelerated as home sales stall, prices sag, and families find themselves trapped in homes they can't afford and can't easily sell or refinance. Many homebuyers took advantage of "creative" mortgage products, such as interest-only loans, with ballooning payments that the borrower can't keep up with.

      Many subprime lenders took advantage of the hot market by loosening underwriting standards and overlooking problems in a borrower's financial history. Others deliberately targeted low-income markets -- mostly black and Hispanic -- and used predatory lending tactics, as well as capitalizing on the lack of financial education of many borrowers.

      As homeowners defaulted on their loans in increasing numbers, and many simply let their homes be foreclosed, subprime lenders found themselves unable to finance new loans and fend off hungry backers. New Century Financial is potentially seeking bankruptcy protection after agreeing to cease lending practices in several states, and has cut ties with mortgage backers such as Freddie Mac.

      States and Congress alike have been calling for tighter regulation of mortgage lenders, especially in the subprime market, and more aggressive prosecution of companies that engage in predatory lending tactics. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) recently offered up new legislation that would empower a "national regulatory system" to oversee all lenders and prevent proliferation of no-document loans.

      Bernanke's Burden

      Meanwhile, Fed chair Bernanke continues to navigate through an economic bust engineered in no small part by his predecessor, Alan Greenspan. The former Fed chair's decision to cut interest rates to record lows spurred new trends in lending and borrowing, as homeowners refinanced multiple times, pulled equity out of their homes, and "speculated" in the market by buying multiple properties to "flip" for quick profits.

      It was not until Greenspan was safely retired that he began to warn of the ill effects of easily available credit in the housing boom.

      After two years of raising the prime lending interest rate during his tenure, Bernanke's Fed has held lending rates steady at 5.25 percent while campaigning for Congress to address fixing entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

      Bernanke has frequently stated that failures in the subprime market would be "contained" and would not spread to the larger mortgage sector, and that the economy would grow at a sustainable pace, not requiring further hikes in interest rates. His "easy credit" comments are the strongest indicator yet that the Federal Reserve may change its course, possibly pushing for tighter lending standards to prevent future meltdowns.

      Fed Chair Rethinks Easy Access To Credit...
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      FDA Finds Plastic in Tainted Pet Food

      PETA Demands a Wider Recall; Wants IAMS Investigated

      U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing found a chemical commonly used in plastics, but no rat poison, in the recalled pet food that has killed and sickened cats and dogs nationwide, the agency said today.

      As the FDA was announcing its findings, the animal-rights organization PETA called on the agency to immediately expand the pet food recall to include all dry varieties subject to complaints until they are chemically tested for safety.

      PETA will also wants the FDA to investigate Iams in order to find out if the company knew about the contaminated food before calling for a recall.

      "Nearly a month elapsed between the first reports of illness and death from contaminated products and the recall -- time during which countless cats and dogs may have been sickened and died," says PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich. "We?re calling on Iams and other companies not to gamble with animals' lives and to recall all dry food products that are the subject of complaints immediately."

      Testing by the FDA and at least one lab independent of the agency found melamine, a chemical used in plastics and household textiles, in samples of the recalled pet food and in one of its ingredients -- wheat gluten, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

      Cornell University scientists say they have also found the chemical, sometimes used as a fertilizer, in the urine of sick cats, as well as in the kidney of one cat that died after eating the company's wet food.

      The FDA now says it has received 8,000 complaints regarding the recalled food and is testing hundreds of customer-submitted samples. Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of cat and dog food earlier this month after animals died of kidney failure after eating the Canadian company's products.

      PETA charged that Iams has "a history of causing animal suffering."

      "During a 2002 to 2003 undercover investigation of an animal-testing laboratory contracted by Iams, a PETA investigator documented that terrified animals were confined to cramped, unsanitary cages in dilapidated rooms; that dogs had chunks of muscle cut from their thighs; and other acts of cruelty," PETA said.

      Rat Poison

      There had been earlier expressions of doubt that aminopterin was the sole cause of the wave of pet poisonings.

      The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn't so sure. Based on data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed, the animal rights group suspects other contaminants might be involved.

      "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA stated in a release issued March 27, 2007.

      "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure," said Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA. "But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

      Dr. Hansen says animals poisoned with aminopterin -- which is used to treat humans with cancer -- should have additional symptoms.

      "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he says. "This is the missing connection that we want to alert veterinarians around the country to.

      He adds: "There are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected, that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants. Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

      FDA Finds Plastic in Tainted Pet Food...
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      Asthma Patients Pay the Price for Ozone Protection

      Polluters Can Pollute Away but Asthma Victims Must Pay Up

      No one's putting any restrictions on Hummers, backyard grills, coal-fired power plants or other pollutants but those who are already victims of air pollution -- asthma victims -- will be paying up to three times as much for their live-saving inhalers, all in the name of protecting the ozone layer.

      A study in the March 29 New England Journal of Medicine finds the new inhalers effective, but expensive.

      Conducted by two university professors and a director for the Food and Drug Administration, the review examines the consequences of switching to hydrofluoroalkane, which is replacing chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, as a key ingredient in albuterol inhalers designed to relieve asthma. The FDA has ruled that U.S. sales of CFC albuterol inhalers be prohibited after 2008.

      About 52 million prescriptions are filled for albuterol each year in the United States, with most containing a generic version of CFC. But because of rising global concerns about CFC's ozone-depleting effects, "medically essential" inhalers are finally joining a list of banned products that started in 1978.

      The researchers say their analyses show that inhalers with CFC and the new brands that contain hydrofluoroalkane, or HFA, are equally effective at treating asthma.

      "Hopefully, by communicating with health-care professionals, we'll be able to reassure patients," said Leslie Hendeles, the University of Florida professor of pharmacy and pediatrics who spearheaded the review.

      Albuterol, one of the medicines that relieve asthma attacks, is the seventh most commonly prescribed drug in the United States. Because it's so widely used, the report predicts Americans will spend an additional $1.2 billion a year on three patented inhaler brands containing the new propellant (Ventolin, ProAir and Proventil) until generic versions reach pharmacies, probably after 2012.

      Patients who pay for their own medications will probably be hit hardest by new costs -- paying on average $26 more per prescription, or $312 more per year -- but people with prescription benefit plans will likely face higher co-pays as well, according to the review.

      Additionally, while the new inhalers are just as effective as their traditional CFC counterparts, a few differences have been reported. One brand, for example, comes sealed in a protective pouch. After that pouch is opened, the drug carries a shelf life of just two months, while most inhalers can typically be stored for 15 to 24 months, Hendeles said.

      Consumers will also notice that only the Ventolin brand of HFA inhaler comes with a counter to track how much medicine is left. For that reason, Hendeles suggests keeping a backup inhaler handy if physicians prescribe a device without a counter.

      "There isn't any reliable way of estimating when they're going to run out," said Hendeles, who also serves as a consultant to the FDA.

      The review also reports that some HFA inhalers tend to clog more easily. To prevent clogging in HFA inhalers, Hendeles advised patients to remove the devices' metal canister once a week and clean the plastic actuators with warm water.

      Not all of the new HFA inhaler products are ideal for everyone and health-care providers and their patients should be aware of important differences.

      Two brands of HFA inhalers contain ethanol. It may not be an appropriate therapy choice depending on the patient's religious beliefs, and can temporarily cause a false reading on breath alcohol tests performed by law enforcement agencies, Hendeles said.

      Hendeles noted that CFC inhalers release negligible amounts of the propellant, and do not pose a threat to ozone depletion. However, the United States joined more than 185 other countries in signing the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty requiring complete withdrawal of all CFC products. The inhaler, deemed medically necessary, was exempt until new market replacements using HFA became available.

      Hendeles said he hopes the review will dispel myths about HFA for doctors and patients. Still, even though HFA inhalers are safe for the environment and effective at treating asthma, some people may feel uncomfortable when making the switch. HFA inhalers spew slower and warmer plumes of medicine than their CFC counterparts, so asthma patients may fear their new inhalers aren't strong enough.

      "There undoubtedly will be some people who are absolutely certain it doesn't work as well," Hendeles said, adding that patient education is the key to proper care.

      Dr. Rachel L. Miller, an assistant professor of clinical medicine and public health at Columbia University, said she would urge asthma patients to consult their pharmacist or health-care provider if they're nervous about using the new inhalers.

      "It's really the same drug," said Miller, who has worked with both CFC and HFA inhalers. "I have found both of them, in my personal experience, seem to work fine."

      Asthma Patients Pay the Price for Ozone Protection...
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      FTC Stops 'Reduce Debt Now' Scheme

      At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a judge has temporarily halted an operation that falsely claimed it could reduce consumers' credit card interest rates or the total amount of their credit card debt, leading many people into even more debt.

      The FTC's complaint claims that since 2004 the defendants have sold debt reduction services through Web sites and television and radio advertisements with claims such as "Reduce Debt Now," "Eliminate Harassing Calls," and "It's Free."

      When consumers call a toll-free number, they are encouraged to enroll in a "debt consolidation program" if their unsecured consumer debt is up to one month overdue, or to enroll in a "debt settlement program" if overdue more than a month.

      According to the complaint, the defendants promise to consolidate the consumer's debts and negotiate with creditors for lower interest rates, such as "between zero and 9 percent," or lump-sum settlements, such as "fifty cents on the dollar" or "50 to 60 percent" of the consumer's total unsecured debt.

      They allegedly fail to obtain the promised debt reductions in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, and many of their clients experienced more debt due to accumulated interest, late fees, and finance charges.

      The complaint also states that, during initial telephone sales, the defendants assert that consumers will not have to pay up-front fees before the defendants begin obtaining the promised debt relief. They also represent that participation in their program will stop creditors from calling or suing them to collect debt.

      Instead, the Commission maintains, they generally require consumers to pay, in monthly payments, eight percent of the consumer's total debt before the defendants contact creditors. The complaint also alleges that the defendants often do not contact creditors or debt collectors at all, and that consumers who enroll in the program continue to receive collection calls.

      The court issued a temporary restraining order against Debt Set Inc. ("Debt Set Colorado"), Debt-Set ("Debt -Set Nevada"), Resolve Credit Counseling Inc., William Riggs, Michelle Tucker a/k/a Michelle Mangan, Lee Tucker a/k/a Leo Mangan, and Isaac Khan a/k/a Issac M. Khan or Ishaq Mohammad Khan. The order freezes the individual defendants' assets and appoints a temporary receiver over the corporate defendants.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      FTC Stops 'Reduce Debt Now' Scheme...
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      Reports of Dog, Cat Deaths Continue to Rise

      Some Scientists Question Whether Rat Poison is the Cause

      Reports of illnesses and deaths linked to Menu Foods' tainted dog and cat food continue to rise nationwide -- far more than the 16 confirmed cases reported by the Federal Drug Administration -- while some scientists question the widely reported findings that rat poisoning may be to blame for the outbreak.

      The Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, says its members have reported 471 cases of kidney failure in the 12 days since Menu Foods of Canada recalled 60 million containers of "cuts and gravy" style cat and dog foods tainted with rat poisoning.

      More than 95 brands -- sold throughout North America under store and private labels -- are involved in the massive recall.

      "The 16 (cases) the FDA confirms is barely the tip of the iceberg," the network's co-founder, veterinarian Paul Pion, told The Los Angeles Times. "There will be much more than this."

      Pion says veterinarians have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food. The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats. The Web site has also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' products. The remaining deaths did not list a species.

      Veterinarians also reported that 59 pets have survived illnesses linked to the recalled food and 129 animals are still undergoing treatment.

      The Web site says that -- as of March 27, 2007 -- it had received nearly 2,000 reports of pets dying after eating Menu's contaminated food. Those reports came from pet owners and are not confirmed cases.

      Rat Poison

      Scientists have identified the contamination in Menu's dog and cat foods as a rat poison called aminopterin. The company is investigating how that toxin got into its food supply, but the FDA suspects the culprit might be the wheat gluten Menu imports from China.

      But is rat poisoning the real cause for these pets' illnesses and death?

      The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn't so sure. Based on data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed, the animal rights group suspects other contaminants might be involved.

      "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA stated in a release issued March 27, 2007.

      "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure," said Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA. "But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

      Dr. Hansen says animals poisoned with aminopterin -- which is used to treat humans with cancer -- should have additional symptoms.

      "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he says. "This is the missing connection that we want to alert veterinarians around the country to.

      He adds: "There are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected, that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants. Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

      Pet Owners' Stories

      The widespread reports of illness and death among cats and dogs mirror the complaints has received from pets owners across the country, who says their dogs or cats became sick or died after eating Menu Foods tainted products.

      "My cat, Murphy has been in the hospital for three days now," says Victoria Olsen of Federal Way, WA., "He experienced the same symptoms as the cats I have read about. He quit eating, drank water to excess, and was always in the litter box."

      This is a cat, she says, that nearly died two years ago.

      "He survived being caught for 28 days in a neighbor's animal trap. He suffered a crushed hind leg, lost more than half of his body weight, and still managed to drag himself home. It took awhile, but he came back and was back to normal.

      "Now, after eating contaminated Authority brand pet food, he has lost all of the weight he gained back and is in renal failure."

      A cat owner in Texas says her pet is also battling kidney problems. And she blames the sudden illness on Menu Foods.

      "My cat, Munchie, has become very ill with kidney failure after eating Special Kitty, one of the foods listed on the pet food recall," says Ann, of Springs, Texas. "She has always been a healthy cat, who we loving referred to as 'fat cat.' Now my 'fat cat' is a skinny cat who is in the animal hospital trying to get well ... the vet say she will need to be on a special diet, with medications, for the rest of her life."

      Deaths Reported

      We've also received complaints about pets dying after eating Menu Foods' products.

      "I had been feeding my cat the pouches of Special Kitty sold at Wal-Mart (and included in the recall)," says Vickie S. of Clifton Forge, VA. "My cat seemed to go downhill very rapidly. She stopped eating, drinking, and was very lethargic. By the time I was able to get her to the vet, she was in acute renal failure with complications in her pancreas and liver.

      "The vet did not give a good prognosis for her recovery, and I had to make the decision to have her mercifully euthanized."

      At the time, Menu Foods hadn't announced its recall.

      The news shocked and devastated Vickie.

      "I had been unknowingly poisoning my beloved pet the whole time," she says. "Due to this poisoning, vet bills of approximately $400.00 were incurred that would have otherwise been unnecessary and I would still have my loving companion."

      A dog owner in Illinois says his "best friend" became gravely ill and had to be put to sleep after eating some of the tainted food.

      "My dog was my child and has been with me for 13 plus years," says Dave O., of Lisle, Illinois. "The amount of pain I am going through for the loss of my best friend is indescribable."

      Dave says he hopes his dog didn't die in vain.

      "The void left is immeasurable, but we want to make sure that something good comes out of this ... be it more strict policies on food quality or money that can go to help other animals in need."

      Other Brands?

      Some pet owners also told us their dogs and cats became sick after eating other brands of pet food.

      Their pets, they say, had symptoms similar to those who at the contaminated foods. And they now wonder if the recall should extend beyond Menu Foods.

      "I use 22 ounce cans of Pedigree dog food and mix it in with my dog's dry food," says Jill C. of Minden, NV. "She was sick for approximately five to six days, lethargic, had diarrhea, and vomited a couple of times."

      After a few days on dry food, her dog's condition improved.

      "So I again mixed in some wet food and she threw it all up," Jill says. "I've stopped feeding her any canned Pedigree what-so-ever.

      "My concern is 'how does anyone at this point know if it's just Menu Foods that has a problem?'"

      Recall List

      A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available on Menu Food's Web site: or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.

      Pet owners should immediately contact their veterinarians if they notice any signs of illness in their animals after eating the recalled foods, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in water consumption, or changes in urination.

      Reports of Dog, Cat Deaths Continue to Rise...
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      Baby Trend Recalls Infant Back Pack Carriers

      Baby Trend is recalling infant back pack carriers. The stitching on the strap of the carrier can loosen or detach, causing the carrier to shift, posing a fall hazard to young children.

      Baby Trend has received one report of a child whose forehead was bruised after falling out of the carrier. Baby Trend also received 17 reports of shoulder straps loosening from the body of the carrier.

      The product is a green/silver infant back pack carrier made of heavy duty nylon with a lightweight steel frame. Only carriers with style number 2512 and 2592LX are included in the recall. Style numbers are printed on the metal frame of the product. The carrier has a 5-point safety harness, padded shoulder and hip straps, padded leg openings and heat support. The carrier also has a top canopy and large diaper bag which attaches to the frame. "Baby Trend" is printed on the back of the seat of the carrier. The backpack folds into its own diaper bag for storage and travel.

      The carriers were sold at discount department and juvenile products stores nationwide from March 2002 through November 2006 for about $50.

      Consumers should contact Baby Trend for return instructions and a free replacement carrier.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Baby Trend at (800) 328-7363 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at

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

      Baby Trend Recalls Infant Back Pack Carriers...
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      Senators Object to DirecTV Deal that Shuts Out Baseball Fans

      "Works a real inconvenience with a lot of people," Sen. Kerry notes

      Senators warned Major League Baseball today that if they sign an exclusive programming package deal with DirecTV, Congress may step in and defend the hundreds of thousands of consumers who are just four days away from losing their ability to watch out of market baseball games.

      Today's hearing comes three weeks after Major League Baseball (MLB) and DirecTV reached an agreement to carry MLB's popular Extra Innings package of out-of-market games. Although not exclusive, the deal will become so if DirecTV's rivals do not match DirecTV's terms before Opening Day, April 1.

      "It works a real inconvenience with a lot of people," said Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.), who convened the hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee. "A lot of baseball fans are very disappointed and some are very angry."

      The catch for DirecTV's rivals is that it will become very costly for them to match those terms. Although the exact terms of the deal have not been released, even to DirecTV's rivals, MLB spokespeople have said that these are the terms:

      • Seven years at $100 million per year
      • Carriage of MLB's 24-hour Baseball Channel, scheduled for launch in 2009, on at least 80 percent of all subscriber's basic package
      • 20 percent minority ownership of The Baseball Channel

      But at the Senate hearing today, it seemed Major League Baseball (MLB) is actively trying to prevent millions of fans from having access to their package of out of market games and The Baseball Channel.

      DirecTV's rivals said they offered to match the terms, but MLB has rebuffed both offers.

      At the hearing, Dish Network president Carl Vogel, revealed that Dish had offered to match the terms including an equal 20 percent ownership of The Baseball Channel. But MLB told them the 20 percent offer was only available to DirecTV.

      Two weeks ago, iN DEMAND, a consortium of digital cable operators, offered to match the deal by promising to provide The Baseball Channel to as many customers as DirecTV and did not offer to become an owner of the channel. But MLB turned down that deal because iN DEMAND would only provide The Baseball Channel to the same number of customers as DirecTV, not the 80 percent.

      Kerry, chairman of the committee, convinced all the parties to meet in the next 24 to 48 hours to attempt to come to terms that will be best for consumers, not the bottom line.

      But MLB president Robert Dupuy did not seem hopeful a deal could be reached before the fast-approaching deadline.

      If an agreement is not reached and Extra Innings becomes exclusive to DirecTV, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) warned, "We are not entirely powerless."

      A Contractual Catfight

      MLB has offered Extra Innings on a non-exclusive basis since its inception in 2001.

      MLB's Extra Innings is valuable to baseball's most devoted fans because it allows them to watch almost every game regardless of their location. For example, a Los Angeles Dodgers fan can watch almost all Dodgers games in Atlanta. The service is particularly popular with fantasy baseball players.

      But over the winter, MLB began looking for an exclusive deal for the package after DirecTV began negotiating one in the fall, Dupuy told

      MLB tried to generate a bidding war and went to DirecTV's rivals for counter offers. iN DEMAND would not negotiate an exclusive deal, potentially matching DirecTV's, but did offer to match DirecTV's financial terms of $100 million per year over seven years. But MLB was insistent in finding an exclusive partner, so it went forward with DirecTV, a company that has held the exclusive rights to NFL games among other sports partners.

      When word got out that MLB was close to signing an exclusive deal with DirecTV in February, fans and newspaper opinion pages fumed.

      The deal would cut out approximately 250,000 fans who had previously subscribed either through Dish Network or iN DEMAND. The deal would also cut out approximately 50 million potential consumers who subscribe to Dish and digital cable.

      MLB and DirecTV responded by saying that cable customers have the option of switching to DirecTV or watching the games online.

      But many fans, particularly those in urban neighborhoods cannot watch satellite TV because they cannot get a good view of the southern sky, where the satellite orbits, or, in even more cases, are not allowed to put a dish on their rental. Many homeowners simply do not want to devalue their investment -- or risk damaging their roof -- by placing a grey dish atop their homes.

      As far as watching the games online, a very fast broadband connection is required and although it is an alternative, it is a rather pixilated one as the quality is less than half that of digital cable. It also costs $90-$120 per season compared to Extra Innings which costs $179.

      As the angry letters piled into government offices, a handful of Congressmen, led by Sen. Kerry, began looking into the matter. Kerry asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the burgeoning deal in early March. The Commission has not released the results of the investigation, but Kerry said last week that the deal is "probably not" illegal.

      MLB commissioner Bud Selig further infuriated fans when in early March he told reporters at a press conference that "I'm really wondering [about the fuss]. ... In a year or two, when people understand the significance of this deal ... everybody will understand it."

      Senators Object to DirecTV Deal that Shuts Out Baseball Fans...
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      Public Citizen Objects to Carfax Settlement

      Settlement does nothing for consumers or safety, group argues

      Public Citizen today filed objections to a proposed nationwide settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Carfax, a company that sells history reports for used cars.

      The lawsuit, filed in Ohio, alleges that consumers are being deceived by Carfax's claim that its vehicle history reports are based on searches of its nationwide database, when in fact the database does not include police accident data from 22 states and the District of Columbia.

      The objections to the settlement were filed on behalf of 17 individual class members and the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.

      Although the complaint asked the court to award damages to Carfax customers and to require Carfax to disclose the specific limitations of its database, the proposed settlement would do neither.

      Instead, it would primarily benefit Carfax, which would obtain a release from all similar claims by all former customers nationwide, and the plaintiff's lawyers, who would receive $556,000 in fees.

      "Carfax should be held accountable for misleading its customers -- it should not benefit from this settlement that adds insult to injury," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.

      The settlement defines the class of consumers bound by its terms to include anyone who purchased a Carfax vehicle history report prior to Oct. 27, 2006.

      However, individual notice of the proposed settlement was sent only by e-mail and only to customers who bought Carfax reports during the one year preceding the settlement. As a result, the majority of class members got no notice of the settlement.

      "Not only will the notice fail to reach most of the class, but even those consumers who hear about the settlement will receive almost no benefit for releasing their claims," said Deepak Gupta, an attorney at Public Citizen who runs the organization's Consumer Justice Project. "If the settlement is approved, class members who know about the settlement will receive coupons that are worthless to most of them."

      The settlement allows class members to choose between a coupon for another Carfax report or a coupon for $20 off a car inspection by the company SGS SA. The report coupons expire in two or three years, while the inspection coupons expire in six months, rendering them useless to any class member who is not buying a used car during those time periods.

      "The settlement would do nothing to force Carfax to inform consumers of the deficiencies of its reports," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety

      Instead, the settlement would require Carfax to state on its Web site that it "may" not have the complete history for every vehicle, when, according to the complaint in the case, the company knows for certain that it does not have a complete history for a large number, perhaps even most, of its vehicles.

      Although the complaint specifies 23 jurisdictions from which Carfax does not get police accident data, the settlement would not require Carfax to identify which ones are missing from its database.

      "When I bought a subscription to Carfax reports in 2005, I had no way of knowing that the reports did not have accident information from neighboring places like Delaware, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Virginia," said Gwynneth Anderson, a Maryland resident and an objector to the settlement who bought a 2005 Nissan Sentra after researching the car through Carfax.

      "The proposal for coupons and an inspection voucher are worthless to me now. But for future buyers, Carfax should be required to let them know exactly what's missing from its reports."

      A hearing on the motion for approval of the settlement is scheduled for May 11 in Warren, Ohio.

      Public Citizen lawyers Gupta, Allison Zieve and Brian Wolfman filed the objections, with Ronald Frederick as local counsel in Ohio.

      Public Citizen Objects to Carfax Settlement...
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      Pet Food Recall Hits Home

      Menu Foods Employees Fret as Emporia Plant Sits Idle

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      EMPORIA, Kan., March 26, 2007 -- What kind of people could make pet food that kills cats and dogs?

      Welcome to Emporia
      The Menu Foods Plant
      People just like you and me, it turns out. The pet food that's blamed for the deaths of least 16 dogs and cats nationwide came from Menu Foods production plants in Emporia, Kansas, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, where employees are just as puzzled and concerned as everyone else.

      In Emporia, a town of about 30,000 located 120 miles southwest of Kansas City on Interstate 35, Menu Foods is known for its high standards and demand for excellence.

      It's a company that has pumped 476 good-paying jobs into this primarily blue-collar community in the past ten years. And one townspeople describe it as an "excellent community citizen" with "caring employees."

      "This is unbelievable and doesn't make any sense," former Mayor Evora Wheeler says when asked about Menu Foods' production of dog and cat food tainted with rat poison.

      The Emporia plant only makes the "cuts and gravy" style of pet food involved in the nationwide recall of 60 million cans and pouches of dog and cat food-sold under 95 different brands.

      Canadian-based Menu Foods announced the massive recall on March 16, 2007, after pets that ate the company's food became ill or died.

      "There has to be another explanation," Wheeler says of the contamination. "This is a fine company and I am confident they did not know an ingredient they were using was contaminated."

      Wheeler and other townspeople interviewed during a recent trip to Emporia are also confident that none of Menu Foods' employees are responsible for the contaminated pet food.

      "It's somewhat insulting -- and a slam to our community -- when people talk about tampering," Wheeler says.

      Jeff Longbine, chairman of the Regional Development Association, agrees.

      "The thing that people don't see is the management and employees of Menu Foods. They're all good people. These are people who are our neighbors, our kids go to school with their kids, or we go to the same church.

      "For this to have happened is devastating to them," he says. "And there is deep concern within this community for Menu Foods and its employees."

      There's also tremendous concern for the scores of grieving pet owners across the country.

      "My heart goes out to those pet owners," Wheeler says. "And I am confident that Menu Foods will do everything it can to correct this negative situation."

      Jeanine McKenna, president and CEO of the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed: "We are all saddened by this. This is something that effects us all ... we're all animal lovers.

      "I can understand why people are angry (at Menu Foods)," McKenna adds. "Their pets are their family members. But at the same time, these are employees who pride themselves in doing quality work. And they're just as devastated by this."

      Rat Poison

      New York investigators last week identified the source of the contamination in Menu's pet food as a toxin called aminopterin.

      That's a rat poison widely used in other countries, but not in the United States.

      "I was glad when I heard that (the contamination) wasn't anything in Menu's processing ... that it was something from an outside vendor," Longbine says. "I knew Menu Foods was too good of a company to take any short-cuts."

      Menu Foods President and CEO, Paul Henderson, said last Friday that he doesn't know how the rat poison entered his company's food supply.

      Earlier reports suggested the toxin may have been used on the wheat gluten Menu Foods imports from China -- or sprayed in the storage containers that transport the product overseas.

      The Food and Drug Administration has focused its investigation on wheat gluten, which is commonly used in pet foods as a thickening agent and source of protein.

      Plant Idle

      As that investigation continues, Menu Foods' production plant in Emporia stands idle -- at least for now. The company announced a two-to-four-day shut down on March 23, 2007, in response to the recall.

      That recall, that company says, is likely to cost between $30-$40 million. Menu Foods also faces at least three pending lawsuits filed in response to the contamination.

      What does this mean for Menu's future in Emporia?

      "I can tell you everybody is concerned," says Mayor Jim Kessler. "Menu Foods has been a success story here in Emporia as far as our economic development. And there's concern that this might affect the employment base here. But everybody hopes that Menu Foods will come through all this."

      The company has vowed there will be no layoffs.

      "There is absolutely zero impact on employment," The Emporia Gazette quoted a Menu Foods spokesman as saying. "The company has certainly been challenged by what has been one of the biggest recalls in consumer history, but our consumers are loyal, the company is strong and business is moving forward."

      The home of fabled journalist and Progressivist William Allen White, Emporia had been down on its luck in the 1990s. In What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004), historian Thomas Frank portrayed Emporia as a shuttered, dried-up ghost of its former self, and blamed conservative economic policies for its decline.

      Emporia's boosters say Frank went a little too far but beneath their Midwestern pride and optimism, there's a sense of concern for what the latest food-chain disaster means for Menu Foods and American agriculture.

      Lifelong Emporia resident Jesse Solis remains optimistic, saying the key to Menu's future is its loyal customer base.

      "And I think people will stick by this company. I'm a pet owner and I feed my dog Menu Foods. I will continue to feed him Menu Foods, and recommend it to other pet owners I know."

      So will Longbine.

      "I feed my dog Menu Foods and will continue to give it her," he says. "And I hope other people -- and Wal-Mart, Safeway, and other retailers -- will continue to buy the company's products.

      "I think Menu Foods is strong enough to survive this."

      Pet Food Recall Hits Home...
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      Ford Engines "Dropping Like Flies" with Spark Plug Blow-Outs

      Confessions of a Ford Technician

      A Ford Motor Co. warranty inspector says the Ford Triton V-8 engines are "dropping like flies" because of blown spark plugs and a Ford dealer technician wants his customers to know it's not his fault.

      "I am a Ford dealer technician. I would like to address the Ford spark plug blowout issue," the technician wrote as he was working on a Ford vehicle that had blown a spark plug out of its aluminum head.

      "I would like the customers to know that it is Ford's defective engine design and not the fault of the technicians or dealerships," said the technician, who asked that his name and hometown not be used for fear that he would be fired if his identity was made public.

      He had this warning for Ford truck owners: "The warranty inspector from Ford told me the 5.4-liter engines are dropping like flies referring to spark plug blowouts."

      Despite spark plug problems in the Ford Triton engines, our Ford technician said his "hands are tied by Ford and Ford decides what it will and won't pay for even when people have warranties."

      The Ford technician told that the Triton engines are very difficult and time-consuming to repair. He accused Ford of squeezing mechanics in the repair process with "insufficient flat rate times," and said, "the techs end up working free hours."

      "It is not on our shoulders to repair these problems at our expense," he wrote, "even to keep a customer. I can tell you that we are seeing spark plug blowouts more and more often. At times 3 or 4 vehicles a week."

      The Ford policy, he complained, unfairly paints the technician as the person refusing to stand behind the Ford product.

      "The customers need to understand that these poorly designed engines are a huge burden on the people that fix them and I am tired of subsidizing Ford like some kind of welfare," the technician wrote. "The people that are fixing these engines are not at fault but we get beat up by the customers."

      The Ford mechanic said no one at the automaker seems to be certain why the Triton engine, which is in widespread use throughout the country, spits spark plugs from its engine head.

      "Everybody seems to have a different opinion on why the plugs loosen up and beat up the threads until the plugs get ejected but I don't know of a way to prevent it either."

      His advice? Find another truck or SUV.

      "I personally have a 2000 Expedition with a 5.4 and even though the cost in actual dollars would be significantly less because I would fix it myself if it blows out a plug I am planning on selling it soon to avoid the problem."

      The Ford technician said he thinks the only way to solve the spark plug problem for consumers would be a costly and unlikely warranty extension by Ford.

      "Ford needs to be held responsible for the repairs of spark plug blowout and should extend the warranty to 100,000 miles regardless of age on spark plug blowout issue," he wrote. "They also should be forced to pay a fair amount of labor time."

      "Please convey to your readers that the dealer people do make an effort to help them to the extent that Ford allows," he said. "When Ford won't pay it would not be fair to us to repair the vehicles for free because we didn't build or design these engines but we are very sympathetic to them but we have to make a living too."

      Ford Engines 'Dropping Like Flies' with Spark Plug Blow-Outs...
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      Batteries Could Run on Sugar

      New Technology Could Cut Risk of Cell Phone, Laptop Fires

      Scientists have revealed a sweet alternative to lithium ion batteries: batteries that run on sugar.

      Researches from St. Louis University (SLU) say they have developed a fuel cell battery that runs on virtually any source of sugar including tree sap, soft drinks and sugar water. They believe the batteries could provide a charge three to four times longer than lithium ion batteries and may replace those batteries which are now used in many portable devices including laptops, mp3 players and cell phones.

      "This study shows that renewable fuels can be directly employed in batteries at room temperature to lead to more energy-efficient battery technology than metal-based approaches," study leader Shelley Minteer, Ph.D., an electrochemist at SLU said in a prepared statement.

      Scientists from SLU revealed their findings at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago over the weekend.

      The scientists said the batteries are good for the environment because water is the main byproduct.

      "It demonstrates that by bridging biology and chemistry, we can build a better battery that's also cleaner for the environment," Minteer said in the statement.

      One of the major concerns with lithium ion batteries is their propensity to overheat and on rare occasions, catch fire and explode. This was highlighted this past summer with the recall of more than 10 million Sony-made laptop batteries.

      But Minteer told that her batteries pose no fire risk.

      Minteer has successfully tested the technology by running a calculator with a battery the size of a postage stamp. So far flat soft drinks, tree sap, glucose and sweetened drink mixes have powered the calculator. Minteer said she has had the most promising results from table sugar dissolved in water.

      Although Minteer is not the first to develop a battery that runs on sugar, she said hers is the longest-lasting and most powerful type to date.

      If research continues to show promise, the battery could be ready for commercialization in 3-5 years Minteer said.

      Consumers are not the only ones to potentially benefit from this technology. The study, which the U.S. Department of Defense funded, may develop a portable energy source for troops on the battlefield who may have limited access to technology. The batteries could potentially be recharged by adding sugar or sap from trees or even cacti.

      Batteries Could Run on Sugar...
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      Class Action Charges Vonage Deceived Consumers

      Case Disputes Vonage's "Money-Back Guarantee" and "30-Day Free Trial" Advertising Claims

      A consumer class action filed in U.S. District Court in California charges that Vonage, the nation's largest Internet telephone provider, misled consumers about the quality and reliability of its service and engaged in false advertising and deceptive business practices.

      In the suit, plaintiff Kai Porter of Inglewood, California, alleges that she signed up for the Vonage service on November 18, 2006 and asked that her existing landline number be transferred to her new Vonage account.

      When the service did not work as promised, Porter canceled within 30 days of activating her account, expecting to receive a full refund under the company's widely-advertised "Money-Back Guarantee." She learned on December 27 that Vonage had not closed her account and did not intend to honor the guarantee.

      Vonage promotes its service as an alternative to traditional telephone service. It spent more than $500 million on advertising in 2005 and the first nine months of 2006, making it one of the largest advertisers on the Internet, the suit alleges.

      In its advertising, the company promises "higher quality" but, in fact, the suit charges, the quality and reliability of the service is inferior to traditional telephone service, with problems ranging from dropped calls to service outages and equipment conflicts. "Vonage knows about these problems but conceals them from consumers," the suit alleges.

      Porter also alleges that:

      • Vonage touts its customer service when in fact, consumers trying to call for assistance encounter long hold times, hang ups, multiple transfers and representatives who merely read from scripts;

      • Vonage advertises "no annual contracts" but invokes a 12-page "terms of service" when customers try to cancel;

      • Vonage charges consumers who cancel within two years of account activation a "disconnect fee" of $39.99 -- in effect, an early-termination fee;

      • Vonage drags its feet when processing cancellations and continues to charge consumers' credit cards in the meantime;

      • Vonage advertises a "Money-Back Guarantee" and "One Month FREE," stating on its website, "There's no risk to trying Vonage service. Our hassle-free Money-Back Guarantee policy guarantees your satisfaction." Vonage's website states that a consumer is eligible for the Money-Back Guarantee if she cancels her service "within 30 days of account activation." But consumers who try to cancel the service within 30 days of beginning to use the VoIP service learn that Vonage does not consider the 30-day "free" period to begin when the customer is first able to use the service, but rather much earlier -- the moment the customer contacts Vonage to sign up for the VoIP service. At that time, the customer has not even received the equipment needed to use the service, which Vonage states it will ship "within 5 days."

      • In addition, one of Vonage's key selling points is that consumers can keep their current telephone number (either landline or cell) when they switch to Vonage's VoIP service, but Vonage's website states that it will take "a minimum of 20 days" to transfer the telephone number. A Vonage consumer will thus have 10 days or less to evaluate the service and decide whether to cancel and attempt to invoke the Money-Back Guarantee.

      • When Vonage determines that a consumer canceled after the 30-day Money-Back Guarantee period expired, Vonage penalizes the consumer by charging not only the activation fee and a monthly service fee, but the $39.99 disconnect fee as well. Vonage will also charge the consumer for the amount of any "instant rebate" she received on the cost of the equipment required to use the service, which can total $50 or more.

      The lawsuit also charges that the mandatory arbitration clause in Vonage's terms of service is unconscionable and unenforceable and that Vonage's terms of service violate California's Consumers Legal Remedies Act.

      The case seeks damages and reimbursement for all California consumers affected by Vonage's actions.

      Representing Porter are attorneys Daniel Girard of Girard Gibbs LLP, San Francisco, and Richard Doherty of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, Chicago.

      Class Action Charges Vonage Deceived Consumers...
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      New York Sues Student Loan Lender

      Lender Accused of Making Kickbacks to Universities

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo's office has issued a formal notice to Education Finance Partners (EFP) that it will be filing suit over allegedly deceptive practices in the company's student loan business. The suit is the first filed in a nationwide investigation into the college loan industry.

      Cuomo's investigation has revealed that Education Finance Partners has repeatedly paid schools in exchange for steering loans to EFP and for putting EFP on "preferred lender" lists. Approximately 90% of students choose their lenders from their school's preferred lender lists.

      Cuomo said his investigation has uncovered that neither the schools nor EFP adequately disclose to students that EFP is paying the schools to be promoted as a "preferred lender." Cuomo's legal action alleges that the relationship and financial arrangements between EFP and the schools constitute a deceptive business practice.

      Cuomo also revealed that EFP made its financial kickback arrangements with schools through what are called revenue sharing agreements, which often were based on a tiered system that would give a higher percentage to the schools based on the amount of loans referred.

      "EFP aggressively offered schools cash kickbacks in exchange for business," Cuomo said. "This kickback scheme was widespread and took place from coast to coast, at colleges large and small, public and private," Cuomo said. "This lawsuit is just the beginning of an investigation that will show that lenders put market share above fair play.

      "A preferred lender ought to mean that the lender is preferred by students for its low rates, not by schools for its kickbacks. With the cost of college rising every day, the last thing students want to hear is that their lender may be muscling aside a more competitive loan package."

      Big Bucks

      This arrangement resulted in potentially large amounts of money paid by EFP to universities participating in the preferred lender program.

      For example, EFP's agreement with Duquesne University gives the school 60 basis points (.6%) of the net value of all referred loans. The agreements are structured to encourage the schools to refer as much business as possible to EFP. For example, EFP's agreement with Boston University provides that BU will receive 25 basis points (.25 percent) of the net value of referred loans of at least $1,000,000 up to $5,000,000; 50 basis points (.5 percent) of value of referred loans between $5,000,000 and $10,000,000; and 75 basis points (.75 percent) of the net value of referred loans over $10,000,000.

      Some schools such as Drexel University in Philadelphia received over $100,000 in kickbacks from EFP in a single year.

      Under Drexel's agreement with EFP, dated April 1, 2006, Drexel has agreed to make EFP its "sole preferred private loan provider." In return, EFP has agreed that Drexel will receive 75 basis points (.75 percent) of the net value of referred loans between $1 and $24,999,999; and 100 basis point (1 percent) of all loan amounts of $25,000,000 or greater.

      Among the schools with which EFP has had such revenue sharing agreements are: Baylor University, Boston University, Clemson University, Drexel University, Duquesne University, Fordham University, Long Island University, Pepperdine University, St. John's University, Texas Christian University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Mississippi. In total, EFP has had such agreements with more than 60 schools across the nation.

      EFP engaged further in deceptive marketing practices by using schools' logos, mascots, and names in EFP promotional materials to imply that EFP had the school's official endorsement.

      "EFP's marketing practices were clearly intended to imply that the universities had endorsed EFP loan products for individual student borrowers," Cuomo said. "Deceptive marketing is just that and it limits the information available for students to get the best deal in their college loans."

      According to the New York State Department of Education, two-thirds of all four year college graduates nationwide now have loan debt, compared with less than one-third of graduates in 1993. In New York State, 59 percent of undergraduates took out loans to finance their college education. The average student graduating from a four-year college in New York owes $17,594 on graduation day.

      Cuomo has been leading an ongoing investigation into the $85 billion-per-year student loan industry. In February, he requested information from more than 60 public and private colleges and universities nationwide regarding the standards they use to determine which lending companies are included on their "preferred lender" lists. Financial aid administrators often produce such lists to direct their students toward the lenders that are most preferred by the schools but may not offer the best deals for students and parents.

      New York Sues Student Loan Lender...
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      Pet Food Contamination May Be Rat Poison

      New York Investigators Identify Toxin in Recalled Dog, Cat Food

      Could it be rat poison that's killing the nation's dogs and cats?

      That's the conclusion of the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, which announced today that the recalled Menu Food pet foods contained rodent poison.

      State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hook identified the toxin as Aminopterin, which is used to kill rats in some countries. The poison is not registered as rodent killer in the United States, although it is used as a cancer drug.

      According to a report by MSNBC, the poison may have been used on wheat imported from China.

      The Food and Drug Administration has focused its investigation on wheat gluten in the pet food, which is blamed for causing kidney problems in dogs and cats across the country and the deaths of at least 16 pets -- although officials expect that number to rise.

      The FDA says wheat gluten by itself would not cause kidney failure, but the common ingredient could have been contaminated.

      New York officials aren't sure how the rodent poison got into the recalled pet food. But they apparently don't believe it was deliberate.

      The New York Attorney General Office says it's not aware of any criminal investigation involving the tainted food. And FBI spokesman Paul Holstein in Albany said Friday that he was not aware of any FBI involvement in the case.

      "I don't know where we'll go from here," he said.

      Menu Foods of Canada announced its massive recall on March 16, 2007, after receiving complaints of kidney failure in pets that ate the food.

      The recall involves 60 million cans of "cut and gravy" style cat and dog food -- sold across North America under 95 brand names. Those brands are carried by Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway and other large retailers -- and also sold under other private labels like Iams, Nutro and Eukanuba.

      A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available on Menu Food's Web site: The company has also set up two phone numbers pet owners can call for more information: (866) 463-6738 and (866) 895-2708.

      Pet Owners Haunted

      A Manchester, New Hampshire, woman is haunted by recurring guilt surrounding the recent death of her beloved cat, Lily.

      Her 16-year-old Siamese-Domestic Shorthair became seriously ill -- and had to put to sleep last week -- after eating five cans of Iams Flakes cat food, one of the 95 brands of "cut and gravy" style cat and dog food involved in Menu Food of Canada's nationwide recall.

      "If I'd just kept feeding her the pt cat food and not switched to the Iams Flakes of salmon and tuna, then she'd still be around," says Lily's grieving owner, Deborah J. "But when I saw the cans of salmon and tuna, I thought she might like a change."

      Deborah says her "best friend" was in good health before she became ill after eating the contaminated cat food on March 8, 2007.

      "She was an active, healthy cat. But after I fed her the Iams salmon and tuna, she threw up and started going downhill. She stopped eating and starting hiding. We took her to the vet and learned she was in renal failure." Deborah says her veterinarian gave Lily IV fluids for four days, but the cat's condition continued to deteriorate.

      "When our vet re-tested Lily's blood, her toxicity levels were still off the chart," she says. "He told me Lily was not going to pull through. That's when we both made the decision to put her to sleep. It was a horrible decision to make. I loved that cat so much. I'd had her since college."

      Deborah's veterinarian put Lily to sleep on March 16, 2007.

      The next day, Deborah learned about Menu Food's recall of 60 million cans of wet cat and dog food. She checked the food she'd given Lily and made a shocking discovery.

      "When I looked at the cans of food I'd fed to Lily -- and the product codes of the cans being recalled -- I realized they were the same numbers. I thought 'Oh my gosh, these are the same ones.'"

      The discovery also made Deborah worry about the safety of her other three cats, who had also eaten some of the tainted food.

      "I was very concerned and we had all of them tested," she says. "And they're all OK." Deborah says she's not only had to deal with the emotional pain of losing Lily, whom she describes as "a very special cat."

      Lily's death -- and the circumstances surrounding it -- also caused a financial strain on Deborah's family.

      "Our vet bills are now close to $700 because we had to pay for all of Lily's care and the testing of our other cats," she says. "I think someone should reimburse people for their veterinarian bills. For those of us who have lost a pet, nothing can be done to bring them back . . . but someone should help people recoup the cost of their vet bills."

      Pet Food Contamination May Be Rat Poison...
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      FDA Toughens Advisory Committee Guidelines

      Committees dominated by drugmakers, critics charge

      March 22, 2007
      After mounting complaints that its advisory committees were dominated by members with drug industry ties, the Food and Drug Administration has tightened it rules on just who will be allowed to offer advice.

      Under its draft guidance, advisors who receive money from a drug or device maker would not be allowed to vote on issues involving that company. At the same time, those who receive more than $50,000 from a company or competitor whose product is being considered would be barred from serving on committees.

      The move is likely to be viewed as a retreat from FDA's previous position, defended as recently as last July. The agency is accepting public comments on the proposal for the next 60 days.

      "FDA is committed to making the advisory committee process more rigorous and transparent so that the public has confidence in the integrity of the recommendations made by its advisory committees," said Randall Lutter, Ph.D., FDA's acting deputy commissioner for policy.

      "Today's draft guidance document should provide more consistency in the consideration of who is eligible to participate in advisory committee meetings and would simplify the process."

      FDA said it currently screens all prospective advisory committee participants before each meeting to determine whether the potential for a financial conflict of interest exists. Under law, FDA may grant a waiver when certain criteria are met, such as when the need for an individual's expertise outweighs the potential for a conflict of interest.

      Under the proposed new guidelines, if an individual has disqualifying financial interests whose combined value exceeds $50,000, after applying certain exemptions, the person would generally not be considered for participation in the meeting, regardless of the need for his or her expertise.

      If the financial interests are $50,000 or less, after applying certain exemptions, the individual might be recommended to participate as a non-voting member. Only individuals with no potential conflicts would be eligible to fully participate in meetings as voting members.

      Financial interest means the potential for gain or loss to a person (or their family and outside affiliations) as a result of the government's action on a particular topic. Financial interests screened include, but are not limited to, stock ownership, related research and consulting arrangements.

      FDA Toughens Advisory Committee Guidelines...
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      Maytag, Samsung Washing Machines Recalled

      Fire Hazard in Front-Loading Machines

      March 21, 2007
      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has announced a recall of about 270,000 Maytag and Samsung front-loading washing machines because of a fire hazard.

      Water leakage onto the electrical connections to the washing machine's thermal sensor could cause an electrical short and ignite a circuit board, the agency said.

      Maytag has received five reports of incidents involving ignition in the circuit board. Samsung has received one report of an incident involving ignition in the circuit board. No injuries, fires or property damage outside the washing machine have been reported.

      The recall involves certain Maytag and Samsung brand front-load washers. The Maytag washers have model numbers beginning with MAH9700 or MAH8700. The Samsung model number WF306BHW or a model number beginning with WF316. Not all serial numbers are subject to the recall. The model and serial numbers are located on a tag at the bottom of the door opening. Maytag models with a serial number ending in the last two letters identified below are subject to the recall:


      Sample Maytag Serial Number: 10123456GN

      Samsung models with the six-digit number 100001 through 799999 prior to a letter at the end of the serial number are subject to the recall:

      Sample Samsung Serial Number: 230854AL300026B

      The machines were sold by major department and appliance stores nationwide from April 2005 through August 2006 for between $1,000 and $1,200.

      Consumers should immediately contact the firm for information on how to receive a free repair. Consumers should not return the washing machine to the retailer where it was purchased.

      Consumer Contact: For more information, consumers can call Maytag toll-free at (800) 868-5109 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or go to Maytag's Web site at - Samsung customers can call (800) 515-7902 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or go to Samsung's Web site at

      Maytag, Samsung Washing Machines Recalled...
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      Giving Up Smoking Helps Arteries Recover

      In 10 Years, Smokers' Arteries Lose Dangerous Stiffness

      Turns out kicking the habit benefits more than your lungs.

      Ex-smokers achieved non-smokers' level of arterial stiffness after a decade of smoking cessation, in a cross-sectional study reported in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.

      "Smoking is a major risk factor, not only for lung disease and cancer, but also for heart attack, stroke and heart failure," said lead author Noor Ahmed Jatoi, M.B.B.S., D.C.N., D.M.M.D.

      "Our group has previously shown that smoking a single cigarette, passive or second-hand smoking and chronic smoking all lead to stiffer arteries, which in turn increase resistance in the blood vessels and, therefore, increase the work the heart must do."

      However, it was not clear if smoking cessation would be associated with reduced arterial stiffness. Stiffness in the arteries can increase blood pressure and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events.

      The researchers studied 554 people (average age 47, 56 percent female) who had high blood pressure but had never been treated for it. Researchers divided the subjects into: current smokers (150), ex-smokers (136) and never-smokers (268).

      "We categorized ex-smokers according to how long they were off cigarettes -- under one year, more than one but less than 10 years and more than 10 years of smoking cessation," said Jatoi, a Ph.D. student in clinical pharmacology at Trinity Health Sciences Centre and Hypertension Clinic at St. James's Hospital, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

      Researchers used Arterial Pulse Wave Analysis, a technology that measures arterial stiffness. They found that current and ex-smokers of only one year had significantly higher stiffness measurements compared with non-smokers.

      In ex-smokers, duration of smoking cessation was directly related to improvement in arterial stiffness. They found some improvement after one to 10 years, but arterial stiffness parameters only reached normal levels after more than a decade of smoking cessation.

      "Our study reinforces the message that smoking cessation is an important step smokers can take to enhance the quality and length of their lives. It shows both the unhealthy effects of smoking and the benefit of smoking cessation on the arterial wall," he said. "The longer one stops smoking the better." However, researchers noted that results need to be confirmed in a prospective, longitudal study -- one that follows patients over time.

      Giving Up Smoking Helps Arteries Recover...
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      People's Choice Files Chapter 11

      Another Subprime Lender Collapses

      Another subprime lender is seeking bankruptcy protection from its creditors, as the house of cards built on risky mortgages continues to collapse. People's Choice Home Loan Inc., has asked a bankruptcy court in Santa Ana, California, to give it time to reorganize.

      The Irvine-based lender is the fourth subprime mortgage company to file for bankruptcy protection since December. It joins the ranks of Ownit Mortgage Solutions, Mortgage Lenders Network and ResMae Mortgage.

      At the same time, other subprime lenders, such as New Century Financial, Fremont General and NovaStar Financial, have suffered heavy losses in the last 12 months.

      People's Choice and its subsidiaries report about $100 million in both assets and liabities. Creditors include mainline banks and brokerages houses Wachovia Bank NA, Bear Stearns Mortgage Capital and Merrill Lynch Mortgage Lending.

      Last week People's Choice pulled a registration statement it had filed with securities regulators, a sign that its snowballing financial problems had reached critical mass. The Online publication National Mortage News quotes sources as saying the company is talking to a potential investor about a sale.

      Subprime lenders make loans to consumers whose credit is not good enough to get a so-called "prime" loan.

      While that can be helpful, many subprime lenders developed increasingly exotic mortgages, encouraging consumers to purchase more house than they could actually afford. As a result, many homeowners -- many of whom made no down payments -- are now defaulting on their loans.

      People's Choice Files Chapter 11...
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      Despite New Laws, Doctor-Drug Co. Dealings Still Shrouded

      Dr. Payola Keeps Patients in the Dark

      Though two states have enacted laws to promote transparency in doctors' financial dealings with pharmaceutical companies, researchers say the new laws are mostly ineffective.

      A study in the March 21 issue of JAMA says the mandatory disclosure of drug company payments to physicians does not provide the public with easy access to the payment information, and the information is of little use, even when the public can access it.

      Interactions between the pharmaceutical industry and health care professionals often involve payments, including cash, gift certificates, meals, textbooks or conference fees. In contrast to many other professions, medicine allows payments from a company to an individual who decides whether and how often to use products produced by the company.

      "To avoid undue influence, the American Medical Association recommends that gifts (but not other payments) to physicians should benefit patients and should not exceed $100 in value, a recommendation similar to those of other medical organizations and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America," according to background information in the article.

      Recent legislation in five states and the District of Columbia mandated state disclosure of payments made to physicians by pharmaceutical companies. In two of these states, Vermont and Minnesota, payment disclosures are publicly available.

      Joseph S. Ross, M.D., M.H.S., of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, and colleagues analyzed publicly available data in Vermont, from July 2002 through June 2004, and Minnesota, from January 2002 through December 2004.

      The authors found that the laws enacted by Vermont and Minnesota fail to provide the public with easy access to information about payments from pharmaceutical companies to physicians and other health care professionals.

      "In Vermont, 61 percent of payments were not released to the public because pharmaceutical companies designated them as trade secrets and 75 percent of publicly disclosed payments were missing information necessary to identify the recipient," the authors write. "In Minnesota, 25 percent of companies reported in each of the three years."

      The study also found that pharmaceutical companies made substantial numbers of payments of $100 or more to physicians.

      "In Vermont, among 12,227 payments totaling $2.18 million publicly disclosed, there were 2,416 payments of $100 or more to physicians," the authors write. "In Minnesota, among 6,946 payments totaling $30.96 million publicly disclosed, there were 6,238 payments of $100 or more to physicians."

      The authors believe that the information obtained through disclosure laws is insufficient for revealing the true pattern of payments.

      "Making these payments publicly available will require more stringent laws with clear mechanisms for enforcement," they conclude.

      Despite New Laws, Doctor-Drug Co. Dealings Still Shrouded...
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      Identity Theft Supports a Vast Underground Economy

      Study Finds Cybercriminals Taking a More Professional Approach

      Your personal information -- name, address, Social Security number, and credit card numbers -- could be on sale right now for as little as $14, in secret chat rooms and on bulletin boards that cater to hackers, cybercriminals, and identity thieves, an "underground economy" built on theft and fraud.

      That's one of the conclusions made by the Symantec security firm in its new "Internet Security Threat Report," released yesterday (pdf file). The Cupertino, California-based company analyzed multiple trends in security and computer crime, including phishing, data breaches, identity theft and fraud, and Trojan viruses.

      "Symantec has observed a fundamental shift in Internet security activity," according to an executive summary of the report's key findings. "The current threat environment is characterized by an increase in data theft and data leakage, and the creation of malicious code that targets specific organizations for information that can be used for financial gain."

      Among the report's findings:

      • The United States had the dubious honor of hosting the largest percentage of "botnets," slaved computers controlled by hackers and used to send out spam and viruses to hit unwitting Internet surfers. The U.S. hosts 40 percent of the "command and control" networks that direct "bot" operations, followed by China at 26 percent.

      • The U.S. also hosts 51 percent of servers known to host "underground economy" transactions, including the sale of credit card numbers for as little as $1 to $6 dollars, and sets of personally identifying information for $14. Symantec didn't have exact figures for the money changing hands in the underground economy, but the company estimated it in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

      • Data breaches such as laptop thefts, hacks of stored data, and lack of security facilitate identity theft, due to the ease with which hackers can access personal and sensitive information in large quantities. 25 percent of data breaches studied in the Symantec report came from government agencies, as they "often store data in many separate locations making it accessible to various people, and thereby increasing the opportunities for attackers to gain unauthorized access."

      • The "theft or loss" of a computer accounted for 54 percent of breaches related to identity theft in the six-month period between July 1 and December 31 that Symantec observed.

      The report warned against the "increasing professionalization" and sophistication of identity thieves, who increasingly work in organized groups and approach their criminal activities with business-level acumen, as well as the proliferation of personal information and the ease with which it can be used.

      "You can become a brand new American. It's frightening that it could be sold pre-packaged and ready to go like that," said Symantec Security vice-president Alfred Huger.

      The black market in sales of personal information is often geared to illegal and undocumented immigrants, who buy stolen identities in order to quickly get work. The Social Security numbers collected from workers with false or unverified identification go into a pool called the "Earnings Suspense File," while those who have had their identities stolen often remain unaware of the crime for years, until they receive bills or offers meant for the person using their information.

      The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducted several high-profile raids against companies that employed workers using fake identities, detaining them and in some cases separating them from their families, under the pretense of fighting identity theft. Most in the security industry felt the raids were ineffective and a distraction from the continuing proliferation of black market bazaars catering in stolen identities.

      The actual levels of identity theft are difficult to categorize, as the term encompasses a number of different types of fraud, much of which can go unnoticed and unreported.

      Research firms Javelin and Gartner have released studies claiming that identity theft is both on the decline and increasing. The Gartner study claimed that the selling of personal information led to the creation of "synthetic" identities, which are much harder to detect than typical forms of identity misuse.

      Identity Theft Supports a Vast Underground Economy...
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      One in Six Animals Died in Pet Food Tests

      Millions of Animals at Risk as Investigators Seek Cause of Latest Outbreak

      Federal investigators say as many as one in six animals died in tests of suspect dog and cat food by the manufacturer after complaints the products were poisoning pets around the country, as consumers wonder if their pet will be next.

      Federal investigators say they're focused on gluten -- a protein source commonly used as filler -- as the most likely source of contamination in the 60 million cans and pouches recalled late last week.

      The recalled wet-style dog and cat food was made by Menu Foods, based in Ontario, Canada. The company said it began receiving complaints of kidney failure and deaths around Feb. 20 and began running tests Feb. 27. During those tests, the company said it fed its products to 40 to 50 dogs and cats. Seven of them died. The company said the toxin appeared more deadly to cats.

      As usual in cases involving contaminated food, many possible victims are already dead and buried, making it difficult for pet owners to be sure what killed their animals.

      "Between January 10 and 20, I lost two rabbit beagles and on Feb. 10, I lost a lab," said Lionel of Buckhannon, W. Va. "They quit eating and drinking and became dehydrated and died within a week."

      "My neighbor ran up a $300 vet bill. The vet had no idea what was happening," Lionel said. He said his dogs had eaten Big Red, one of the recalled brands.

      John of El Dorado, Calif., had a similar experience. "Our dog recently died from acute renal failure, she was in good health and only 10 years old," he told

      The FDA has not yet counted how many reports it has received of dead and sickened animals. The company says it has reports of 10 deaths, nine cats and one dog.

      Recall Details

      The recall covers dog food sold throughout North America under 51 brands and cat food sold under 40 brands, including Iams, Nutro and Eukanuba.

      The recalled food was also sold under many store names, including Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway.

      The recall covers dog and cat food manufactured between December 3, 2006 and March 6, 2007. The recall is limited to "cuts and gravy" style pet food in cans and pouches manufactured at two of the company's United States facilities.

      Here is a complete list of the recalled brands of dog and cat food. Pet owners should read it carefully. The company has established a hot-line for customer inquiries: 1-866-895-2708.

      Dog Food

      Cat Food

    • Americas Choice, Preferred Pets
    • Authority
    • Award
    • Best Choice
    • Big Bet
    • Big Red
    • Bloom
    • Wegmans Bruiser
    • Cadillac
    • Companion
    • Demoulas Market Basket
    • Eukanuba
    • Food Lion
    • Giant Companion
    • Great Choice
    • Hannaford
    • Hill Country Fare
    • Hy-Vee
    • Iams
    • Laura Lynn
    • Loving Meals
    • Meijers Main Choice
    • Mighty Dog Pouch
    • Mixables
    • Nutriplan
    • Nutro Max
    • Nutro Natural Choice
    • Nutro Ultra
    • Nutro
    • Ol'Roy Canada
    • Ol'Roy US
    • Paws
    • Pet Essentials
    • Pet Pride - Good n Meaty
    • Presidents Choice
    • Price Chopper
    • Priority Canada
    • Priority US
    • Publix
    • Roche Brothers
    • Save-A-Lot
    • Schnucks
    • Shep Dog
    • Springsfield Prize
    • Sprout
    • Stater Brothers
    • Weis Total Pet
    • Western Family US
    • White Rose
    • Winn Dixie
    • Your Pet
    • Americas Choice, Preferred Pets
    • Authority
    • Best Choice
    • Companion
    • Compliments
    • Demoulas Market Basket
    • Eukanuba
    • Fine Feline Cat
    • Food Lion
    • Foodtown
    • Giant Companion
    • Hannaford
    • Hill Country Fare
    • Hy-Vee
    • Iams
    • Laura Lynn
    • Li'l Red
    • Loving Meals
    • Meijer's Main Choice
    • Nutriplan
    • Nutro Max Gourmet Classics
    • Nutro Natural Choice
    • Paws
    • Pet Pride
    • Presidents Choice
    • Price Chopper
    • Priority US
    • Save-A-Lot
    • Schnucks
    • Science Diet Feline Savory Cuts Cans
    • Sophistacat
    • Special Kitty Canada
    • Special Kitty US
    • Springfield Prize
    • Sprout
    • Stop & Shop Companion
    • Tops Companion
    • Wegmans
    • Weis Total Pet
    • Western Family US
    • White Rose
    • Winn Dixie
    • "We take these complaints very seriously and, while we are still looking for a specific cause, we are acting to err on the side of caution" said Paul K. Henderson, President and CEO, Menu Foods. "We will do whatever is necessary to ensure that our products maintain the very highest quality standards."

      One in Six Animals Died in Pet Food Tests...
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      Pet Food Recalled After Reports Of Kidney Failure

      Humans aren't the only ones who have to worry about a tainted food supply. Canadian pet food manufacturer Menu Foods Income Fund says it is recalling 48 brands of dog food and 40 brands of cat food after reports of pets suffering kidney failure and at least 10 pet deaths.

      Among the affected brands are Iams, Eukanuba and Nutro.

      The company said it was initiating a precautionary recall of portion of the dog and cat food it manufactured between December 3, 2006 and March 6, 2007. The recall is limited to "cuts and gravy" style pet food in cans and pouches manufactured at two of the company's United States facilities. The products are both manufactured and sold under private-label and are contract-manufactured for some national brands.

      "Over the past several days, we have received feedback in the United States, raising concerns about pet food manufactured since early December, and its impact on the renal health of the pets consuming the products," the company said in a statement.

      Menu Foods says it began a battery of technical tests as soon as the first complaints came in, but has not identified any problems.

      They did find, however, that timing of the production associated with these complaints coincides with the introduction of an ingredient from a new supplier. The ingredient was dropped shortly after this discovery, the company said, and production since then has been undertaken using ingredients from another source.

      "We take these complaints very seriously and, while we are still looking for a specific cause, we are acting to err on the side of caution" said Paul K. Henderson, President and CEO, Menu Foods. "We will do whatever is necessary to ensure that our products maintain the very highest quality standards."

      In a scene reminiscent of the recent peanut butter salmonella scare, U.S. retailers frantically pulled the recalled products from store shelves.

      Pet owners are urged to carefully check the food they are using. Dog owners can check here and cat owners can check here.

      Pet Food Recalled After Reports Of Kidney Failure...
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      Screening Process Could Reduce Sudden Death in Young Athletes

      March 15, 2007
      A 12-point screening process could help reduce sudden cardiac death in high school and college competitive athletes, according to an updated American Heart Association scientific statement.

      The latest recommendations, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, revisit the original 1996 statement on this subject and make no major changes to the mass screening process first recommended at that time.

      The screening includes 12 questions about personal and family medical history and a physical examination to uncover aspects of a potential athlete's health that could signal a cardiovascular problem:

      Personal history

      1) Chest pain/discomfort upon exertion
      2) Unexplained fainting or near-fainting
      3) Excessive and unexplained fatigue associated with exercise
      4) Heart murmur
      5) High blood pressure

      Family history

      1) One or more relatives who died of heart disease (sudden/unexpected or otherwise) before age 50
      2) Close relative under age 50 with disability from heart disease
      3) Specific knowledge of certain cardiac conditions in family members: hypertrophic or dilated cardiomyopathy in which the heart cavity or wall becomes enlarged, long QT syndrome which affects the heart's electrical rhythm, Marfan syndrome in which the walls of the heart's major arteries are weakened, or clinically important arrhythmias or heart rhythms.

      Physical examination

      1) Heart murmur
      2) Femoral pulses to exclude narrowing of the aorta
      3) Physical appearance of Marfan syndrome
      4) Brachial artery blood pressure (taken in a sitting position)

      Parents should verify this information, said members of the expert panel who wrote the statement. If any of the 12 screening elements has a "yes" answer, the participant would be referred for further cardiovascular examination.

      The incidence of deaths is in the range of one in 200,000 high school-age athletes per year, based on a 12-year Minnesota study of 1.4 million student-athlete participations in 27 sports.

      "Although the frequency of these deaths in young athletes appears to be relatively low, it is more common than previously thought and does represent a substantive public health problem," said Barry J. Maron, M.D., chair of the writing group.

      In the United States, these deaths occur most commonly in basketball and football -- high intensity sports with high levels of participation. There is some debate whether mass prescreening of competitive athletes should also include an electrocardiogram (ECG) before they are allowed to participate in team sports.

      An ECG is a special test that reads the heart's electrical activity. Maron says current U.S. recommendations don't include ECGs, most notably due to a lack of policy mandate and infrastructure to support this.

      "Recommendations of the European Society of Cardiology and International Olympic Committee include routine ECGs for all potential athletes," said Maron, who is director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. "However, while advocating this kind of plan in the United States may seem simple, it's a much more complicated matter."

      The statement cites several limitations for recommending such widespread, routine ECGs -- including the high number of competitive athletes in this country, significantly higher than in other countries, such as Italy, where the tests are routinely conducted.

      "Each year, there are probably more than five million competitive athletes at the high school level (grades 912), in addition to more than 500,000 collegiate (including NCAA, NAIA, junior colleges) and 5,000 professional athletes," the panel wrote. "This figure does not include youth, middle school, and masters level (age 30 +) competitors for whom reliable numbers are not available Therefore, the relevant athlete population available for mass screening may be as large as 10 million people per year."

      Maron said the total estimated cost of mass screening for that many athletes, along with the follow-up required for abnormal findings, is more than $2 billion a year.

      Coupled with other limitations such as a lack of physicians and other medical resources for performing and reading ECGs and no laws to mandate the standards for pre-participation screening, he says the cost effectiveness and feasibility of such a program in the United States cannot justify such a recommendation at this time.

      The panel does recommend the development of a national standard for cardiovascular screening of high school and college athletes and notes there has been significant improvement overall in the support and adherence to life-saving screening processes for youth participating in sports. In 1997, a study found 45 percent of states had inadequate screening processes in place, while a 2005 review found 81 percent of states now support adequate screening processes.

      Screening Process Could Reduce Sudden Death in Young Athletes...
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      Sales Pitches Turn Off Consumers, Study Finds

      Consumers can hardly complete any kind of transaction without a sales person providing some kind of pitch to seal the deal. A new study finds sales people would be better off keeping their mouths shut.

      "Consumers today look at everything with a skeptical eye," said Peter Darke of Florida State University's College of Business. "Before they even set foot in a store, they already are inclined to mistrust the use of flattery by salespeople, as well as claims made in ads they've seen in the media."

      Darke and his associates have just published a paper that examines the reactions of consumers to flattery from store clerks. It appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and explores whether consumers decide a salesperson is untrustworthy through a deliberate or an automatic decision-making process.

      To gather data, the researchers ran three experiments that involved consumers buying sunglasses at a sales kiosk. Of the 102 study participants, 37 were male and 65 female.

      In the first experiment, sales clerks flattered consumers before their purchase. During the second, sales clerks flattered consumers after their purchase. In both instances, they used three statements:

      • "That's a great pair of sunglasses."
      • "I think they look good on you."
      • "They really suit you."

      With the third experiment -- which acted as a control -- sales clerks chatted with consumers but didn't offer any flattery.

      After buying a pair of sunglasses, participants then completed a questionnaire that asked how trustworthy they found the sales clerk.

      "Consistently, the study participants said that even when it was obvious the compliment didn't serve any underlying sales motive, they still didn't trust what the sales clerk had to say," Darke said.

      Such suspicion of others' motives is typical in a society that is absolutely drowning in marketing campaigns and sales pitches, he said.

      "Generally speaking, it has become the consumer's default position to react negatively to what is perceived as an attempt to manipulate him or her," Darke said. "Even when there isn't an obvious motive for a salesperson's flattery, such as generating a sale, we are programmed to assume the worst."

      And speaking of consumer skepticism, Darke has published a second paper that shows how deceptive advertisements can have the effect of making consumers cynical about all advertising, not just the ones making false claims.

      That paper shows how deceptive advertising engenders distrust that negatively affects people's responses to subsequent advertising from both the same source and other sources. The paper, just published in the Journal of Marketing Research, indicates that the negative effects of ad deception are relatively long-lasting in the sense that they are observed for additional advertisements encountered 24 hours after the initial deception.

      "Deceptive ads induce negative beliefs about advertising and marketing in general, thereby undermining the credibility of further advertising," Darke said. "For companies that advertise, the lesson is clear: They must do a better job of guaranteeing the accuracy of their own and others marketers' advertising content if they want consumers to keep paying attention."

      Consumers hardly complete any kind of transaction without a sales person providing some kind of pitch to seal the deal. Sales people would be better off ke...
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      FCC Chair Grilled By Congress Over Favorable Treatment of AT&T, Verizon

      Commission's Treatment of Cable, Telecom Companies Not Even-Handed?

      An especially vigorous House panel grilled the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today, with Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell (D-MI) asserting that the FCC was "overstepping its authority" by imposing its video franchising rules on states and municipalities.

      Referring to the FCC's recent order to states to streamline the approval of new video franchises, Dingell said that "[i]f reform of that regulatory structure is necessary, then it is Congress' prerogative to take such action as we have done before."

      The FCC's rules make it easier for Verizon, At&T and other would-be competitors to get local cable TV franchises. At the same time, they limit the authority of states and municipalities to oversee the new entrants and protect consumers.

      Under the new rules, local communities would have a time limit of six months to approve new entrants into a market for video, and 90 days for companies that already provide other services. The rules also free new franchises from requirements to "build out" new services to an entire community, meaning that new entrants could choose to serve only the more affluent sections of a city or region.

      Critics of the rules say they were designed solely to benefit AT&T; and Verizon, with little regard for consumers or other players in the marketplace.

      "[Franchise reform] is not the role of the FCC. The Commission chose to ignore the well-settled divisions of responsibilities, that is unwise," Dingell said.

      At another point, FCC chairman Kevin Martin was asked by Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) why the commission did not investigate reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had illegally acquired the phone records of Americans. Martin responded that the agency had been prevented from investigating due to "national security" concerns.

      Markey said that Martin should expect to be a "frequent visitor" before the committee, and Dingell agreed, suggesting that the committee should hold oversight hearings of the FCC on a monthly basis.

      Dingell's comments were typical of the increased scrutiny the Republican-led FCC is facing in a Democratic Congress, at a time when the FCC is involved in numerous issues ranging from public-interest rights for digital television to the possible reinstatement of caps on subscribers to cable companies. The FCC is planning to issue a new order codifying that cable companies cannot serve more than 30 percent of potential subscribers in the United States.

      The order stems from a 1992 ruling to prevent mass consolidation of the cable industry and reduce subscriber choices. Cable companies such as Comcast and their lobbyists have challenged the 30-percent cap in recent months as unnecessary, given the proliferation of alternative entertainment services that provide video.

      Cable companies also objected to the franchising decision, saying it represented a giveaway to their competitors in the telecom industry, and that they would negotiate for the streamlined rights as well.

      Martin's friendliness towards telecom companies was demonstrated by his heavy push for the merger of AT&T; and BellSouth to form the country's largest telecom company. The merger was stalled over objections from Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, but was passed after AT&T; agreed to support "net neutrality" for its basic Internet services -- a concession Martin opposed and intimated he would not enforce.

      That stance drew criticism from Committee member Anna Eshoo (D-CA) during the hearing. Rep. Eshoo said it was "rather extraordinary" that Martin would state his intent to not enforce the net neutrality provision of the agreement. Martin insisted that he would do so.

      Eshoo was particularly critical of Martin's style of running the FCC, claiming that companies had complained to her of Martin's "heavy-handed manner."

      "I continue to hear complaints that the commission is unresponsive, insular and even capricious at times," she said.

      The FCC has also been criticized for burying or suppressing reports that would contradict their political objectives.

      During a push by Martin to enable greater consolidation and cross-ownership of local television stations, an FCC report surfaced that claimed local news stations benefited from local ownership. The report, commissioned by Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell, was ordered destroyed. Martin claimed he had never seen the report.

      The FCC recently terminated another study that found wireless emergency 911 services did not work effectively for cellphones when called from inside buildings.

      The report's author, Dale Hatfield, presented his findings to the FCC, but was told the study was being discontinued. That didn't satisfy Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), another Telecommunications Subcommittee member. Doyle said that Martin was "strangely silent" on the matter, which he found "puzzling," and promised to pursue it further.

      FCC Chair Grilled By Congress Over Favorable Treatment of AT&T, Verizon...
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      Automakers Resist Higher Fuel Economy Mandates

      Higher mpg won't reduce fuel consumption, automakers argue

      Auto industry executives went to Capitol Hill to tell members of Congress that mandating higher fuel economy standards alone will not produce a substantial decrease in oil consumption in the U.S.

      Chrysler group CEO Tom LaSorda told the House Energy and Commerce Committee, "If all the new vehicles sold in the United States 10 years from now were hybrids or diesels fuel economy would improve by only 25 to 30 percent."

      LaSorda and the heads of General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. all opposed calls to boost annual fuel economy standards by 4 percent, climbing to at least 34 miles per gallon by 2016.

      Taking a harder line, General Motors Corp. chief Rick Wagoner charged that the corporate average fuel economy program has failed.

      "CAFE has been particularly damaging to the domestic, full line manufacturers," Wagoner told the committee. "Many of the recent legislative proposals to increase CAFE requirements by 4 percent per year or more would be extraordinarily expensive and technically challenging to implement with little to show for actually reducing oil consumption or emissions," he said.

      The executives are fighting efforts by the Democratic-led Congress to single out automakers as the only industry responsible for reducing carbon emissions to cut global warming. Nevertheless, gasoline demand accounts for nearly half of the average daily U.S. consumption of 20.9 million barrels of oil.

      Presently an automaker's fleet of passenger cars must average 27.5 mpg. The mileage figure has not changed in 17 years. Other vehicles, including SUVs, pickups and light trucks must get 24.1 mpg by 2011 under changes imposed by regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year.

      Automakers prefer that any increase in fuel economy standards be administered by NHTSA regulators and not imposed by Congress as law.

      The White House has proposed reducing domestic gasoline usage by 8.5 billion gallons or 5 percent by 2017. The plan calls for raising fuel economy standards by an average of 4 percent yearly beginning in September 2009 for passenger cars and September 2011 for light trucks.

      The administration predicts that the changes would cost the auto industry $114 billion between 2010 and 2017. Domestic automakers would pay $85 billion of the expense because domestic vehicles trail imports in mileage performance.

      Ford Motor Co. President and CEO Alan Mulally said the standards are not a silver bullet. We need government to be our partners not our adversaries," Mulally's told the committee. "Ford has long acknowledged the importance of climate change. Yes, we need more fuel efficient vehicles, but we also need lower carbon fuels and consumer incentives to adopt these fuels."

      "The truth is that we must all accept that these are long-term challenges and that we are all part of the solution," Mulally said. "For too long each sector has wanted someone else to be the solution in order to pass the buck. This piecemeal approach will not work if we are serious about change."

      Automakers Resist Higher Fuel Economy Mandates...
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      FTC Reaches Settlement with BSG Clearing Solutions

      FTC trying to rein in massive 'cramming' operations

      The Federal Trade Commission is working to recover as much money as possible from scam artists who have placed more than $35 million in suspect and often outright bogus charges on consumers' phone bills.

      Yesterday the FTC reached an agreement to settle with BSG Clearing Solutions, also known as Billing Concepts and ZPDI, for $1.9 million.

      The suit seeks restitution for consumers who found mysterious and outrageously overpriced collect charges on their phone bills, placed by BSG, on behalf of its client and co-defendant in the case, Nationwide Connections, Inc.

      Nationwide billed consumers for phony collect calls that were purportedly made to telephone lines dedicated to computers and fax machines, and to homes and businesses where no one was present, and some consumers caller ID logs had no record of collect calls for which they were billed, according to an FTC press release.

      The charges, usually between $5 and $8, typically were buried in the back of consumers monthly phone bills.

      BSG is the nation's largest phone bill aggregator, working with many of the nation's largest phone companies to place bills from sex hotlines and just about everything else onto consumers' bills.

      Although many consumer advocates believe the aggregators and phone companies, such as Verizon, should be held liable, too, they are frequently overlooked by zealous attorneys who attack the originators of the false charges instead.

      This case is all part of a larger effort by the FTC and originated in October 2007 when the agency settled with Nationwide and its ringleader, Willoughby Farr, said FTC assistant director Dan Salsburg.

      Some customer funds have been recovered, Salsburg said. But the FTC is still trying to recover the vast majority of the $34.4 million Nationwide is accused of stealing from U.S. consumers. All of its operations have ceased.

      Hundreds of complaints has received 458 complaints about BSG, most under the company name ZPDI. Although BSG comprises 85 percent of the market, the most notorious aggregator appears to be ILD Teleservices which has amassed 2,742 complaints in the database.

      Regardless of who is cramming the charges, the complaints all look the same.

      I received my phone bill with a collect call from UNITEDKINGDM, wrote Tina of Sherwood, Ark. The bill shows "billed on behalf of FIBERLINK." Total charge is $12.86. I called ZPDI and they told me someone entered my info on a website and would not tell me anything else and refused to drop the charge.

      BSG canceled its contract with Nationwide in 2005 according to a prepared statement from BSG's president, Greg Carter.

      From the outset, BSG has maintained that it bears no responsibility for the fraudulent actions of the terminated customer (Nationwide) and that BSG was also a victim of Nationwides fraud, Carter said in the statement. Nonetheless, as the largest processor of and clearinghouse for Local Exchange Carrier (LEC) billing, BSG believes that it, the industry and the consumer are best served by BSG devoting its energies, going forward, in continuing to lead this industry in the elimination of unauthorized billing.

      Although has complaints about BSG from every year in the past eight years, Carter said the company works hard to curb cramming.

      BSG is committed to a zero tolerance policy for cramming and other deceptive business practices, and over the years has been in the forefront of developing and implementing the billing industrys most stringent verification procedures, Carter continued. BSG has worked closely with federal and state regulators, and local exchange carriers to explore new methods to eliminate telecommunications fraud, and it is committed to continue and to strengthen these efforts in the future.

      The next step in the FTC's battle against crammers is get yesterday's settlement approved by Florida courts, where BSG is based and then to go after Integretel, a much smaller version of BSG, which is blamed for helping to steal $4-$5 million from consumers.

      Just days after the FTC filed its lawsuit against Integretel, the company filled for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Salsburg said that has slowed that case down but he's hopeful the tactic will not succeed. has received 24 complaints from consumers who believe Integretel ripped them off.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      FTC Reaches Settlement with BSG Clearing Solutions...
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      Don't Be Fooled By IRS Look-Alike Sites

      By Mark Huffman

      March 14, 2007
      The Internet can be an unforgiving place. Make one small mistake typing in the address of the Web site you want to visit and you could end up someplace completely different.

      The Internal Revenue Service is warning that some sites are apparently using similar addresses and a look similar to the official IRS site -- -- to confuse taxpayers.

      In a warning, the tax collection agency said it has noted the proliferation of Internet sites that contain some form of the Internal Revenue Service name or IRS acronym with a ".com," ".net," ".org" or other designation in the address instead of ".gov."

      Since many of these sites also bear a striking resemblance to the real IRS site, taxpayers may be misled into thinking that the site they have accessed is indeed the official IRS government site. These sites are not the official IRS Web site and have no connection to the official IRS site or to the IRS.

      "There is one legitimate IRS site:," said IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson. "Always check carefully and make sure you know what Web site you are using."

      Because ".com," ".net" and ".org" are such common parts of Internet addresses, taxpayers may automatically or inadvertently type these extensions, instead of ".gov," into the address line of their Web browser when trying to find the genuine IRS Web site.

      Following recent concerns that Internet sites may be causing confusion among taxpayers, the IRS said is working with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration on this matter. TIGTA has authority to review issues protecting the integrity of tax administration, including impersonation of the IRS. The IRS and TIGTA are committed to ensuring that taxpayers are not misled.

      Although the IRS Web site offers interactive features, the tax or private financial information that these features ask the taxpayer for is extremely limited. The IRS reminds consumers who access unfamiliar sites, or sites they have never dealt with before, that they should never reveal any personal or financial information, such as credit, bank account or PIN numbers, without verifying the validity of the site.

      The IRS also reminds consumers to be alert to an on-going Internet scam in which consumers receive an e-mail informing them of a federal tax refund. The e-mail, which claims to be from the IRS, directs the consumer to a link -- often a Web site resembling the IRS Web site -- that requests personal and financial information, such as Social Security number and credit card information.

      This scheme is an attempt to trick the e-mail recipients into disclosing their personal and financial data. The practice is called "phishing" for information.

      The information fraudulently obtained is then used to steal the taxpayer's identity and financial assets. Generally, identity thieves use someone's personal data to steal his or her financial accounts, run up charges on the victim's existing credit cards, apply for new loans, credit cards, services or benefits in the victim's name and even file fraudulent tax returns.

      Taxpayers who receive an unsolicited e-mail purporting to be from the IRS should never click on any links in the message, open any attachments or provide any personal or financial information to the sender.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Don't Be Fooled By IRS Look-Alike Sites...
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      Minnesota Sues "Trust Mills"

      State Charges Companies Prey Upon Seniors

      Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson is suing two California companies, American Family Legal Plan and Heritage Marketing and Insurance Services, Inc., for operating a "trust mill" that preys upon Minnesota senior citizens.

      Swanson said that American Family Legal Plan initiates a "trust mill" scheme through a direct mailing to senior citizens, telling them that the company has special expertise in estate planning and can advise clients on how to avoid estate taxes and probate fees.

      If the senior citizen responds positively, Swanson said an agent posing as an estate planner meets the senior citizen at home and sells the person a plan for $2,000 or more. Swanson said that during this meeting, the agent will distort and misrepresent the impact of probate fees and estate taxes, causing the senior citizen to buy the trust out of fear that their heirs will lose the estate.

      "These companies deceptively sold boilerplate living trusts to senior citizens regardless of whether those trusts were suitable for the seniors' estate planning or financial needs," Swanson said.

      Swanson said the first half of the profit scheme is the "trust mill." After the first meeting with an agent, the senior receives one short telephone call from an attorney who asks very general questions.

      Thereafter, regardless of the senior's assets, marital status, existing estate plan, or the likely tax or probate liability, the attorney approves the use of a boilerplate "living trust" for the client. The attorney does not have a personal meeting with the senior, nor does the attorney ask specific estate-related questions. American Family Legal Plan agents receive a commission of approximately $600-$800 for each living trust sold.

      Swanson said the second half of the profit scheme occurs when the trust document is delivered to the senior citizen by an insurance agent from Heritage, who poses as a representative of the estate planning firm. The agent calls the senior citizen prior to the meeting and tells the senior to gather together his or her financial records. At the meeting, the agent reviews the trust document and the senior's financial records, then attempts to sell annuities to the senior citizen.

      The Heritage agent is not compensated for the trip unless annuities are sold, and the agent is expected to sell $25,000 per meeting.

      Senior citizens complained to the Attorney General's Office that they:

      • believed that the American Family Legal Plan representative at the first meeting was representing a law firm and had special expertise in the field of estate planning;
      • were surprised that, after paying $2,000 or more, the only contact they had from an attorney was a brief telephone call;
      • purchased the estate planning service because of the fear that was created by the American Family Legal Plan agent regarding the senior's exposure to estate taxes and probate fees;
      • in some cases, had to wait months to receive their living trust;
      • were never told that insurance would be solicited until the final meeting; and
      • thought they were receiving estate and financial planning advice that was customized to their needs and were not simply being sold a boilerplate living trust.

      Swanson said that both companies are owned and controlled by Stanley and Jeffrey Norman, who are father and son and reside in California. Swanson said that the companies are the subject of lawsuits by Attorneys General in at least two states, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

      Based on an interview with a former American Family Legal Plan employee, Swanson believes the company may have sold to Minnesota seniors as many as 30 trusts each week. Accordingly, these trusts may have been sold to as many as 2,000 Minnesota seniors, for a total of about $4 million.

      In addition, Swanson said the companies expected approximately $25,000 in annuity sales for each trust sold, which would add up to $50 million in annuity sales.

      The suit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, alleges the companies engaged in consumer fraud, false advertising, and deceptive trade practices. The suit also alleges that the companies violated Minnesota insurance suitability and insurance solicitation laws, as well as state laws applicable to financial planning. The suit seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties, and restitution.

      Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson is suing two California companies for operating a "trust mill" that preys upon Minnesota senior citizens....
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      Couple Sentenced In Cell Phone Charity Scam

      The man behind a million-dollar bogus charity scheme will serve three years in prison after pleading guilty in Oklahoma County District Court to multiple counts of fraud.

      Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said Domingo Frias-Payan pleaded guilty to eleven counts of charity fraud and one count of securities fraud after he was accused of swindling more than $1 million through a bogus charity, Oklahoma City-based Save a Life Give a Phone Foundation, Inc.

      Frias-Payan received a 12-year sentence, with three years imprisonment and nine years probation. A restitution hearing will be held at a later date.

      According to the attorney general, Frias-Payan allegedly solicited cell phones on behalf of battered women's shelters, domestic violence victims, the elderly and disabled, but the majority of the donated phones were sold for personal profit.

      Frias-Payan's wife was also charged for her role in scheme. Heather Frias-Payan pleaded guilty in May 2006 to eleven counts of violating the Oklahoma Solicitation of Charitable Contributions Act. She was ordered to serve a seven-year suspended sentence and pay $11,000 in fines.

      "This so-called charity took in about 100,000 cell phones," Edmondson said. "Frias-Payan promised donors the phones would be distributed to vulnerable groups for emergency use. Our investigators could only find about 300 phones that were actually donated. The others were sold for about $1.2 million, and that money was not used for any charity."

      The charity allegedly solicited phones from individuals, businesses, cell phone companies, cities and police departments in 41 different states.

      The state alleged the couple also falsely represented that donations to Save a Life would be used to maintain a shelter in The Village for victims of domestic violence. The shelter was shut down because it was not licensed and operated in violation of municipal ordinances.

      According to the attorney general, the couple allegedly required the women who stayed at the shelter to either pay $125 per month rent or work four hours a day in a boiler room soliciting more cell phones and donations.

      A boiler room refers to a facility equipped for telemarketing solicitation calls.

      The couple was originally charged in April 2005, but fled the United States soon after the charges were filed. The fugitives were tracked in and out of three countries before they were taken into custody in Canada in March 2006.

      According to the state's complaint, the couple also did business as Domingo Group Telecom, Inc., Givafon, Inc., and Recycleable (sic) Cellular Network, Inc.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      The man behind a million-dollar bogus charity scheme will serve three years in prison after pleading guilty in Oklahoma County District Court to multiple c...
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      Mayo Clinic Finds Cell Phones Safe in Hospitals

      Tests find phones don't affected medical devices

      When you enter most health care facilities, the first thing you see is usually a sign asking you to turn off your cell phone.

      But calls made on cellular phones have no negative impact on hospital medical devices, dispelling the long-held notion that they are unsafe to use in health care facilities, according to Mayo Clinic researchers.

      In a study published in the March issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers say normal use of cell phones results in no noticeable interference with patient care equipment. Three hundred tests were performed over a five-month period in 2006, without a single problem incurred.

      Involved in the study were two cellular phones which used different technologies from different carriers and 192 medical devices. Tests were performed at Mayo Clinic campus in Rochester.

      The study's authors say the findings should prompt hospitals to alter or abandon their bans on cell phone use.

      Mayo Clinic leaders are reviewing the facility's cell phone ban because of the study's findings, says David Hayes, M.D., of the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases and a study author.

      Cell phone bans inconvenience patients and their families who must exit hospitals to place calls, the study's authors say.

      The latest study revisits two earlier studies that were done 'in vitro' (i.e., the equipment wasn't connected to the patients), which also found minimal interaction from cell phones used in health care facilities. Dr. Hayes says the latest study bolsters the notion that cells phones are safe to use in hospitals.

      Mayo Clinic Finds Cell Phones Safe in Hospitals...
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      FDA Warns Mineral Water May be Toxic

      Certain brands may contain arsenic

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to drink certain brands of mineral water imported from Armenia due to the risk of exposure to arsenic, a toxic substance and known cause of cancer in humans.

      Symptoms of acute arsenic exposure usually occur within several hours of consumption.

      The most likely effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Over the period of a few days to weeks, the kidneys, liver, skin, and cardiovascular and nervous systems could be affected. Extended exposure could lead to cancer and death.

      The products were distributed nationwide. The following products are being recalled:

      Zetlian Bakery, Inc., Pico Rivera, CA is recalling product with labels that read: "Jermuk Original Sparkling Natural Mineral Water Fortified With Natural Gas From The Spring". The product is additionally labeled as "2006 Jermuk Mayr Gortsaran CJSC" and "Imported by: Zetlian Bakery Inc."

      Importers Direct Wholesale Company, Los Angeles, CA is recalling the product with labels that read: "Jermuk Sodium Calcium Bicarbonate and Sulphate Mineral Water". The product is additionally labeled as "Bottled by ARPI Plant, Republic of Armenia" and "Exclusive US importer and distributor: Importers Direct Wholesale Co., Los Angeles, CA".

      Kradjian Importing Company, Glendale, CA is recalling the product with labels that read: "Jermuk, Natural Mineral Water Sparkling". The product is additionally labeled as "Bottled by Jermuk Group CJSC" and "Sale Agent Kradjian Importing Co. Inc." in Glendale, CA.

      FDA sampled 500 milliliter (mL) green glass bottles and detected the problem. FDA is investigating whether other sizes or packaging are involved.

      FDA testing of this water revealed 500-600 micrograms of arsenic per liter. FDAs standard of quality bottled water allows no more than 10 micrograms per liter.

      There have been no illnesses reported at this time. Consumers who drank this water and have concerns are encouraged to contact their health care provider.

      FDA Warns Mineral Water May be Toxic...
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      Hearing Loss Affects One in Three Over 60

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q. I'm 67 and have always had very good hearing. Lately, I've noticed that I can't pick up some things my grand-daughter says. Is this significant?

      A. About one in three Americans over 60 suffer from loss of hearing, which can range from the inability to hear certain voices to deafness.

      There are two basic categories of hearing loss. One is caused by damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss is permanent. The second kind occurs when sound can't reach the inner ear. This can be repaired medically or surgically.

      Presbycusis, one form of hearing loss, occurs with age. Presbycusis can be caused by changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve, middle ear, or outer ear. Some of its causes are aging, loud noise, heredity, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs, and circulation problems such as high blood pressure. It seems to be inherited.

      Tinnitus, also common in older people, is the ringing, hissing, or roaring sound in the ears frequently caused by exposure to loud noise or certain medicines. Tinnitus is a symptom that can come with any type of hearing loss.

      Hearing loss can by caused by "ototoxic" medicines that damage the inner ear. Some antibiotics are ototoxic. Aspirin can cause temporary problems. If you're having a hearing problem, ask your doctor about any medications you're taking.

      Loud noise contributes to presbycusis and tinnitus. Noise has damaged the hearing of about 10 million Americans, many of them Baby Boomers who listened to hard rock with the volume turned up as far as possible.

      Hearing problems that are ignored or untreated can get worse. If you have a hearing problem, see your doctor. Hearing aids, special training, medicines and surgery are options.

      Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in problems of the ear. Or you may be referred to an audiologist, a professional who can identify and measure hearing loss. An audiologist can help you determine if you need a hearing aid.

      There other "hearing aids" you should consider. There are listening systems to help you enjoy television or radio without being bothered by other sounds around you. Some hearing aids can be plugged directly into TVs, stereos, microphones, and personal FM systems to help you hear better.

      Some telephones work with certain hearing aids to make sounds louder and remove background noise. And some auditoriums, movie theaters, and other public places are equipped with special sound systems that send sounds directly to your ears.

      Alerts such as doorbells, smoke detectors, and alarm clocks can give you a signal that you can see or a vibration that you can feel. For example, a flashing light can let you know someone is at the door or on the phone.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

      Hearing Loss Affects One in Three Over 60...
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      Insurer Unlawfully Poached Consumers' Credit Reports

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo announced a settlement affecting nearly 400 New York consumers whose credit reports were unlawfully accessed by an insurance company. Under the settlement, Administrators for the Professions, Inc. (AFP), a New York insurance company, is paying $229,600 in compensation to those consumers.

      Between November 2000 and March 2006, AFP obtained more than 800 consumer credit reports on approximately 400 different individuals from the credit reporting agencies Equifax and TransUnion. An overwhelming majority of the consumers' credit reports were acquired for purposes not permitted by the federal and state Fair Credit Reporting Acts.

      Credit reports may be legally obtained by agents such as potential credit grantors, employers, or insurers, or with a consumer's permission. AFP, however, illegally provided credit reports for use as investigative tools in civil litigation, for use in connection with insurance claims, and for satisfying requesters' personal curiosity.

      Credit reports were also unlawfully attained for investigators trying to locate parties in matrimonial and other personal matters, and for individuals looking to acquire information about an estranged spouse.

      "Companies with access to a consumer's credit report must be vigilant in ensuring that such access is not abused or used unlawfully. Consumers' privacy must be protected, and the integrity and confidentiality of a consumer's credit report must be preserved."

      Rebecca J. Weber, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), said, "Misuse of an individual's credit report can cause a lifetime of financial trouble. This scheme has affected hundreds of New Yorkers, and NYPIRG applauds Attorney General Cuomo for a successful crackdown on corporate crime."

      Phyllis Hill Slater, Executive Council Member for the New York State office of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), said, "AARP commends Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for his efforts to ensure New Yorkers' personal credit information is not accessed without their consent. As older New Yorkers tend to be prime targets of fraud and abuse, it's important our laws are enforced to protect them."

      Chuck Bell, Programs Director for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, said, "Consumer credit reports contain highly sensitive personal financial information, including social security numbers, home addresses, credit history, and employment information. It's critical that businesses obey the restrictions in federal and state laws that protect this information from unauthorized disclosure."

      As a result of AFP's unlawful acquisition of consumers' credit reports, the credit files of those consumers inappropriately reflected that a credit "inquiry" had been made. The inclusion of such an inquiry in the credit files of these consumers could adversely affect their credit score or result in other negative consequences.

      Under the settlement with the Office of the Attorney General, AFP agreed not to acquire a consumer credit report unless it is for a permissible purpose as set forth in federal and state law. AFP agreed to pay $229,600 in compensation for consumers whose credit reports were illegally accessed; those consumers whose credit reports were obtained on one occasion will receive $600, while consumers whose credit reports were accessed on two separate occasions will receive $1,000. AFP will also pay the State of New York $85,000 for penalties and $15,000 for costs related to the investigation.

      In addition, AFP will provide the list of all affected consumers to Equifax and TransUnion, and direct those credit reporting agencies to delete all references to the illegal inquiries from each consumer's credit file.

      Insurer Unlawfully Poached Consumers' Credit Reports...
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      Senate Panel Slams Abusive Credit Card Practices

      Disclosure Statements Written at "27th-Grade Level"

      In what played out as a good versus evil scenario, Senators and consumer advocates battled with three of the most powerful men in the credit card industry at a Capitol Hill hearing today.

      The woes of millions of Americans who are slaves to hidden fees, compounding interest and cryptic terms were heard in a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing.

      The hearing was a preliminary spotlight on the industry. As a result of the hearing some of the companies seem to be backing down on a few of their more unscrupulous practices. But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he intends to keep the "spotlight" on credit card companies and that legislative action may be necessary to purge the industry.

      One of the witnesses was Wesley Wannemacher, a former Chase Bank credit card holder who placed $3,200 of wedding expenses in late 2001 on his card. He never spent another cent on that card, yet his debt to Chase ballooned to $10,700 -- that is until Chase saw his name on the witness list last week and forgave his debt.

      Unfortunately, not every American in debt can be made the poster boy of unfair credit practices.

      "Credit card debt is often seen as a very personal problem, but the burgeoning level of household debt in America has implications for the entire nation," Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), ranking minority member said. "Over the past 25 years, U.S. household debt has ballooned from a collective $59 billion in 1980 to approximately $830 billion in 2005.

      "Even more staggering, the number of consumers filing for bankruptcy has increased by 609 percent," Coleman continued.

      The executives of the nation's largest credit card companies, Bank of America, Chase and Citi Cards, sat uncomfortably through. has more than 572 credit-card-related complaints about those three companies in its database.

      Throughout the hearing, the crowd that packed the room occasionally burst into laughter at the seemingly absurd credit card terms and the lack of direct answers from the bank executives.

      One of the issues spotlighted was the incomprehensible credit card terms and conditions. The crowd could not hold in the laughter as Levin took about 60 seconds to read a Bank of America billing statement out loud.

      27th Grade

      Sen. Levin

      In preparation for today's hearing, Levin charged the Government Accountability Office to prepare a report on the industry's rates and fees. That report revealed that credit card disclosures are written at a "twenty-seventh-grade level."

      "I can only assume that one would need -- after 12 years of grade school and four years of college -- a four-year medical degree, a five-year PhD and a two-year MBA to fully grasp those particular provisions," Coleman said.

      Alys Cohen, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, recommended all credit card documents be written at the eighth-grade level.

      Of the more than a dozen complaints raised against the credit card companies, Levin also raised an issue which he coined "trailing interest."

      Trailing interest is the practice of charging interest on entire bill no matter what percentage of it is paid.

      "Suppose a consumer who usually pays their account in full, and owes no money on December 1, makes a lot of purchases in December, and gets a January 1 credit card bill for $5,020," Levin said. "That bill is due January 15. Suppose the consumer pays that bill on time, but pays $5,000 instead of the full amount owed. What do you think the consumer owes on the next bill?

      "If you thought the bill would be the $20 past due plus interest on the $20, you would be wrong. In fact, under industry practice today, the bill would likely be twice as much. That's because the consumer would have to pay interest, not just on the $20 that wasn't paid on time, but also on the $5,000 that was paid on time.

      "The consumer would have to pay interest on the entire $5,020 from the first day of the billing month, January 1, until the day the bill was paid on January 15, compounded daily," Levin continued. "In our example, using an interest rate of 17.99 percent ... the $20 debt would, in one month, rack up $35 in interest charges and balloon into a debt of $55.21."

      Bruce Hammonds, president of Bank of America Card Services, Richard Srednicki, chief executive officer of Chase Bank USA and Vikram Atal, Chairman and CEO of Citi Cards, all said that "trailing interest" is a practice shared by various lending schemes but gave no specific examples.

      Senators also discussed grace periods, a widely advertised feature that gives credit card holders a period of time to pay their bill before interest is applied to their balance. However, Levin discovered that grace periods only apply to individuals who pay their statement in full each month.

      The credit card executives said those restrictions are explained in their terms and conditions.

      Sparking around round of laughter, Chase's Srednicki said, "I think the large majority of our customers understand (that grace periods only apply to accounts paid in full)."

      Two of the three credit card companies recently announced changes in policy in an attempt to placate the subcommittee.

      Atal, of Citi, said his bank will no longer automatically raise interest rates for cardholders who fail to make payments on other bills. Known as "universal default," the practice has long been criticized by consumer advocates who argue it victimizes poorer borrowers.

      After publicly apologizing to Wannemacher, Srednicki announced Chase eliminated a practice known as double-cycle billing "a few days ago." The practice involves tacking on fees calculated based on two prior months.

      Levin did not seem placated.

      "They gave us their spin," Levin told after the hearing. "I think they gave us their pitch."

      The woes of millions of Americans who are slaves to hidden fees, compounding interest and cryptic terms were heard in a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on In...
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      Weber Genesis Series Gas Grills Recalled

      March 6, 2007
      Weber Genesis 320 Series gas grills are being recalled. The gas hose attached to the side burner of the grill can crack or break off during shipping, causing it to leak gas when in use, which poses a fire hazard to consumers.

      Weber has received 49 reports of hose damage or gas leaks. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the Weber Genesis 320 Series gas grills which are designed to be used with either natural gas or with liquid propane gas tanks, and are equipped with a flush-mounted side burner accessory. The gas hose is made of stainless steel.

      The grills are sold in stainless steel and in black, blue or green porcelain enamel. All serial numbers begin with the prefix "DI." The model and serial number are located on the tank blocker/drip pan holder located inside the storage cart.

      Only the following product names and model numbers are included in this recall:

      Product NameModel Numbers
      Genesis® E-320™3751001; 3757001; 3758001; 3851001
      Genesis® S-320™3780001; 3880001
      Genesis® EP-320™3751301; 3752301; 3757301; 3758301; 3851301
      Genesis® ESP-320™3750101; 3750201; 3850101
      Genesis® CEP-320™(Sold in Canada Only)
      3751701; 3752701; 3851701

      The grills were sold at Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Home Centers, Tru-Serve, Do-It Best, and other home improvement and hardware stores nationwide from November 2006 through February 2007 for between $450 to $770.

      Consumers should stop using the gas grill immediately and contact Weber-Stephen to obtain a free replacement gas hose and schedule a free installation.

      Consumer Contact: Call Weber-Stephen toll-free at (866) 249-3237 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the company's recall web site at

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

      Weber Genesis Series Gas Grills Recalled...
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      Feds Consider New Lithium Battery Restrictions on Airplanes

      Battery makers say no need for restrictions on laptops, cell phones

      The Department of Transportation is looking at new restrictions for transporting lithium batteries on airplanes but there are no plans to ban the batteries from carry-on luggage and it's like that only checked baggage would be affected.

      Battery industry representatives have acknowledged that some restrictions may be needed, but insist that there is no need to ban laptops, cell phones or other devices from airplanes.

      Federal reports indicat at least nine fires involving lithium batteries have happened on airplanes or in cargo destined for planes since 2005.

      The Federal Aviation Administration is asking companies that make and ship the batteries to take voluntary steps to ease fire risks. The agencies also will launch a safety awareness campaign for passengers.

      Lithium batteries come in two forms. The lithium metal batteries are single-use and the lithium-ion can be recharged. Both store energy that generates intense heat in the event of a short circuit, if metal touches both terminals or if internal seals fail.

      In many cases, low-cost or counterfeit batteries lack safeguards against short circuits.

      In the last year, more than 4 million lithium batteries or all sorts have been recalled.

      Bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries were banned on passenger flights in 2004, in part because fires in those batteries are especially hard to extinguish.

      Feds Consider New Lithium Battery Restrictions on Airplanes...
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      Peanut Butter Developed as a Health Food

      St. Louis Physician Sought an Easily-Digested Protein Source

      In light of all that's happened the last few weeks, it may be surprising that peanut butter was invented by a doctor.

      A St. Louis physician developed it in 1890, looking for a protein source that could be easily digested. It was widely sold as a nutrition supplement for years and was a big hit in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair.

      The modern, non-separating version was invented in 1922 by Joseph L. Rosefield, and became a popular lunch for schoolchildren, although today many schools prohibit food containing peanut products because of the rising incidence of severe peanut allergies in children.

      Both peanut butter and jelly were packed with United States Army K-rations in World War II. The combination proved so popular that returning GIs made peanut butter and jelly a standard American food.

      George Washington Carver, an African American botanical researcher at the Tuskegee Institute, was a leading spokesman for the peanut industry in the early 20th Century. Had he invented peanut butter, it would probably have been called goober butter.

      "Goober" is the African name for peanuts. Slaves being brought to America were fed goobers to keep them alive during the brutal crossings. Goobers remained popular with slaves, who ate them both for nutrition and for a small touch of their lost homeland.

      Though Carver didn't invent peanut butter, he did develop more than 300 byproducts including oil, gums, resins, and pectin, thus creating a market for the peanuts grown by southern farmers, whom he called "his people," according to Mary Alice Powell, writing in the Toledo Blade.

      By the way, Powell, the paper's former food editor, includes a recipe for those who have a food blender and want to make their own peanut butter rather than trust Peter Pan and other packaged brands.

      Obviously, you want to have healthy peanuts. Blend one cup of shelled peanuts with 1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of oil. Blending time depends on whether the results will be crunchy or smooth and that, Powell notes, is always good for debate.

      Peanut Butter Developed as a Health Food...
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      Scams and Foreclosures On the Rise

      "Surplus Funds" Scam Targets Homeowners in Trouble

      Some homeowners facing foreclosure are being subjected to scams that ultimately could cost them tens of thousands of dollars, New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner warns.

      As foreclosure filing rates are increasing nationally, scams targeting homeowners facing foreclosure are rising as well. These scams typically target "surplus funds" to which homeowners may be entitled if their homes are sold at a sheriff's sale.

      "Homeowners facing the loss of their homes are understandably concerned, and con artists seize on their fears to perpetrate scams," Rabner noted. "These offers of help and money may seem like a godsend, but it is the con artist who ultimately benefits."

      Surplus funds are the monies remaining after the sheriff's foreclosure sale takes place and mortgage and tax obligations have been paid. Neither the homeowner's mortgage lender nor the sheriff's office are required to notify the homeowner if surplus funds exist.

      The state's Division of Consumer Affairs is alerting the public to two surplus fund scams.

      In the first scam, the con artist offers to accept the property deed and, in exchange, pay the homeowner a minimal amount of money, typically no more than a few thousand dollars. By transferring the deed, the homeowner signs away ownership of his or her house and any equity that has built up.

      The homeowner may be told he can buy the deed back if certain conditions are met. Many times, however, these conditions are almost impossible to satisfy or the scammer never intends to honor his promise. Instead, the house is sold through a sheriff's foreclosure sale and the con artist keeps the surplus funds that result.

      In the second scam, the con artist offers to assist the homeowner in obtaining surplus funds that may be available after the house is sold via a sheriff's foreclosure sale. The homeowner often times is told that he cannot apply for surplus fund on his or her own, or that the process is very complicated or costly.

      The con artist scams the homeowner by:

      • charging an exorbitant fee that can range up to 75% of the total surplus fund;
      • writing a fee in the contract with the homeowner that is higher than the fee verbally promised;
      • pressuring the homeowner to sign away his/rights to the surplus funds through a quit claim deed; and
      • forging the homeowner's name on a surplus funds application and then keeping the surplus funds.

      In reality, homeowners in New Jersey can obtain the surplus funds by filing a simple form and paying less than $100. The process is similar in other states.

      "These scams have the same goal: to enrich the con artist by taking money from a homeowner in trouble," Acting Director Nolan said. "It is unconscionable that con artists take advantage of good people who have fallen on hard times. We are working to educate and protect those facing foreclosure from these scams."

      Some homeowners facing foreclosure are being subjected to scams that ultimately could cost them tens of thousands of dollars, New Jersey Attorney General S...
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      New York Nursing Home Aide Convicted of Rape

      A former aide at a New York nursing home has been found guilty of raping and sexually assaulting a 90-year-old resident of the nursing home. A jury convicted William Morrison, 46, of Utica, of three felonies after a five-day trial conducted before Judge Michael L. Dwyer in Oneida County Court. Morrison was found guilty of Rape in the First Degree, a class B felony, Sexual Abuse in the First Degree, a class D felony, and Endangering the Welfare of a Vulnerable Elderly Person, a class E felony.

      Morrison had been employed by Rome Memorial Hospital, in Rome, New York, for several months before he transferred to hospital's affiliated 80-bed nursing home. The crime was committed approximately two weeks after that transfer.

      When Morrison began to work at the nursing home, the home sought to perform a criminal background check, but that process had not been completed before Morrison raped the elderly resident, prosecutors said. Such a background check would have revealed that Morrison had previously been convicted of one felony drug offense in 1992 and several misdemeanors in the 1990s. His last conviction was for a misdemeanor drug offense in 1999.

      "This horrific crime illustrates how important it is for nursing homes to secure criminal history checks before allowing individuals to care for their residents," said New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "Had the nursing home known of Morrison's criminal history, it is possible that this nightmarish crime might have been avoided. We are continuing to examine whether my office should take any action against the home."

      New York Nursing Home Aide Convicted of Rape...
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      Spam E-mail Increases Worldwide

      If you've noticed a marked uptick in the amount of spam you have to clean out from your e-mail inbox, it's no illusion.

      Spam is indeed on the rise, with networks of zombie "botnet" computers churning out garbled advertisements for Viagra and cheap software all across the world. Spam e-mails can unleash viruses, malware, and other nasty surprises on unsuspecting Web surfers.

      The February 2007 "Intelligence Report" by messaging security firm MessageLabs found 77.8 percent of all sent e-mails for the month of February from "new and unknown bad sources" were spam, or 1 in every 1.29 e-mails. MessageLabs reported a 2% increase from January 2007, attributable to the tactic of increasing spam traffic due to holidays -- in this case, Valentine's Day.

      "While it is routine to see the bad guys use seasonal tactics to exploit unsuspecting targets, the recent rise in Valentine's Day specific malware proves it is still effective," MessageLabs' chief security analyst Mark Sunner said.

      "Although it is commendable that global law enforcement agencies are attempting to address the spam and botnetissue, we are likely to see the spammers continuing to innovate both in terms of targeting and with new techniques to reach the end user," Sunner said.

      Another security firm, Kaspersky Lab, published its annual "Spam Evolution Report" for 2006, and found that China, Russia, and the United States were still the largest producers of spam worldwide.

      Kaspersky found that 70 to 80 percent of all e-mail traffic on the Russian Internet in 2006 was spam. Kaspersky reported that spammers were becoming much more savvy in their efforts, with spammers increasingly employing graphic images to get past antispam filters, and disguising their sender addresses to look like reputable businesses.

      "Spam is becoming increasingly criminalized," Kaspersky noted in the report summary. "[S]pammers are proactively looking for new markets for their services, and are migrating to IM clients and cellular communications.", an Ireland-based technology news site, reported that 60 percent of all e-mail traffic to businesses in Ireland was spam, according to IE Internet. Like Kaspersky, the report found the majority of spam originating in the United States, though it noted a continuing trend of moving large-scale botnet operations out of the U.S.

      Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddard, noted in a press conference on March 1st that Canada was the sixth largest source of spam e-mails and the only member of the G8 countries to not have any comprehensive anti-spam legislation. Stoddard renewed her call for the Canadian government to address spam proliferation, noting spam's role in fraud and identity theft.

      Of course, given the general ineffectiveness of legislation like the U.S.'s CAN-SPAM Act, some observers noted that it might not be the best idea to rely on governments to solve the spam problem.

      What You Can Do

      • Install antispam software. At this point, surfing the Web or using e-mail without a spam filter or antispam protector is simply foolish. Most software security programs include antispam filters, as well as firewalls and virus protection. Sites such as can help you find and compare products before buying.

      • Use multiple e-mail accounts. Filtering your e-mail traffic according to category will help reduce the likelihood of spam cluttering up your inbox. Use one e-mail address for shopping online, one for personal conversations, one for business, etc. Web-based e-mail services, such as, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, come with built-in spam filters and tools to remove spam manually.

      • Don't give out your e-mail address randomly. If a service or offer doesn't automatically require an e-mail address, don't provide it. Don't post your e-mail address anywhere on the Internet where it can be publicly viewed, as that will increase the chance of it being picked up by "crawlers" attached to search engines, which makes it an easier target for spam botnets. If you do, take out the symbols in the address and write them as words. Instead of "," write "johndoe AT youremail DOT com."

      • Don't open e-mails unless they're from trusted sources. If the e-mail looks at all suspicious, move it to your spam filter and delete it. E-mails that purport to be from PayPal, Bank of America, etc., are invariably "phisher" spam mails, designed to get you to fill out your information by appearing legitimate.

      Spam E-mail Increases Worldwide...
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      The Healthy Geezer: Is Grapefruit Juice Toxic?

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q. My daughter heard that grapefruit juice can be toxic for some people. Is that true?

      A. The juice, itself, is not toxic, but you should be careful taking medicine with any grapefruit.

      Grapefruit juice can raise the level of some medications in the blood. The effect of grapefruit was discovered after using juice to mask the taste of a medicine. So, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is safe to have grapefruit with your medications.

      Taking medicine can be hazardous to your health. You have to know what you're doing.

      For example, calcium-rich dairy products or certain antacids can prevent antibiotics from being properly absorbed into the bloodstream. Ginkgo biloba can reduce the effectiveness of blood-thinning medications and raise the risk for serious complications such as stroke.

      You should educate yourself so you know what active ingredients are in the prescription and over-the-counter medicines you are taking.

      Some people treat over-the-counter pain relievers as if they are harmless. They can hurt you if you take them improperly. They contain drugs such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and aspirin. Acetaminophen is in Tylenol. Ibuprofen is in Advil. Naproxen sodium is in Aleve.

      Many prescription or over-the-counter medicines that treat multiple symptoms, such as cold and flu medications, also include acetaminophen and the other pain-relieving ingredients. So you have to be careful not to take too much of any one ingredient by ingesting more than one medication that contains that ingredient.

      Seniors take more medicines than any other age group because they have more health problems. Taking several drugs a day presents dangers. Here are some more tips to avoid side these hazards:

      Always inform your doctor or pharmacist about all medicines you are already taking, including herbal products and over-the-counter medications.

      Tell your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about past problems you have had with medicines, such as rashes, indigestion or dizziness.

      Don't mix alcohol and medicine unless your doctor or pharmacist says it's okay. Some medicines may not work well or may make you sick if you take them with alcohol.

      The best advice is this: Don't be afraid to throw a lot of questions about your medicines at your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Here are some good ones:

      • When should I take it? As needed, or on a schedule? Before, with or between meals? At bedtime?
      • How often should I take it?
      • How long will I have to take it?
      • How will I feel once I start taking this medicine?
      • How will I know if this medicine is working?
      • If I forget to take it, what should I do?
      • What side effects might I expect? Should I report them?
      • Can this medicine interact with other prescription and over-the-counter medicines -- including herbal and dietary supplements -- that I am taking now?

      And, ask your pharmacist to put your medicine in large, easy-to open containers with large-print labels.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

      Grapefruit juice can raise the level of some medications in the blood. The effect of grapefruit was discovered after using juice to mask the taste of a med...
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      Third Death Blamed on Peanut Butter

      West Virginia Woman Died After 18-Day Illness

      The death of a West Virginia woman may be linked to Salmonella-infested Peter Pan peanut butter, bringing to three the unofficial death toll from one of the nation's largest outbreaks of food poisoning.

      Mary Halstead, 85, of Weston, WV, died Jan. 10 after becoming ill on December 23, 2006, according to her son, Larry Halstead.

      Salmonella is especially toxic to children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems.

      "Her doctors didn't ever test her for Salmonella because nobody had heard anything about any of this at the time," Halstead told "Her doctor said he couldn't figure out why the antibiotics they gave her weren't working."

      Halstead said his mother became ill after eating a peanut butter sandwich, one of her favorite foods. During her hospitalization at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital in Weston, she repeatedly asked the staff to serve her a peanut butter sandwich but they refused, saying peanut butter was not on their standard menu.

      "So, dumb old me, I made her a peanut butter sandwich at home and brought it to her at the hospital, because it was just about the only thing she wanted to eat," Larry Halstead said. "In no time, she got just 100% worse." Halstead said his mother then became semi-comatose and died.

      After his mother's death, Halstead heard the news of the Salmonella infestation and looked at the jar of peanut butter he had used to make his mother's sandwich. It was Peter Pan peanut butter with the "2111" serial number.

      "The death certificate says she died of congestive heart failure due to complications of pneumonia but she died of eating peanut butter," Halstead said. "She was in good health for her age until this all started."

      Halstead said his mother "suffered something awful" during her last days and said he is considering taking legal action.

      Other Deaths

      Two other deaths have been unofficially attributed to the tainted peanut butter.

      An elderly Chicago area man, George Baldwin, was said to be in relatively good health just before his recent death from complications of food poisoning, shortly after he ate a peanut butter sandwich.

      "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 said.

      A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman, Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia, died in January 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.

      Colombian Complaint

      Today brought the first indications that contaminated food from the Georgia plant may have been exported to other countries.

      A Colombian man said he bought a jar of Peter Pan peanut butter on Feb. 10 because his five-year-old daughter was fond of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She became ill with diarrhea and other symptoms last week and the family stopped feeding her peanut butter.

      "To my suprise i was watching CNN news in English when I heard that the FDA was warning consumers about the salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter," said the girl's father, Juan Sebastian OrdoAtez. "And to add to this surprise the lid of the jar I still have has the number 21111."

      Sebastian OrdoAtez said he contacted the store where he bought the peanut butter and was put in touch with the importer, which told him that any laboratory tests would be at his own expense.

      "I think these people are not really interested in our health," he said in his complaint to

      China is recalling U.S. peanut butter, according to state-run media. China imported three batches of the two peanut butter brands in September and December of 2006 and January of 2007, totaling 742 cases, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

      At least 156 cases have already been sold in Beijing, it said. Xinhua did not say if there had been any reports of people getting sick from the peanut butter.

      Investigation Widens

      The Food and Drug Administration reports that its inspectors have found salmonella samples at ConAgra's Georgia plant and, as the investigation of salmonella-tainted peanut butter widens, the recall has spread to ice cream manufacturers and a wholesale retailer of a peanut butter dessert topping.

      Inspectors found salmonella samples at ConAgra's Sylvester, Georgia, plant, where the recalled Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter was made, FDA said. At the same time, the agency said peanut butter from the contaminated plant was spread to at least one other plant, located in Tennessee.

      It was at the Humboldt, Tenn., plant that peanut butter was processed for ice cream and dessert toppings.

      The FDA says the fact that its inspectors found Salmonella in the plant environment further suggests that the contamination likely took place prior to the product reaching consumers.

      Last week, tests by several states identified Salmonella in many open jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter recovered from consumers. In these instances, the Salmonella found in the plant and in the open jars matched the outbreak strain recovered from consumers who became ill.

      The following products were used by the affected businesses until Feb. 16, 2007 when the products were recalled:

      • Sonic Brand Ready-To-Use Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10.5 oz cans.
      • Carvel Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans.

      The following Carvel products, purchased before Feb. 16, 2007 can be returned to a Carvel outlet for a refund:
      • Chocolate Peanut Butter
      • Peanut Butter Treasure
      • Peanut Butter & Jelly
      • Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Sundae Dasher
      • Any other customized products containing the Peanut Butter Topping, including peanut butter flavored ice cream in ice cream cakes
      • J. Hungerford Smith Peanut Butter Dessert Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans. The topping is used by retail outlets and restaurants nationwide but is not available for direct purchase by the public, the FDA said.

      Carvel's Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Sundae Dasher is not being recalled because of the peanut butter found in the Reese's Cups, but rather, because of the peanut butter topping applied to the sundae, Carvel spokeswoman Karen Gailey said. has not received any related complaints on the above products.

      What To Do

      Persons who think they may have become ill from eating peanut butter should consult a physician if they do not get better in a few days. If the illness affects small children, the elderly, pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems, a doctor should be consulted promptly.

      The FDA and other agencies have been advising consumers who have Peter Pan peanut butter or Great Value peanut butter with a product code beginning with 2111 to discard the jar and keep the lid.

      However, attorneys advise that, if consumers were seriously harmed by their illness, they should seal the jar in a plastic bag and store it out of the reach of children or others in the household, so that it is available as evidence.

      Although a few lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed, one experienced consumer attorney who asked not to be identified expressed doubt such actions would be successful.

      "The vast majority of suits will be individual actions. A class suit would be difficult to certify," he said.

      ConAgra has publicly offered to repay the money consumers spent on the peanut butter and any attempt to recover medical costs and wages lost to illness would require the filing of an individual personal injury suit. Such suits are usually not economically feasible unless consumers have suffered serious injury or death.

      Consumers could also file in Small Claims Court if they have well-documented expenses and a firm diagnosis. Consumers should note that they cannot claim punitive damages for pain and suffering in most small claims cases.


      Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

      Third Death Blamed on Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter Recalls Spread to Ice Cream & Desserts...
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      Bush Nominates Industry Lobbyist to Head Safety Agency

      Consumer Advocates Outraged; "Laughable," Says Former Agency Head

      By Joseph S. Enoch

      March 2, 2007
      After waiting almost eight months to nominate a new chairman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, President Bush has made up his mind, but the industry lobbyist he hopes to seat has drawn vehement opposition from Democrats and consumer advocates.

      "President George W. Bush today announced his intention to nominate ... Michael E. Baroody, of Virginia, to be Chairman and Member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)," according to a White House statement.

      Baroody's nomination has enraged consumer advocates and is expected to raise a fight in the Senate Commerce Committee where Bush's nomination must be approved.

      Baroody is the executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). NAM is one of the nation's largest trade groups and it opposes aggressive product safety regulation.

      Ann Brown, the CPSC's chairman from 1994-2001, laughed in shock when informed her in an interview that Bush was expected to nominate a NAM executive.

      "NAM!" Brown exclaimed. "That is laughable ... You should have a person who has vast experience protecting consumers."

      "Given that Mr. Baroody has spent his professional career representing the interests of manufacturers over consumers, I believe his nomination deserves the highest level of scrutiny," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

      "I intend to give his nomination thorough scrutiny," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a Commerce Committee member, said in a statement.

      "Here was a golden opportunity to put a true champion of consumers onto a very important commission, and instead President Bush selected someone who represents the special interests," Boxer said. "This administration seems incapable of doing anything in the public interest."

      Baroody has a long history of Republican ties and anti-consumer regulation.

      He ascended into politics by writing speeches for Bob Dole in the 1970s. From 1981 to 1985, he served on President Reagan's White House staff as deputy assistant to the President and director of public affairs. He spent a year in 1993 as the president of the Republican-oriented National Policy Forum before taking a post at NAM.

      According to The Los Angeles Times Baroody has fought hard against many consumer regulations including these:

      • In 1988, as assistant secretary of Labor, he defended the Reagan administration's record in protecting workers despite delays in issuing safety rules and efforts to weaken regulations.

      • In 2000, he fought an ergonomics rule -- put into place by the Clinton administration -- that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said was intended to prevent 300,000 workplace accidents and injuries.

      • In 2001, speaking for NAM, he criticized a Supreme Court ruling rejecting arguments that the Environmental Protection Agency had acted unconstitutionally when it issued standards for limiting smog and soot.

      "I think it's shocking," Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, told The Los Angeles Times. "It's the fox in the chicken coop."

      Bush is trying to fill a seat he has left vacant for almost eight months after ex-Chairman Hal Stratton, another Bush appointee, bolted the job with little warning on July 15 to join a law firm.

      Bush waited so long to fill the post that the two remaining commissioners lost all regulatory powers on January 15.

      In the CPSC's 35-year history, only four times has it ever gone more than six months with only two commissioners. Three of those times were under the current administration.

      Brown said President Bush's repeated disregard for the agency's leadership void shows an overall disregard for the safety of American citizens.

      "I really think it shows that the Bush Administration really has no concern about the health and safety of American citizens, especially our kids," Brown said. "I think that status quo of 'nothing can be done' is exactly what the Bush Administration thinks about health and safety."

      Bush Nominates Industry Lobbyist to Head Safety Agency...
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      Peanut Butter Recalls Spread to Ice Cream & Desserts

      Salmonella Found at ConAgra's Georgia Plant, FDA Reports

      The Food and Drug Administration reports that its inspectors have found salmonella samples at ConAgra's Georgia plant and, as the investigation of salmonella-tainted peanut butter widens, the recall has spread to ice cream manufacturers and a wholesale retailer of a peanut butter dessert topping.

      Inspectors found salmonella samples at ConAgra's Sylvester, Georgia, plant, where the recalled Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter was made, FDA said. At the same time, the agency said peanut butter from the contaminated plant was spread to at least one other plant, located in Tennessee.

      It was at the Humboldt, Tenn., plant that peanut butter was processed for ice cream and dessert toppings.

      The FDA says the fact that its inspectors found Salmonella in the plant environment further suggests that the contamination likely took place prior to the product reaching consumers.

      Last week, tests by several states identified Salmonella in many open jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter recovered from consumers. In these instances, the Salmonella found in the plant and in the open jars matched the outbreak strain recovered from consumers who became ill.

      The following products were used by the affected businesses until Feb. 16, 2007 when the products were recalled:

      • Sonic Brand Ready-To-Use Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10.5 oz cans.
      • Carvel Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans.

      The following Carvel products, purchased before Feb. 16, 2007 can be returned to a Carvel outlet for a refund:
      • Chocolate Peanut Butter
      • Peanut Butter Treasure
      • Peanut Butter & Jelly
      • Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Sundae Dasher
      • Any other customized products containing the Peanut Butter Topping, including peanut butter flavored ice cream in ice cream cakes
      • J. Hungerford Smith Peanut Butter Dessert Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans. The topping is used by retail outlets and restaurants nationwide but is not available for direct purchase by the public, the FDA said.

      Carvel's Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Sundae Dasher is not being recalled because of the peanut butter found in the Reese's Cups, but rather, because of the peanut butter topping applied to the sundae, Carvel spokeswoman Karen Gailey said. has not received any related complaints on the above products.

      What To Do

      Persons who think they may have become ill from eating peanut butter should consult a physician if they do not get better in a few days. If the illness affects small children, the elderly, pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems, a doctor should be consulted promptly.

      The FDA and other agencies have been advising consumers who have Peter Pan peanut butter or Great Value peanut butter with a product code beginning with 2111 to discard the jar and keep the lid.

      However, attorneys advise that, if consumers were seriously harmed by their illness, they should seal the jar in a plastic bag and store it out of the reach of children or others in the household, so that it is available as evidence.

      Although a few lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed, one experienced consumer attorney who asked not to be identified expressed doubt such actions would be successful.

      "The vast majority of suits will be individual actions. A class suit would be difficult to certify," he said.

      ConAgra has publicly offered to repay the money consumers spent on the peanut butter and any attempt to recover medical costs and wages lost to illness would require the filing of an individual personal injury suit. Such suits are usually not economically feasible unless consumers have suffered serious injury or death.

      Consumers could also file in Small Claims Court if they have well-documented expenses and a firm diagnosis. Consumers should note that they cannot claim punitive damages for pain and suffering in most small claims cases.


      Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

      Peanut Butter Recalls Spread to Ice Cream & Desserts...
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      REAL ID Guidelines Issued, But Implementation Delayed

      By Martin H. Bosworth

      March 1, 2007
      In the face of pressure by Congress and state governments to roll back or delay the controversial "REAL ID" national driver's license program, Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has issued new guidelines for how to implement the program, as well as agreeing to extend the deadline for implementation past May 2008, the original deadline.

      The 162-page "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" contains rules for states to meet the requirements of the REAL ID act, including implementing physical and electronic safeguards for both the cards and locations for where they are issued, as well as rules for verifying the information provided by applicants to "ensure their identity and lawful status" in the United States, according to DHS' press release.

      DHS also said that it would grant states that were having difficulty meeting the deadline a stay until December 31, 2009.

      "Raising the security standards on driver's licenses establishes another layer of protection to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using fake documents to plan or carry out an attack," Chertoff said. "These standards correct glaring vulnerabilities exploited by some of the 9/11 hijackers who used fraudulently obtained drivers licenses to board the airplanes in their attack against America."

      The REAL ID program was proposed to create national common standards for state drivers' licenses, including common "machine readibility" across the different states, and creating a linked database to store the information.

      State governors and legislatures have objected to the plan as an "unfunded mandate," requiring them to spend tens of millions of dollars of their own money to upgrade their respective drivers' license-issuing facilities, and privacy advocates have decried the plan as a potential goldmine for identity thieves and cybercriminals.

      Maine's state legislature voted to oppose the REAL ID act in January, 2007, and several other states quickly drafted legislation to oppose the act or decline participation, including Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

      In response, DHS agreed to set May 2008 as the beginning of a "phase-in" period for implementation of the program, with full compliance expected by May 2013.

      According to the DHS guidance, "All driver's licenses and identification cards that are intended to be accepted for official purposes as defined in these regulations must be REAL ID licenses and identification cards by May 11, 2013."

      A survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Governors' Association, and the American Motor Vehicles Administrators concluded that the plan may cost states as much as $11 billion to implement if carried out within five years. DHS has said that it would set aside up to 20 percent of its state antiterrorism funding to help cover the costs of the REAL ID project.

      Privacy Concerns

      Privacy and civil rights advocates have objected to the REAL ID plan on grounds that a nationally linked database of drivers' license information would be easy prey for government surveillance or private data-mining companies, as well as for identity thieves and hackers looking to harvest information.

      Objections were also raised over the possibility of embedding the new licenses with radio-frequency identifier (RFID) chips to ensure their readability by machines. RFID technology has been frequently criticized as both invasive to privacy and easy for hackers to break into.

      Security expert Bruce Schneier, an open opponent of the REAL ID plan, has said that a universal driver's license would actually be easier to forge because it would be so ubiquitous.

      "A centralized ID system is a far greater security risk than a decentralized one with various organizations issuing ID cards according to their own rules for their own purposes," he wrote.

      Even supporters of strong measures against terrorism have balked at the potential problems with REAL ID. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee was quoted as saying that the program was overly burdensome, possibly unworkable, and may actually increase a terrorist's ability to commit identity theft."

      "DHS expects that any system developed for purposes of the REAL ID Act will build in appropriate privacy and security mechanisms to reduce the risk of unauthorized access, misuse, fraud, and identity theft," the agency said in its guidance notice.

      "DHS believes that protecting the privacy of the personal information associated with implementation of the REAL ID Act is critical to maintaining the public trust that Government can provide basic services to its citizens while preserving their privacy."

      The full DHS notice is available online (pdf file).

      REAL ID Guidelines Issued, But Implementation Delayed...
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      Consumer Reports Finds European Cars Perform Well, Lack Reliability

      Annual Reliability Survey Dispels the "Japanese Myth"

      Volkswagen and Audi build the cars that perform best on average in Consumer Reports'tests, followed by Honda, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Mazda and Nissan. But Honda, Subaru, and Toyota are best when it comes to reliability, as judged by CR's latest Annual Car Reliability Survey.

      Those are among the findings in a special report in Consumer Reports' Annual April Auto Issue that looks at the question of which companies make the best cars.

      To shed light on why some automakers are thriving while others are spinning their wheels, the magazine examined its own internal data to mine the highs and lows for 17 major carmakers. CR analyzed how vehicles performed in its battery of more than 50 road tests, coupled with reliability histories based on more than 1.3 million vehicles, representing 250 models.

      The study includes "report cards" showing at a glance how the major manufacturers fare in testing and in reliability surveys. Each one lists an average test score for each automaker's tested models, and the percentage of CR-tested vehicles that are recommended by the organization.

      Consumer Reports only recommends vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on the annual reliability survey of its own subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test. The report cards also list common highs and lows for each company's vehicles.

      Consumer Reports concluded that no carmaker does everything right. Volkswagen, for example, builds vehicles that perform very well in CR's testing regimen with an average test score of 81 but vary in reliability -- with only 45 percent of tested vehicles being recommended.

      Toyota, on the other hand, has a less-than-stellar average test score of 70 -- but 85 percent of its tested vehicles are recommended, due in part to the company's consistently high reliability.

      The Japanese Myth

      In addition, CR's data show that just because a car is Japanese doesn't mean that it's a great car. Honda and Toyota are lauded for their reliability and have built a number of high-rated models, including seven of Consumer Reports' Top Picks for 2007. But not all Japanese cars excel in reliability.

      Other Japanese makers, such as Nissan, Mazda, and Mitsubishi have struggled to build high-quality cars consistently. Nissan's lineup, on average, actually scores above Toyota's in CR's tests, 75 vs. 70. Nissan also produces several of the most reliable cars in the latest reliability survey, including Infiniti sedans.

      But three Nissans -- the Armada, Titan, and Infiniti QX56 -- were among the models with the most reliability problems in the survey; all three are made in the same plant in Canton, Miss. Ford vehicles, in comparison, have slightly better reliability in the CR survey than cars from Nissan.

      Like GM, Toyota has a large lineup, increasing the challenge of producing consistently excellent vehicles. Eight other automakers had higher average test scores, leaving Toyota just mid-pack in this respect. While tested Toyota vehicles are very reliable and most have good fuel economy, they typically lacked agility in CR's testing.

      The analysis also showed that U.S. automakers build some good models. But many vehicles are mediocre, and even the best seldom rise to the top of their categories against stiff competition.

      Some automakers' vehicles consistently do well in important areas such as handling, braking, and fuel economy, which weigh heavily in Consumer Reports' test ratings. The automakers that typically do best in CR's ratings tend to build well-rounded vehicles that appeal to a broad audience.

      Some companies with smaller product lineups consistently design well-rounded vehicles. All the Hondas tested were reliable, and most had smooth, refined engines and transmissions, good fuel economy, handling, fit and finish, and crash-test scores. But almost all suffered from road noise. Mazda also has a smaller lineup, and all but one Mazda Tribute had good handling and braking in CR's tests. Most were noisy.

      European Models: A Mixed Bag

      If the only things that mattered to a car buyer were performance, comfort, and safety, Volkswagen would be at the top of the heap. Its Volkswagen and Audi models do well in handling, braking, and standard safety features. But few VWs have decent reliability.

      Mercedes-Benz is an even more striking example when looking at test performance and reliability. Its cars have the fourth-highest average test score, at 77. They handle well, are nicely finished, and ride comfortably. But none has good enough reliability to be recommended by CR. By contrast, Toyotas have been very reliable, but some models such as the FJ Cruiser SUV and the Yaris subcompact scored near the bottom of their classes in CR's tests.

      How U.S. Makers Stack Up

      Cars from Detroit automakers vary greatly in reliability. Ford has a number of good cars that did well in the reliability survey, but about a quarter of the Ford products tested had below-average reliability. GM also builds some vehicles that did well in reliability, but about one-third of the tested GM vehicles were rated below average.

      Among domestics, Chrysler posted the lowest average test score -- 51. CR can recommend only 21 percent of Chrysler's tested vehicles, largely due to subpar reliability.

      In Consumer Reports' testing, engineers found that some recent models from Ford and GM are competitive with the better Japanese or European models. For example, the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, and Cadillac CTS scored well. The Fusion/Milan twins have excellent reliability.

      Still, American cars seldom lead their categories against excellent competition. The areas where many U.S. cars fall down are many of the same ones that CR considers most important, such as reliability, fuel economy, braking, and handling.

      General Motors, the largest automaker, has had some hits and misses judging by the 42 models tested: The Chevrolet Avalanche and Corvette rank near the top of their classes, but lackluster products like GM's outdated minivans and compact pickups counter their good scores.

      Many GM vehicles received mediocre test scores due to subpar braking, emergency handling, and real-world fuel economy. On the plus side, fit and finish on GM models has greatly improved.

      Ford's cars consistently handle well and ride comfortably, and its trucks and SUVs have good interior space and utility. But braking, refinement, and fuel economy are typical complaints from CR's engineers.

      Chrysler has the lowest average test score after Suzuki, at 51. Several new Chryslers, including the Sebring and the Dodge Caliber, have noisy engines, bad visibility, and cheap interiors.

      Consumer Reports Finds European Cars Perform Well, Lack Reliability...
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