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    Massachusetts Warns Against Rising Mortgage Fraud

    Tighter controls on lenders needed, critics charge

    While Congress debates a remedy for the subprime loan crisis, state officials are calling for tighter controls on lenders.

    Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley says more effective oversight and regulation is necessary to mitigate the mortgage fraud epidemic in Massachusetts and to prevent future crises.

    Coakley's Office has expressed alarm as the crisis in the subprime lending industry escalates, and as the number of foreclosures continues to rise in Massachusetts and nationwide. Coakley says several law enforcement actions against predatory lending participants are pending in her office; the office will continue to review the situation for other appropriate enforcement actions.

    "As I testified last month, our ability to pursue criminal prosecutions of mortgage fraud is hampered by the existing statute," Coakley said. "We are exploring stronger regulations in several areas, including addressing fraudulent activity that we have found in the course of our enforcement actions."

    In her testimony on March 27, 2007, Coakley recommended an approach to ending predatory lending practices and helping consumers facing possible foreclosure:

    • Bring civil cases to recover money and curtail illegal lending practices

    • Addition of the larceny by false pretense statute which would cover any mortgage lender and increase penalties.

    • Fund Counseling and Loan Programs

    • Licensing of and Standards for All Loan Originators

    "We look forward to continuing our work with the Governor and the legislature to ensure that all Massachusetts residents are protected from disreputable mortgage brokers and lenders," said Coakley.

    Massachusetts Warns Against Rising Mortgage Fraud...
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    KFC Removes Trans Fat From Chicken Fryers

    Potato wedges will also be free of the artery-clogger

    Fried chicken restaurant chain KFC has announced it will immediately stop using trans fats to fry its chicken. The chain says potato wedges will also be fat free, while several other menu items will continue to use the artery clogging oil.

    Company officials said biscuits, pot pies, macaroni and cheese, and some desserts will continue to be made with trans fats, at least for now. The company said it's still working to remove all trans fat from its entire menu.

    Taco Bell, like KFC owed by Yum Brands, also announced that all its U.S. restaurants have switched to an oil with zero grams of trans fat. All 4 200 single-brand Taco Bells were converted to a canola oil, and all 1,400 multibrand locations switched to a soybean oil.

    Both the Food and Drug Administration and American Heart Association recommend limiting trans fat intake.

    New York City has set a deadline for all 26,000 restaurants operating in the city to stop using trans fats. Other cities are considering similar bans.



    KFC Removes Trans Fat From Chicken Fryers...
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    FCC Report Recommends More Cable Choices

    Consumers would get to pick and choose the channels they want

    Consumer, public interest, and labor groups are praising a recommendation by a Federal Communications Commission report on television violence that Congress consider legislation giving consumers the ability to select and pay for only those cable channels they want.

    Channel choice gives consumers greater choice over the channels they buy, preventing them from subsidizing channels they object to, provides them with more control over the cost of their cable bills, and promotes enhanced diversity in cable programming, the groups said.

    "Letting consumers, not Congress, the FCC or cable companies, decide which programming is right for their families is an appropriate, market-based response to growing concerns about violence and other objectionable programming on cable television," said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs at Consumers Union.

    "Consumers should neither have to take extraordinary steps to block programming they don't watch and don't want to receive, nor pay for channels they find offensive or otherwise inappropriate."

    The cable television industry, not surprisingly, says that eliminating bundling would be a blow to diversity.

    "Cable's method of delivering programming packages, with channels bundled into basic and digital tiers, has proven to provide both choice and quality to consumers," said the National Cable Television Association. "This model has enabled all programming networks, including niche networks that serve underserved audiences, to find and build an audience."

    "Several independent and industry studies have concluded that a la carte would offer no benefit to the vast majority of consumers and would, in fact, result in higher prices, less choice and less programming diversity," NCTA said.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2003 suggesting much the same. It found that:

    • Fewer networks would be available to consumers because any movement of networks from the most widely distributed tiers to an a la carte format could result in a reduced amount that advertisers are willing to pay for advertising time.

    • [S]ome cable networks, especially small and independent networks, would not be able to gain enough subscribers to support the network.

    A 2004 study by Booz Allen Hamtilton came to similar conclusions. It found that:

    • As many as half to three-quarters of emerging networks could fail under each of the scenarios [both a la carte and themed tiers], including a growing number of targeted niche and ethnic program networks, and new network launches would become extremely unlikely.

    • [E]ven the most established networks would likely have to reduce expenditures on programming, leading to lower viewing and lost advertising. This would likely lead to further industry consolidation into fewer network groups.

    FCC Findings

    The FCC report found that research indicates exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children and that current parental control tools offered by cable companies are ineffective in protecting children from violence.

    The report suggested that the cable industry adopt voluntary standards to reduce violent programming, and that Congress could adopt restrictions limiting the times violent programming could air on cable, or requirements that cable companies give consumers the ability to opt in or out of the channels offered.

    Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Communications Workers of America, and Free Press urged Congress, in a letter, to take steps to give consumers the ability to pick and pay for only the channels they actually want to purchase.

    Cable companies currently offer channels in only large, costly bundles, known as the extended basic package.

    Consumers are not allowed to select programming on a channel by channel basis despite 2006 AP survey findings that more than three-quarters of consumers want the ability to tailor their own packages and recent Nielsen Media Research findings that consumers watch, on average, fewer than 16 channels of the more than 100 offered.

    The groups said the size of the bundle has contributed to skyrocketing cable prices, which have increased by 70 percent, nearly two and half times the rate of inflation, since Congress deregulated cable prices in 1996.

    "Giving consumers the ability to pick and pay for only those channels they actually want to watch provides them with greater control, not just over content, but also over the cost of their cable service," Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

    Channel choice is preferable to other regulatory approaches suggested by the Commission, such as time-channeling, which face greater constitutional hurdles, require more government intervention and do less to empower consumers, the groups told Congress.

    "Consumers should be able to choose what content is most appropriate for their families, and be offered more diverse channels than today's cable systems offer," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press.

    "Consumer choice in cable TV opens a path to break the gatekeeping power of the cable companies over content and brings new opportunities for a mediascape that speaks to all parts of our diverse society."

    The letter said that by allowing consumers to vote with their wallets rather than forcing them to buy channels they never watch, the marketplace will respond by providing programming that is more diverse and of greater quality than the homogenized and repackaged programming forced on consumers today.

    FCC Report Recommends More Cable Choices...
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      One Ford the Recall Missed

      Despite Massive Recall, Ford Trucks Continue to Burn

      In 2005 and 2006, Ford Motor Co. recalled more than 10 million of its trucks because of a possible fire hazard. Unfortunately for one Parrish, Florida resident, his 1994 Ford Explorer was not on the list.

      Shelton's Fried Ford

      On Friday, April 6, 2007, at around 850 in the evening, my 18-year-old daughter had gotten into our 1994 Ford Explorer, cranked it up, turned on the heater, backed up in the driveway, and called my wife complaining about smoke coming out of the air conditioning vents, Shelton wrote ConsumerAffairs.com.

      "She said something was glowing from under the right front of the car. She got out of the car while it was starting to catch fire, he wrote.

      After the local fire department extinguished the blaze, the 1994 Ford Explorer was a complete loss, with damage to the driveway as well.

      Ford told Shelton in a letter that there was nothing the company could or would do beyond the warranty period, according to a copy of the letter provided by Shelton:

      Dear Shelton,

      Our records indicate that you contacted the Ford Customer Relationship Center and our Customer Care Representative advised you that there is no assistance beyond warranty and there is no recall pertaining to the fire.

      At this time we are unable to provide you with an alternate response. If any additional information regarding this matter should become available in the future, please let us know.

      Ford recalled 1994-2002 model year F-150 pickups, Expeditions, Navigators and Broncos in September 2006 because of engine fires linked to the cruise control switch system. That recall was the fifth largest in history.

      The brake fluid in the recalled vehicles may leak through the speed control deactivation switch into the speed control system electrical components, potentially corroding them and leading to fires, the company said.

      There've been a series of recalls to fix similar problems in other Ford truck models.

      Shelton said he is not a greedy man. He was only asking Ford for the value of his 1994 Ford Explorer and damages to the driveway.

      "My daughter narrowly escaped the fire," he wrote. But he considers himself lucky. "If she had been driving down the road minutes later, she would have died as a result of the fire."

      After more than 150 reports to ConsumerAffairs.com of Ford trucks catching on fire for no apparent reason, many readers and owners of the Ford trucks have adopted a new self-defense tactic: they no longer park the vehicles near their house or in their garage.

      One Ford the Recall Missed...
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      How Safe Is That Free Wi-Fi Connection?

      "Hotspots" Are Handy but They're Not Always Safe

      Sending unencrypted information over any unfamiliar network can turn your computer into an open book -- with pages full of your personal information...

      The Addictiveness of Virtual Violence

      Does the Violence Spill Over Into Real Life?


      I was in Thailand recently and, after a few beers and a night on the town I started feeling sentimental and decided to email an ex-girlfriend.

      The only internet caf that I could find open, however, hardly provided the kind of atmosphere for letters from the heart it was full of smoke, flashing lights and the sounds of swords clashing, warriors yelling and intermittent explosions.

      When my eyes adjusted to the dim atmosphere I saw a crowd of Thais in their teens and 20s playing a variety of computer games that involved the maximum of noise and action the gamers, however, were all silent, staring at the screens with a single-minded intensity, their faces devoid of emotion.

      I tried to write the email anyway but the words refused to flow as I kept watching the 5-year-old girl next to me play Grand Theft Auto, a game where the hero drives around on a motorbike with a prostitute on the back, attempting to track down his missing cocaine

      I gave up and looked around at all the elves, dwarves and dragons playing out their dramas on the monitor screens and wondered if any of these youths had school or work the next day. It was 2 a.m.

      In somewhere like Thailand, this kind of thing is more visible as few families can afford high-speed internet connections at home. But similar scenes are being played out across America in the privacy of gamers bedrooms.

      While computers have been hailed as great learning tools and business aids, from the start they have been used more for playing games than anything else.

      Does this scenario -- children playing violent video games far into the night -- sound a little frightening to you? It does to Eric Storch, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Florida.

      Connection to Violence?

      Storch warned parents doing their holiday shopping last year that too much gaming puts children at risk for behavioral and health problems.

      Children and teens who play excessively often do so at the expense of homework, and playing solo can isolate children from their peers, potentially causing problems for them later in life, Storch said.

      "Social interactions teach you how to deal with other people as well as what's appropriate and what's not," he said. "You learn how to handle situations. Social interaction is also one way of coping with stress and receiving emotional support."

      It's been suggested, though not confirmed, that the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, may have played the popular first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike in high school.

      There've also been reports that shooter Lee Boyd Malvo played the game Halo before he began shooting people at random around the Washington, D.C., area. Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly loved Doom.

      Certainly these individuals were loners with poor social skills and an addiction to fantasy. Would they have been more likely to work out their problems if the computer had never been invented? As all but Malvo are dead and he is locked away in a Virginia super-max prison, we will never know.

      Geeks Get Real

      Initially, gamers had to contend with the geeky image that came with training up onscreen warriors to hunt down orcs in the forest. Did they have no real life to attend to? But then came the filming of Lord of the Rings and suddenly the secret lives of orcs, elves, dwarves and hobbits entered mainstream culture and RPGs (Role Playing Games) seemed a fairly innocuous hobby.

      I played a good deal of computer games myself as I was growing up. I was an only child and killing a bunch of skeletons in a dungeon on my computer helped me pass many a lonely hour. Best of all, though, was when friends came round to play 2-player games and we could laugh and joke about what was happening on the screen.

      Yet whether alone or with friends, the games only held interest for so long. wed complete the mission, kill all the bad guys and then go outside to play soccer. The games were finite, there was only so far they could take you.

      The internet changed all that.

      For while RPGs have been popular for years with names like Ultima and Everquest topping the computer gaming charts, the advent of high-speed internet connections suddenly added a whole new dimension.

      Instead of playing against the limited responses of a program, players can now interact with other gamers on the same playing field, no matter if they were next door or half way across the world. Gamers can talk as they play via messenger or Skype and they no longer feel so alone.

      WOW

      The most popular of these is WOW (World of Warcraft) and today it boasts 8 million users, some 2.5 million from the US.

      Gamers buy or download the initial installation of WOW and then pay the producers -- Blizzard -- a monthly subscription fee to access the online servers. With 8 million users paying $20 or so a month for their fix, Blizzard can afford to pay the best programmers, story writers and graphic designers in the world to create ever-expanding environments and plotlines, maintaining the interest of the WOW gaming population.

      For the uninitiated, playing WOW works something like this: you develop a character (or several characters) and choose, for example, whether he or she will be a human or an elf, a priest or a warrior.

      Your character starts off as a pretty lowly entity in the WOW world and you start to develop his skills and experience as fast as possible by training with other characters, looking for gold and special items and going raiding with other gamers for booty.

      As time goes by your character begins to progress and becomes more powerful, his level increases and so does your prestige in the eyes of other gamers. Its not all fun and games, though, much of it requires dedication and rather tedious industry such as repeating a single action like leather working or fishing a few hundred times until your character progresses.

      In fact, the more time the gamer puts into a character, the more it seems worthwhile. Its a huge investment of time and energy, sometimes even of money gamers often put up for sale on E-Bay special swords and mallets that get hundreds of dollars in fierce auctions.

      In short, its something like the sunken investment trap of putting coins into a slot machine, convinced that the longer you play the better the odds are in your favor. The very need to get a return on their investment of time pushes the user closer to gaming addiction.

      Social scientists are beginning to take note.

      A recent study by the University of Rochester found that games can provide "opportunities for achievement, freedom, and even a connection to other players." The study downplayed any negative impacts but did find evidence the games were habit-forming because they filled basic psychological needs. Of course, the same could be said for heroin.

      Although internet addiction has yet to make it into the psychiatric textbooks, most people will be able to recognize the tendency within themselves. While writing this article I had to fight the urge to check my email on at least a dozen occasions. And just knowing there are pictures of naked girls on beaches a few clicks away makes it that much harder to maintain my train of thought.

      More Insidious

      But for the millions who play WOW for hours and hours each day, gaming becomes far more insidious.

      Flying dragons across the Lands of Karazhan and battling rival guilds, its not surprising that the importance of RL, or real life, begins to fade away. All that matters is the game and your identity within it.

      Online, you can be anyone. You can leave your real world persona and problems behind you and invest all your self in your onscreen avatar. The wimp can become a warrior, the lonely can make a hundred friends and the lost and alienated can discover a whole new meaning to life, all within the virtual world created by Blizzard.

      Blizzard hasnt been slow to understand this and soon realized that the best way to convince gamers to renew their monthly subscriptions was to encourage a sense of pride and belonging to the world in which they played.

      The greatest of these strategies was allowing the formation of guilds, organized gangs of online gamers who never need to actually meet but have a highly structured society within the world of WOW.

      Joining a prestigious guild is almost like passing a tough job interview. The top guilds demand utter dedication from their members and may insist that you stay online for 12-hour stretches to train up for an important raid on a rival faction. The chiefs of guilds threaten to throw out characters who dont meet the grade and the fear of being outcast keeps gamers in the virtual rat race, busily working on their healing skills to gain acceptance.

      Guildies imagine that they have made friends online, that theyre part of something bigger, something glorious.

      But they soon find that if they miss a few days of playing and dont meet the guilds expectations, their friends soon fade away, shunning the type of loser whos content to only reach level 40. And would you just look at the state of his armour

      It Didn't Wow South Park

      You can just hang outside in the sun all day, tossing a ball around or you can go sit in front of your computer and do something that matters!

      Such was the encouragement of Cartman in the South Park episode that was based on WOW, curiously enough made with the cooperation of Blizzard.

      Featuring graphics from the game, the gist is that the South Park characters all become fat from eating junk food and sitting in front of their computers all day, to the extent that they dare not even go to the bathroom for fear of missing a few minutes of play.

      I was once a geek in front of a computer, playing simulation games for company as I was pretty unpopular at school.

      I remember receiving medals as a submarine commander for a particularly daring raid on a convoy in the Pacific and then wanting to tell the few friends I had about it. Then it dawned on me that it meant nothing at all to anyone else. I had spent my entire weekend playing a computer game and had nothing to show for it. That was when I quit and havent looked back.

      If theres any doubt that gaming is addictive, you have only to read some of the testimonies at www.wowdetox.com where gamers can post their experiences in getting off WOWcrack. One user sums up his reasons for quitting:

      Through all the friends I've lost touch with and all the sunlight I missed, It finally hit me that it is time to stop and move on. It is just not worth it.

      A girl reports that she understood her addiction: Because I ran home from a fun guy on a blind date to raid Karazhan.

      A guy counts up the hours hes spent playing WOW and calculates that if he had instead spent them at work earning the minimum wage, he would have had an extra 18,000 dollars in the bank.

      And to illustrate its not just teenagers playing WOW, check out the complaint of a wife whos considering divorcing her husband because he never spends any time with his family any more. She reports:

      "But honey," he says, "we DID spend time together today...remember when I helped you get the Mallet of ZF?" Yeah, I remember the 30 min you deigned to give me so I would shut up and leave you alone. I also remember the going on 13 hours you've been on the game today, that fact that you haven't eaten today, and the way your child cried when you told him you couldn't put him in bed tonight because you were busy.

      Lingering Effects

      Beyond marital strife and time away from work and study, are violent video games really harmful?

      A study last year found that adolescents who play violent video games may exhibit lingering effects on brain function, including increased activity in the region of the brain that governs emotional arousal and decreased activity in the brain's executive function, which is associated with control, focus and concentration.

      "Our study suggests that playing a certain type of violent video game may have different short-term effects on brain function than playing a nonviolent -- but exciting -- game," said Vincent P. Mathews, M.D., professor of radiology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

      One study conducted by Louisiana State University found that young people who habitually play video video games may be more likely to get into physical fights, argue with teachers, or display anger and hostility.

      A study quoted by Slate found that kids who played more violent video games "changed over the school year to become more verbally aggressive, more physically aggressive," and less helpful to others.

      A Worldwide Problem

      WOW and other online role-playing games are a worldwide problem. The Chinese government has introduced measures to limit the playing times of the young. People have died in South Korea from deep vein thrombosis, a condition caused by poor circulation due to sitting still for too long.

      And in the US there now exist organizations like Online Gamers Anonymous who run 12 step programs, just like Alcoholics Anonymous, to wean the addicted off their virtual fix.

      Blizzard isn't evil and World of Warcraft is a great game. In moderation. But moderation is a rare quality in human nature and its an anathema to the business world who want consumers to buy more, more, more.

      Neither is escapism anything new. Its just getting a lot more accessible and attractive now that you can hide in your bedroom and pretend you have a whole new social network in the World of Warcraft.

      But theres nothing as interesting as real life. The thrills of jumping on a plane to go somewhere new, learning to play an instrument or just walking over to someone you find attractive and saying hi, outweigh anything that pixelated dwarves and dragons have to offer.

      Barring natural disasters and economic meltdown, technology is here to stay. The cell phone, computers and the internet are a daily fact of most peoples lives in America. Its up to us to learn to place limits on how much we let them take over our lives.

      Otherwise well all end up as 40-year-old virgins in the bedrooms of our parents houses, developing arthritis on our mouse-clicking fingers as we strive for glory on the fields of Karazhan.

      ---

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

      The Addictiveness of Virtual Violence...
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      Predatory Lending Bill Back in Congress

      Bill calls for federal certification of mortgage brokers

      Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) has reintroduced the Predatory Lending Practice Reduction Act of 2007.

      The legislation calls for federal certification of mortgage brokers and agents and stiffer penalties for violation of federal law. Additionally, it will authorize funding for Community Development Corporations to provide training and education.

      "Predatory Lending is a leading cause of foreclosures across this country," said Tubbs Jones. "It compromises the opportunity to own a home and hinders economic stability, creating greater disparities in wealth."

      The nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending projects that as this year ends, 2.2 million households in the subprime market will either have lost their homes to foreclosure or hold subprime mortgages that will fail over the next several years. These foreclosures are calculated to cost homeowners as much as $164 billion, primarily in lost home equity.

      It is also projected that one out of five (19 percent) subprime mortgages originated during the past two years will end in foreclosure.

      This rate is nearly double the projected rate of subprime loans made in 2002, and it exceeds the worst foreclosure experience in the modern mortgage market, which occurred during the "Oil Patch" crisis in the 1980s.

      Additionally only about 1.4 million of 15.1 million loans analyzed from 1998 through 2006 were for first-time homebuyers. Most were for refinancing.

      To date, more than 500,000 of those subprime borrowers have lost their homes to foreclosures. An additional 1.8 million are likely to follow as the market deteriorates. That's nearly 2.4 million lost homes.

      "In my home state of Ohio the foreclosure epidemic went from bad to worse last year as the number of new cases grew by nearly 24% from 2005," said Tubbs Jones.

      "Cuyahoga County led the state in new cases with 13,610 new filings last year. This ranking has attracted national attention with Ohio's foreclosure rate currently at 18% which is higher than the national average of 17%."

      The legislation has three main goals:

      1) Establish a federal program to require mortgage brokers and other agents involved in subprime loan transactions to become certified and pass a written examination that covers, among other things, federal law relative to Truth in Lending, Fair Housing, Equal Credit Opportunity Act and other federal legislation.

      2) Set up minimum standards for providing information to consumers as well as best practices for dispute/complaint resolution; and

      3) Create civil penalties for violations of federal law pertaining to predatory lending.

      The legislation would authorizes $2 million for a certification program to require mortgage brokers and other related service agents involved in the subprime loan market to be trained and tested on the rules and regulations pertaining to mortgage lending including, not limited to The Truth in Lending Act and the Fair Housing Act.

      The bill also:

      •  Authorizes $2 million for community development corporations to provide training and educational information designed to enhance awareness of predatory practices.

      •  Creates minimum disclosure standards protecting consumers' rights related to home foreclosures.

      •  Calls on Creditors to create best practices plans and good faith resolution standards to slow the escalating number of complaints.

      •  Establishes an escalating civil penalty payment scale for violators of federal regulation.

      •  Establishes appraisal fraud and coercion as deceptive practices.

      Predatory Lending Bill Back in Congress...
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      419 Scammer Claims To Be U.S. Soldier


      The latest incarnation of the so-called 419 email scam features an American soldier in Iraq, rather than a deposed African prince, in need of help in moving a large sum of money to the U.S.

      Good day, the scammer begins, perhaps not realizing thats not exactly how U.S. soldiers routinely greet people. My name in Donald Smith Fitte, an American soldier serving in the military of the 3rd infantry division in Iraq.

      The email claims the sergeant and his confederates have been hiding $25 million in Saddams loot since 2003, but with the new U.S. troop surge, he expresses concern the stash might be uncovered. Therefore, he needs help getting the money out of the country.

      That, of course, is where you come in.

      The email promises a generous percentage of the cash if the email recipient will agree to accept it. From here, the scam works like any other advance fee scheme.

      Victims will be asked to provide bank account information for a direct deposit. Or they may be asked to send money, $500 to $2,500 at a time, to facilitate the alleged transfer.

      Even though these "419" email scams have been around almost as long as the Internet, people still fall for them. It has been estimated that there are well over 250,000 scammers involved in 419 scams worldwide and that they reap in over $1.5 billion annually.

      The average victim pays out about $20,000.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      419 Scammer Claims To Be U.S. Soldier...
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      Melamine Found in North Carolina Hogs

      Drs. Foster & Smith Latest to Recall Pet Food


      A chemical blamed for the illnesses and deaths of scores of pets across the nation has been found in hogs at a farm in western North Carolina, state officials said.

      Meanwhile, Drs. Foster & Smith recalled dry cat and dog food and consumer groups planned a series of marches and postcard campaigns to press for more government action.

      Officials also discovered the chemical, melamine, in feed samples collected on the farm and tested by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Tests revealed the presence of melamine in the urine of all the hogs that consumed the tainted feed.

      None of the hogs, however, entered the food supply, said Mary Ann McBride, assistant state veterinarian for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

      "We want to make sure people understand that all the N.C. animals that may have come in contact with this feed are accounted for and none have entered the food supply," she said. "Based on what we know now, we have no reason to believe that there is any risk associated with the N.C. pork supply at this time."

      The farm has 1,400 hogs and is now under quarantine. "All animals are healthy, but we are taking this action out of extreme caution," McBride said.

      State officials took urine samples from 13 hogs and all tested positive for melamine, a chemical used to manufacture plastics and fertilizer.

      The Food and Drug Administration notified North Carolina last week that it was one of six states to receive shipments of potentially contaminated pet food. That pet food--sold to the farm for pig feed--came from a Diamond Pet plant in Gaston, S.C., and contained melamine-laced rice protein concentrate recalled last week by its importer in California.

      Pet food with cosmetic blemishes is often sold to farms as a protein source to be custom-blended into a balanced hog feed, officials say.

      The North Carolina pig farm is the only one in that state to receive the tainted feed, officials said. McBride said state officials are now waiting to hear if federal officials will consider the pork contaminated.

      "We're kind of in a holding pattern until we hear from our federal partners about what should happen with these hogs," she said.

      Meanwhile, investigators are analyzing farms in South Carolina, California, New York, Utah and maybe Ohio, to see if hogs in those states consumed melamine-tainted feed.

      Earlier tests have confirmed the presence of melamine in at least two imported Chinese vegetable proteins used to make pet foodswheat gluten and rice protein concentrate.

      Pet food companies have recalled more than 100 brands of food--made with these melamine-laced ingredients--since the first reports of animal deaths and illnesses surfaced last month.

      Latest Pet Food Recalls

      Drs. Foster & Smith has recalled its Adult Lite Dry Dog Food and its Adult Dry Cat food. Other pet foods made with rice protein have tested positive for melamine, a chemical commonly used in plastics and fertilizers.

      Drs. Foster & Smith, however, said preliminary tests of its food have found no traces of melamine.

      The company said it received the rice protein from importer Wilbur-Ellis. Earlier this month, Wilbur-Ellis recalled all its rice protein after the FDA detected melamine in the product.

      Wilbur-Ellis said it shipped the tainted rice protein to five pet food manufacturers located in Utah, New York, Kansas and Missouri. The company didn't disclose the names of those manufacturers, but Drs. Foster & Smith is the fifth pet food maker to recall its product made with the suspect rice protein.

      The four other pet food companies are Natural Balance, The Blue Buffalo Company, Royal Canin USA, and SmartPak.

      Drs. Foster & Smith said it's reformulating the products to eliminate the rice protein. The new formula should be available in Mid-March, the company said on its Web site. None of the company's other products are included in the recall.

      Customers with questions about the recalled foods can call the company at 1-800-239-7121.

      About Time

      Pet owner Terri B. of Virginia says it's about time Drs. Foster & Smith recalled its products.

      She contacted the company with concerns about the safety of its foods more than a week ago -- after reports first surfaced that rice gluten used in pet foods contained melamine.

      "Only after several e-mails and many questions from me did they finally tell me via e-mail to stop feeding my pets this food," the Chilhowie, Virginia, woman told ConsumerAffairs.com on Tuesday.

      "My dog's had $500 (worth of) tests, but the results are not back yet. Needless to say I am worried sick.

      "This is unacceptable. The public has a right to know that a company's food contain harmful ingredients."

      Since Mid-March, pet food makers have recalled 100 brands of dog and cat food made with melamine-laced wheat gluten or rice protein imported from China.

      The FDA has confirmed 16 animals have died after eating the tainted pet food, but it expects that number to be much higher.

      The Web site Petconnection.com says it's received 4,474 reports of deceased pets in the wake of the recall. Of that number, 2,288 are cats and 2,186 are dogs. The total number of affected pets, the site says, is 13,801. These are not official numbers; they're self-reported figures.

      "But if even a fraction could be confirmed, they show deaths far exceeding the FDA's count of 16 pets, most of whom died in a manufacturers feeding trial," the site states.

      Petconnection.com says other sources also support higher numbers of deaths and illnesses linked to the contaminated pet food, including:

      • The Oregon State Public Heath Veterinarian -- 45 dead;
      • The Michigan State Veterinary Association -- 52 dead;
      • The Veterinary Information Network (VIN)--It estimates 2,000 to 7,000 pets may die based on its survey of VIN member veterinarians. The network also estimates the cost of veterinary care for these animals will be $2 to $20 million.

      My Pet Counts! Postcard Blitz

      Meanwhile, pet owners who've lost a dog or cat because of the contaminated foods are encouraged to voice their concerns in the nationwide "My Pet Counts! Postcard Blitz."

      Pet owners are asked to make a post card with a picture of their deceased dog or cat -- and a brief message about their loss -- and mail it this Saturday (April 28) to the following governmental and media representatives:

      Marcia K. Larkins, D.V.M
      FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine
      Ombudsman
      7519 Standish Place HFV-7
      Rockville, MD 20855

      Senator Richard Durbin
      309 Hart Senate Office Building
      Washington, DC 20510

      Your state's U.S. Senators (http://www.senate.gov)

      The White House
      1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
      Washington, DC 20500

      Organizers say they want the event to "demonstrate the full scope of this pet food recall disaster.

      "The FDA continues to publicize only '16 confirmed deaths,'" organizers say. "Reliable sources report that the number of pet deaths are and will be much higher -- most likely in the thousands. By sticking to the 'only 16 confirmed deaths' wording, this disaster is being grossly minimized. The word must get out."

      National March

      The postcard blitz coincides with Saturday's national march by the group Pets Need A Voice Too.

      Founder Jen Hoeflein of Bastrop, Texas, organized Saturday's "Keep Our Pets Safe" march to memorialize pets that have died in the wake of the recall and draw attention to what she calls "an outrageous situation."

      "The march is a direct response from people all over the country and Canada who felt an overwhelming need to speak in outrage over the lack of safety standards in regard to pet food and the corporate negligence in allowing the food to remain on the shelves prior to the recall," Hoeflein told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      The march is planned for 10 a.m. this Saturday in several cities across the country, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and San Diego.

      Hoeflein founded the group after losing her three-year-old cat, Timber last November to liver failure.

      "He was consuming Hill Country Fare's canned cat food on a regular basis. He rapidly became ill and in horror, our family watched him slip into a near-death stage. As soon as the vet's office opened the next morning, he was put to sleep to end his suffering.

      "It's a complete outrage that Timber's suffering was mirrored all over the country, different animals, different families with the outcome the same," she says. "And still, the tainted food sat on the store shelves. In fact, some of it is still there. That's simply appalling."

      Hoeflein says her organization represents average citizens affected by the pet food debacle.

      "I think Americans have forgotten how powerful their individual voices are when it comes to protecting their families and in many American households, pets are considered members of their families," she says. "This event has created a passion-driven response, an outcry for accountability, and the demand for the meeting of product quality standards."

      Saturday's march is the first step in what Hoeflein hopes will become a campaign to ensure the protection of pets. She says this network of committed pet owners plan to keep pressure on lawmakers and government agencies to make sure tainted ingredients never again make their way into the food supply.

      "We want people to understand we are simply giving a voice to sadness and pain, to frustration and outrage," Hoeflein says. "People need that and our pets deserve that. Hopefully, that voice will result in better days for pets and owners alike."

      Thousands of hogs in the United States -- in at least six states -- may have eaten livestock feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, the Food and Drug Administration said.

      And health officials are now investigating the possibility that humans may have consumed food containing the chemical that triggered a nationwide recall of pet food.

      California officials confirmed hogs at a farm in that state ate the contaminated food -- described as salvaged pet food or pet food scraps. Officials were also trying to determine if hogs in five other states -- New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Ohio -- ate the tainted food.

      The FDA has confirmed the urine of some hogs in California, North Carolina and South Carolina tested positive for melamine.

      When asked if any of the hogs had entered the human food supply, FDA's Chief veterinarian Stephen Sundlof said: "At this point, I don't have a definitive answer other than to say that the issue is being addressed."

      FDA officials are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several states to investigate the now-quarantined farms and determine if those hogs were slaughtered for human food.

      "I don't have the numbers on that right now, but it potentially affects thousands of hogs," Sundlof said. "Some of the hog operations were fairly sizable."

      USDA spokesman Steve Cohen, however, said the tainted feed was sold to smaller and independent hog farms.

      Poultry Also Suspect

      The FDA also said a poultry farm in Missouri may have received the melamine-tainted feed. Tests have confirmed the wheat gluten and rice protein used to make pet food in the United States -- and blamed for the deaths and kidney problems in scores pets across the country -- was tainted with melamine. Officials in South Africa also discovered the chemical in the corn gluten used to make pet food in that country.

      Melamine is commonly used in plastics and fertilizers, but is not approved for pet food. The World Health Organization does not classify melamine as a carcinogen for people, but says there's little research about the chemical's effect on humans.

      Also on Tuesday, the FDA said it discovered a second, related chemical called cyanuric acid -- used in swimming pool chlorination -- contaminated rice protein samples.

      The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that researchers identified three other contaminants in the urine and kidneys of animals sickened or killed after eating the recalled pet foods. The paper identified those contaminants as cyanuric acid, amilorine, and amiloride -- all byproducts of melamine.

      One researcher told The Tribune-Review that cyanuric acid is what most likely made the pets sick.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site described the long term or repeated exposure to cyanuric acid as: "When ingested in large amounts the substance may have effects on the kidneys, resulting in tissue lesions."

      In related news ...

      • The FDA said it would inspect six grain products imported from China and used to make everything from bread to baby formula for traces of melamine. Those grain products include wheat gluten, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein, rice bran, and rice protein. "We're going to target firms that we know are receiving imported products," David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters on Tuesday. "The goal is obviously to sample as much as we can."

      • The FDA said it's now sampling all wheat gluten, rice protein, and corn gluten coming into the United States from China for melamine;

      • Another pet food company -- SmartPak -- has recalled products made with tainted rice protein. The company recalled a single production run of its LiveSmart Weight Management Chicken and Brown Rice Dog Food;

      • The California Agriculture Department is trying to contact 50 people who bought pork that may have come from pigs who ate feed containing melamine. State officials recommended consumers not eat the meat, but said the health risks are minimal;

      • The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) called for the U.S. to ban the imports of wheat gluten, rice protein, and other grain products from China until the FDA can certify the products are safe. The CSPI also recommended the FDA should evaluate whether a ban is needed for other foods or ingredients coming from China -- the source of the contaminated gluten linked to the largest-ever recall of pet food.

      No Ban Planned

      The FDA says it has no plans to ban the imports of wheat gluten, rice protein, or similar products from China.

      "We believe the safety net is in place to make sure that no additional products are going to get into the commerce of the United States," David Elder, director of FDA's enforcement office, told reporters.

      Several pet food companies -- including Menu Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle SA -- have recalled more than 100 brands of pet food made with melamine-tainted wheat gluten since Mid-March.

      And at least five companies have made pet food containing rice protein contaminated with melamine.

      FDA officials say the chemical may have intentionally been added to increase the protein content.

      The FDA says there were no direct shipments of those two ingredients to firms that make food for humans or for animals used as food.

      Release the Names

      Release the names of companies that received contaminated rice protein from China and identify and inspect all suspect pet food ingredients imported from all countries.

      That's the message two U.S. Senators sent to the Food and Drug Administration on Monday.

      The request by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Marie Cantwell, (D-WA) follows reports that rice protein and corn gluten tainted with the chemical melamine have been used in pet food and may have entered the human food chain.

      Earlier reports identified the contaminated ingredient used in more than 100 brands of recalled pet food -- and linked to scores of illnesses and deaths in dogs and cats across the country -- as melamine-tainted wheat gluten.

      A House committee heard testimony Tuesday that American food is at high risk for both natural and terrorist-related outbreaks and many in Congress are questioning whether the Food and Drug Administration can adequately protect Americans.

      "Over the past week, shipments of imported rice protein and corn gluten have been discovered to be contaminated with melamine," the Senators wrote in their letter to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. "In addition, we have learned that the human food supply may be at risk from tainted pet food sold to a hog feeding operation in California.

      "Once again, our food supply has been put at risk by contaminated ingredients that originated overseas and were never inspected by the FDA."

      Earlier this month, the Chinese company, Binzhou-Futian, sold rice protein to U.S. importer Wilbur-Ellis and a second, unknown, company. Wilbur-Ellis said it distributed that rice protein to five pet food manufacturers.

      Three of those manufacturers have recalled their pet foods; the names of the other two companies, however, are not known.

      The Senators say that's not acceptable.

      "Given the strong possibility that these two pet food manufacturers also received contaminated rice protein and that they have failed to implement voluntary recalls, we believe the FDA should release the names of these manufacturers and require them to trace and recall any pet food made with the potentially contaminated rice protein," they told the FDA's Commissioner.

      The Senators also asked the FDA to:

      • Immediately start testing samples of rice protein and corn gluten imported from China. The FDA is already testing wheat gluten imported from that country;

      • Identify and inspect all suspect pet food ingredients imported from China and other countries. "In light of the strong possibility that these protein sources were purposefully contaminated for economic purposes, we are concerned about the safety of other imported pet food ingredients and the possibility of them being contaminated," the Senators said.

      • Study the feasibility of testing protein-based pet food ingredients imported from China and other countries for melamine;

      • Work with the Chinese Government and other foreign governments to inspect their facilities and provide technical assistance to improve their food safety standards.

      "The FDA owes the American public their best effort to prevent contaminated food from getting to store shelves and to remove contaminated food that is already on shelves before more pets die," the Senators wrote, adding 63 percent of Americans own a cat or dog.

      Pet Owners Snarl

      A pet owner in Florida told ConsumerAffairs.com that she's outraged by the FDA's refusal to disclose all the companies that received the contaminated rice protein.

      "Family pets are being killed and the FDA is dragging its feet," said Marlene B. of Port Charlotte, Florida. "I want to know how the hell the FDA can refuse to name the other two pet food manufacturers that received contaminated goods from China.

      "If it were a medicine for human consumption, they'd be the first to scream 'danger' and yank the products off the shelves, before any conclusive tests had been done. This is outrageous."

      And it's happening at a time when pets across the country continue to develop kidney disease or die after eating the melamine-tainted food.

      Kennel Destroyed

      Consider the impact one brand of the recalled pet food had on the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels at a kennel in Texas.

      "Our kennel has been destroyed by Natural Balance Dog Food," Dave and Jennifer S. of Victoria, Texas, said referring to the pet food recalled last week. "We are left devastated and desperately in need of help."

      Several or their dogs went into renal failure -- and two died -- after eating Natural Balance's Venison and Brown Rice food.

      "We had a total of 12 Cavaliers, two have died, four puppies remain in the hospital, as well as three adults," said the couple, who took their dogs to Texas A & M University's Small Animal Emergency Clinic for treatment.

      "The three adults may not recover at all. It is still hopeful for the puppies. We have one adult Cavalier at home, one six-month-old puppy at home, and one puppy that is eight weeks old that has been able to come home. They still require follow-up testing to ensure that they are not going back into renal failure."

      The couple added: "The doctors met with us and confirmed that it was the Natural Balance Venison and Brown Rice Dog food that is the cause (of their dogs' sickness and deaths.) The autopsy on Abby (one of the dogs) confirmed the crystal formation that is seen in all the renal failure cases concerning the recent dog food recalls."

      Natural Balance, they say, may compensate them for our vet bills.

      But only if they sign a release "which basically makes it so they do not have to pay anything except the vet bill."

      More about the Pet Food Recall ...

      Melamine Found in North Carolina Hogs...
      Read lessRead more

      Public Citizen Trashes Anti-Tort Study

      Ideological Study Uses "Junk Economics," Discredited Data

      A study released last month attacking the nation's tort laws is not scholarly research but another public relations advance by corporate-funded "think tanks" in the ongoing campaign to gut our civil justice system and reduce corporate accountability, according to analysis by Public Citizen.

      In its March report, "Jackpot Justice: The True Cost of America's Tort System," the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) claimed that the legal system is too costly and proposed eliminating many of the legal protections that Americans currently enjoy to reduce these costs.

      But PRI's report relied on widely discredited cost estimates from an insurance industry consultant, Tillinghast-Towers Perrin.

      These "costs" are entirely speculative and include many factors unrelated to litigation, such as administrative expenses for the highly bureaucratic insurance industry.

      According to the Economic Policy Institute in 2005, "Any work that relies on [Tillinghast's] seriously flawed reports is, to that extent, also unreliable." PRI, undeterred, greatly increased the already-bloated numbers from Tillinghast and applied even more irrelevant factors to produce a flawed and ridiculous estimate, Public Citizen said.

      PRI's calculations include formulaic cross-applications from unrelated studies of corporate taxes and double-counting. Even conservative jurist Richard Posner agrees that its assumptions and ultimate conclusions are baseless. PRI's ultimate goal is ideological.

      "The study employs junk economics that ignores an important purpose of the justice system -- fairness," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "The report's theories would, if taken to their logical conclusion, eliminate government altogether."

      Rural Myth

      PRI's report also includes the now-debunked Hilda Bankston story about a Mississippi pharmacy owner who was allegedly forced to sell her business after it was named as a defendant in a national class-action lawsuit against a major drug company in New Jersey.

      The story was shown in a recent book by reporter Stephanie Mencimer to be riddled with falsehoods.

      "Thanks to our civil justice system, Americans are safer, healthier and enjoy a higher standard of living today than ever before," said Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

      "While emphasizing costs, PRI fails to adequately measure the benefits of litigation. The study parcels out a miserly benefits picture, ignoring clear benefits of our court system such as deterrence and punishment of negligent conduct, compensation for life-threatening injuries or death, safer and healthier industries and products, and a more sustainable and transparent economy."

      Access to the courtroom and a jury is a cornerstone of American democracy. Americans know that if they are injured by negligence, there is a fair and impartial process to hold corporations and individuals accountable.

      "The business lobby and far-right groups like PRI want to return to a system of robber baron justice," said Claybrook. "Their attempts to dismantle the American legal system harm both individuals and the very fabric of our nation."

      Public Citizen Trashes Anti-Tort Study...
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      Bigger Settlement for Paxil Parents

      Public Citizen today secured an improved settlement for the parents of thousands of children who were prescribed the popular antidepressant Paxil.

      Under the new settlement, negotiated in cooperation with class counsel Korein Tillery LLC, defense counsel and other objectors, members of the class who cannot provide documentation for their purchases will receive far greater compensation than under the original proposed settlement.

      The complaint sought economic damages against GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Paxil, alleging that the company misled parents by not disclosing that the drug was dangerous and ineffective when taken by children younger than 18.

      Under the agreement, Glaxo is required to put $63.8 million into a settlement fund to pay class members' out-of-pocket expenses and attorney fees.

      On Feb. 23, Public Citizen filed an objection to the proposed settlement on behalf of a class member whose daughter was prescribed Paxil in 2002 and 2003, and the Prescription Access Litigation Project, a national coalition of more than 125 organizations, including consumer, senior citizen, heath care, labor, legal services and women's health advocacy organizations.

      In its objection, Public Citizen argued that class members would not receive the full value of the settlement fund because it required that they submit proof of out-of-pocket expenses for their purchases to recover any money, even if their purchases were made more than a decade ago.

      Class members who were unable to prove out-of-pocket expenses would receive at most $15 -- and only a pro rata share of $300,000 if more than 20,000 undocumented claims were made, no matter how much money remained in the settlement fund.

      Public Citizen maintained that the settlement was unfair because of the small amount of money set aside for those unable to obtain sufficient documentation, especially when compared to the size of the settlement fund, which is more than 200 times greater.

      Public Citizen also expressed concern that the cap on recovery for undocumented claims could allow the bulk of the settlement fund to revert to Glaxo instead of being used to benefit the class.

      At a hearing today, Judge Ralph J. Mendelsohn of the Third Judicial Circuit of Madison County, Illinois, granted approval of the revised settlement, subject only to receiving a proposed final order next week. The new settlement will provide up to $100 for class members who are unable to produce documentation and eliminates the $300,000 cap.

      Mail and e-mail notices will be sent to membership organizations at the end of May, June and July, encouraging the groups to contact class members. Members can also receive information about the new settlement at www.paxilpediatricsettlement.com. The deadline to submit a claim is Aug. 31, 2007.

      "The revision significantly improves the value of the settlement, particularly to those class members who are unable to document their claim," said Jennifer Soble, an attorney with Public Citizen. "We want to encourage class members to file their claims before the claims period expires at the end of August."



      Public Citizen today secured an improved settlement for the parents of thousands of children who were prescribed the popular antidepressant Paxil....
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      Thousands of Hogs May Have Eaten Contaminated Feed

      Pet Food Scraps Containing Melamine Fed to Hogs in Six States


      Thousands of hogs in the United States -- in at least six states -- may have eaten livestock feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, the Food and Drug Administration said.

      And health officials are now investigating the possibility that humans may have consumed food containing the chemical that triggered a nationwide recall of pet food.

      California officials confirmed hogs at a farm in that state ate the contaminated food -- described as salvaged pet food or pet food scraps. Officials were also trying to determine if hogs in five other states -- New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Ohio -- ate the tainted food.

      The FDA has confirmed the urine of some hogs in California, North Carolina and South Carolina tested positive for melamine.

      When asked if any of the hogs had entered the human food supply, FDA's Chief veterinarian Stephen Sundlof said: "At this point, I don't have a definitive answer other than to say that the issue is being addressed."

      FDA officials are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several states to investigate the now-quarantined farms and determine if those hogs were slaughtered for human food.

      "I don't have the numbers on that right now, but it potentially affects thousands of hogs," Sundlof said. "Some of the hog operations were fairly sizable."

      USDA spokesman Steve Cohen, however, said the tainted feed was sold to smaller and independent hog farms.

      Poultry Also Suspect

      The FDA also said a poultry farm in Missouri may have received the melamine-tainted feed. Tests have confirmed the wheat gluten and rice protein used to make pet food in the United States -- and blamed for the deaths and kidney problems in scores pets across the country -- was tainted with melamine. Officials in South Africa also discovered the chemical in the corn gluten used to make pet food in that country.

      Melamine is commonly used in plastics and fertilizers, but is not approved for pet food. The World Health Organization does not classify melamine as a carcinogen for people, but says there's little research about the chemical's effect on humans.

      Also on Tuesday, the FDA said it discovered a second, related chemical called cyanuric acid -- used in swimming pool chlorination -- contaminated rice protein samples.

      The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that researchers identified three other contaminants in the urine and kidneys of animals sickened or killed after eating the recalled pet foods. The paper identified those contaminants as cyanuric acid, amilorine, and amiloride -- all byproducts of melamine.

      One researcher told The Tribune-Review that cyanuric acid is what most likely made the pets sick.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site described the long term or repeated exposure to cyanuric acid as: "When ingested in large amounts the substance may have effects on the kidneys, resulting in tissue lesions."

      In related news ...

      • The FDA said it would inspect six grain products imported from China and used to make everything from bread to baby formula for traces of melamine. Those grain products include wheat gluten, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein, rice bran, and rice protein. "We're going to target firms that we know are receiving imported products," David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters on Tuesday. "The goal is obviously to sample as much as we can."

      • The FDA said it's now sampling all wheat gluten, rice protein, and corn gluten coming into the United States from China for melamine;

      • Another pet food company -- SmartPak -- has recalled products made with tainted rice protein. The company recalled a single production run of its LiveSmart Weight Management Chicken and Brown Rice Dog Food;

      • The California Agriculture Department is trying to contact 50 people who bought pork that may have come from pigs who ate feed containing melamine. State officials recommended consumers not eat the meat, but said the health risks are minimal;

      • The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) called for the U.S. to ban the imports of wheat gluten, rice protein, and other grain products from China until the FDA can certify the products are safe. The CSPI also recommended the FDA should evaluate whether a ban is needed for other foods or ingredients coming from China -- the source of the contaminated gluten linked to the largest-ever recall of pet food.

      No Ban Planned

      The FDA says it has no plans to ban the imports of wheat gluten, rice protein, or similar products from China.

      "We believe the safety net is in place to make sure that no additional products are going to get into the commerce of the United States," David Elder, director of FDA's enforcement office, told reporters.

      Several pet food companies -- including Menu Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle SA -- have recalled more than 100 brands of pet food made with melamine-tainted wheat gluten since Mid-March.

      And at least five companies have made pet food containing rice protein contaminated with melamine.

      FDA officials say the chemical may have intentionally been added to increase the protein content.

      The FDA says there were no direct shipments of those two ingredients to firms that make food for humans or for animals used as food.

      Release the Names

      Release the names of companies that received contaminated rice protein from China and identify and inspect all suspect pet food ingredients imported from all countries.

      That's the message two U.S. Senators sent to the Food and Drug Administration on Monday.

      The request by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Marie Cantwell, (D-WA) follows reports that rice protein and corn gluten tainted with the chemical melamine have been used in pet food and may have entered the human food chain.

      Earlier reports identified the contaminated ingredient used in more than 100 brands of recalled pet food -- and linked to scores of illnesses and deaths in dogs and cats across the country -- as melamine-tainted wheat gluten.

      A House committee heard testimony Tuesday that American food is at high risk for both natural and terrorist-related outbreaks and many in Congress are questioning whether the Food and Drug Administration can adequately protect Americans.

      "Over the past week, shipments of imported rice protein and corn gluten have been discovered to be contaminated with melamine," the Senators wrote in their letter to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. "In addition, we have learned that the human food supply may be at risk from tainted pet food sold to a hog feeding operation in California.

      "Once again, our food supply has been put at risk by contaminated ingredients that originated overseas and were never inspected by the FDA."

      Earlier this month, the Chinese company, Binzhou-Futian, sold rice protein to U.S. importer Wilbur-Ellis and a second, unknown, company. Wilbur-Ellis said it distributed that rice protein to five pet food manufacturers.

      Three of those manufacturers have recalled their pet foods; the names of the other two companies, however, are not known.

      The Senators say that's not acceptable.

      "Given the strong possibility that these two pet food manufacturers also received contaminated rice protein and that they have failed to implement voluntary recalls, we believe the FDA should release the names of these manufacturers and require them to trace and recall any pet food made with the potentially contaminated rice protein," they told the FDA's Commissioner.

      The Senators also asked the FDA to:

      • Immediately start testing samples of rice protein and corn gluten imported from China. The FDA is already testing wheat gluten imported from that country;

      • Identify and inspect all suspect pet food ingredients imported from China and other countries. "In light of the strong possibility that these protein sources were purposefully contaminated for economic purposes, we are concerned about the safety of other imported pet food ingredients and the possibility of them being contaminated," the Senators said.

      • Study the feasibility of testing protein-based pet food ingredients imported from China and other countries for melamine;

      • Work with the Chinese Government and other foreign governments to inspect their facilities and provide technical assistance to improve their food safety standards.

      "The FDA owes the American public their best effort to prevent contaminated food from getting to store shelves and to remove contaminated food that is already on shelves before more pets die," the Senators wrote, adding 63 percent of Americans own a cat or dog.

      Pet Owners Snarl

      A pet owner in Florida told ConsumerAffairs.com that she's outraged by the FDA's refusal to disclose all the companies that received the contaminated rice protein.

      "Family pets are being killed and the FDA is dragging its feet," said Marlene B. of Port Charlotte, Florida. "I want to know how the hell the FDA can refuse to name the other two pet food manufacturers that received contaminated goods from China.

      "If it were a medicine for human consumption, they'd be the first to scream 'danger' and yank the products off the shelves, before any conclusive tests had been done. This is outrageous."

      And it's happening at a time when pets across the country continue to develop kidney disease or die after eating the melamine-tainted food.

      Kennel Destroyed

      Consider the impact one brand of the recalled pet food had on the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels at a kennel in Texas.

      "Our kennel has been destroyed by Natural Balance Dog Food," Dave and Jennifer S. of Victoria, Texas, said referring to the pet food recalled last week. "We are left devastated and desperately in need of help."

      Several or their dogs went into renal failure -- and two died -- after eating Natural Balance's Venison and Brown Rice food.

      "We had a total of 12 Cavaliers, two have died, four puppies remain in the hospital, as well as three adults," said the couple, who took their dogs to Texas A & M University's Small Animal Emergency Clinic for treatment.

      "The three adults may not recover at all. It is still hopeful for the puppies. We have one adult Cavalier at home, one six-month-old puppy at home, and one puppy that is eight weeks old that has been able to come home. They still require follow-up testing to ensure that they are not going back into renal failure."

      The couple added: "The doctors met with us and confirmed that it was the Natural Balance Venison and Brown Rice Dog food that is the cause (of their dogs' sickness and deaths.) The autopsy on Abby (one of the dogs) confirmed the crystal formation that is seen in all the renal failure cases concerning the recent dog food recalls."

      Natural Balance, they say, may compensate them for our vet bills.

      But only if they sign a release "which basically makes it so they do not have to pay anything except the vet bill."

      More about the Pet Food Recall ...

      Thousands of Hogs May Have Eaten Contaminated Feed...
      Read lessRead more

      Scientist Worries WiFi May Harm Children


      The British scientist who raised one of the early warnings about potential health hazards from cell phones has a new worry -- wireless Internet, or WiFi.

      Sir William Stewart, chairman of Britain's Health Protection Agency, is lobbying British authorities for an investigation into WiFi's possible health risks, according to Britain's The Independent.

      Stewart is concerned because wireless Internet may become more prevalent than mobile telephones.

      A few individuals are known to suffer from a heightened sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation, but in recent years more and more physicians have expressed concern that repeated and prolonged exposure might be harmful to the wider population.

      A study conducted in Finland found that people who have used cell phones for ten years or more are 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumor on the same side of the head as they hold their handset. Research done in Sweden puts the risk at almost four times greater.

      Stewart is reportedly concerned because of the similarity of the radiation emitted by cell phones and WiFi systems. But whereas cell phone radiation exposes only the person using the handset, WiFi radiation could affect everyone in the general vicinity.

      Much of the concern is directed at children, who are seen as more vulnerable than adults to the effects of radiation, and because they will likely be exposed to increasing levels of radiation throughout their lives.

      The Austrian Medical Association is pressing the government to ban the deployment of WiFi in schools.

      Concerns about WiFi health effects have also been raised in the U.S.

      In 2003, parents sued an Illinois school that installed a WiFi system, claiming the radiation was causing headaches and memory problems. Last year, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario refused to install a campus WiFi system, citing possible health concerns.



      Scientist Worries WiFi May Harm Children...
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      Groups Seek To Roll Back Foreclosures

      ACORN Wants Moratorium and Tougher Laws against Predatory Lending

      Pressure is building for industry and government officials to stop the wave of home foreclosures spawned by the subprime lending crises. The consumer group ACORN is the latest group to call for a halt in foreclosure proceedings.

      Earlier this month, the NAACP and other civil rights groups called for a six-month moratorium on foreclosures that result from subprime loans.

      ACORN this week launched what it calls a grassroots campaign to unite homeowners at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure, often due to predatory lending.

      ACORN leaders say they hope to bring together thousands of families to win major policy changes from lenders and government officials -- including a one-year moratorium on foreclosures from predatory loans.

      "We are going to go door-to-door and family-by-family. We will connect people in danger of foreclosure to sources of help, and we will organize these homeowners to fight back to save their homes from the predatory lenders," said ACORN President Maude Hurd.

      Meanwhile, the Governor of Minnesota has signed legislation the group says will provide important new protections for homeowners against predatory loans. Minnesota ACORN leader Paul Satriano celebrated a five-year effort to pass the law, calling it, "a model for states around the country responding to the foreclosure crisis.

      Among the major points of the ACORN campaign is a proposal to state attorneys general to seek injunctions to stop foreclosure proceedings caused by predatory loans. The plan also calls for tougher laws against predatory lending.

      The group says predatory lending has lead to an epidemic of foreclosures. Last year there were 1.2 million foreclosure filings, a large increase from the 900,000 foreclosures that were filed in 2005. This year, foreclosure filings are expected to reach 1.5 million.

      Groups Seek To Roll Back Foreclosures...
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      Appeals Court Gives Vonage a Reprieve

      Company Can Continue Signing New Customers Pending Oral Arguments

      Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron declared it "business as usual" today after a federal appeals court allowed the Internet phone company to continue signing new customers.

      Vonage will still have to make its case before the appeals court on June 25, but today's action removes the threat that the company would starve to death while awaiting oral arguments.

      U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton had ordered Vonage to stop signing new customers after a jury found that it had infringed on several patents held by telecom giant Verizon.

      The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington issued a temporary stay of Hilton's order on April 7 and today extended the stay until oral arguments can be heard.

      Verizon sued Vonage in June, claiming that Vonage had illegally used key technologies owned by Verizon to connect Internet calls to regular telephone networks and claimed it had lost hundreds of thousands of customers to Vonage as a result of the infringement.

      Hilton's order that the company stop signing new customers was the equivalent of standing on a comatose patient's oxygen line, as Vonage needs to keep signing new customers to make up for those it loses.

      Vonage attracts customers eager to save money on their phone bill but loses many of them when they have difficulty figuring out how to make the sytem work. Others aren't happy with the quality of the Internet calls.

      Billing disputes are also a common theme in the more than 400 Vonage complaints filed with ConsumerAffairs.com.

      "I had dropped calls, couldn't call or receive calls, etc. So, I decided to go back to my land line," said Ashby of Forest Hill, Md.

      "Vonage promised service that could not be delivered, stalled for several months and have billed me for service not delivered," said Peter of Big Bear Lake, Calif. "I have called for a resolution on this matter many times, they simply shuttle the calls from one nincompoop to another until the customer gives up."

      Vonage also faces a consumer class action filed in U.S. District Court in California which charges that it misled consumers about the quality and reliability of its service and engaged in false advertising and deceptive business practices.

      Citron Confident

      Although it still faces what may be a difficult day in court, Citron was feeling optimistic.

      "We have not infringed on any of Verizon's technology and remain optimistic that we will ultimately prevail," he said in a statement. The company's stock jumped 29 percent, the biggest one-day jump since its went public in May 2006.

      Tough Competitors

      Like many companies that try to capitalize on new technology, Vonage has attracted numerous competitors, including the huge telephone and cable companies it had hoped to displace. Much of the growth Vonage had hoped for has instead gone to the cable companies, which have aggressively rolled out telephone service packages bundled with high-speed Internet and video services.

      Between them, Cablevision and Time Warner have signed more than 3 million customers, business that Vonage had been counting on to meet its projections.

      Vonage has also run afoul of the regulatory thicket that is the telecom market. It has been required by regulators to add many of the very fees and surcharges already collected by its old-line competitors. That has taken away much of the low-cost advantage Vonage had been counting on.

      Defenders

      Not everyone is critical of Vonage. The president of CompTel, a telecommunications trade association, says Verizon is using its market dominance to stamp out competition.

      "We're seeing a still-dominant monopoly aggressively using its monopoly revenue to pursue and drive out of the market competitors," Earl Comstock told The Washington Post. "This isn't about protecting their patents. It's about crushing their competitors."

      Comstock predicted Verizon will use the same tactic to go after other competitors.

      Appeals Court Gives Vonage a Reprieve...
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      TV Food Ads Make Obese Kids Hungrier

      Study Documents Effect of Ads on Kids' Appetites

      April 24, 2007
      Obese and overweight kids increase their food intake by more than 100% after watching food advertisements on television, a study by the University of Liverpool psychologists has shown.

      Our research confirms food TV advertising has a profound effect on all childrens eating habits -- doubling their consumption rate," said Dr. Jason Halford, Director of the Universitys Kissileff Human Ingestive Behavior Laboratory.

      "The study was also particularly interesting in suggesting a strong connection between weight and susceptibility to over-eating when exposed to food adverts on television.

      In the study, A group of 60 children of varying weights, aged between nine and eleven years was shown a series of both food television ads and toy ads, followed by a cartoon.

      Food intake following the food commercials was significantly higher compared with the toy ads in all weight groups, with the obese children increasing their consumption by 134%; overweight children by 101% and normal weight children by 84%.

      Fattier Snacks Chosen

      It was also found that weight dictated food preference during the experiment. Food of differing fat contents was made available to the children to eat at their own will, ranging from high fat sweet snacks to low fat savory products.

      The obese group consistently chose the highest fat product -- chocolate -- whereas the overweight children chose jelly sweets, which have a lower fat content, as well as chocolate.

      In Britain, 14% of children are classed as obese and the average UK child watches 17 hours of commercial television a week. A ban on junk food advertising around childrens television programs was introduced in the UK in January 2007, yet surveys have shown that many children still watch during family viewing hours in the evening when the ban does not apply.

      The University research team is presented its research at the European Congress on Obesity in Budapest.

      Future studies are planned to investigate whether enhanced responsiveness to food adverts or the greater amount of television children are watching is a predictor of childhood obesity.



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      Gonzales Issues New Identity Theft Plan

      Feds' Plan Would Pre-Empt Stronger State Laws


      With the "prosecutor purge" scandal hanging over him, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chairman Deborah Platt Majoras released the latest federal strategy for fighting identity theft Monday.

      Consumer advocates and privacy specialists were generally underwhelmed by the plan.

      Gonzales and Majoras are co-chairs of the President's Identity Theft Task Force, comprised of heads of multiple government agencies, commissioned to come up with comprehensive strategies for fighting identity theft, fraud, and cybercrime.

      Although Gonzales was bombarded with questions related to his role in the firing of multiple U.S. attorneys from their jobs, he attempted to focus his statements on the identity theft plan.

      "Much has been accomplished, and there are more protections in place now than ever before," Gonzales said. "But the president and the task force recognize that we need to do more."

      "Identity thieves steal consumers' time, money, and security, just as sure as they steal their identifying information, and they cost businesses enormous sums," Majoras said. "The Strategic Plan submitted to the President provides a blueprint for increased federal prevention and protection."

      Gonzales' role in the prosecutor firings has cost him considerable standing on Capitol Hill and led many to call for his resignation.

      "Several senators have raised the question of whether you can be credible and whether or not you can be an effective attorney general," one reported asked at today's news conference. "Do you still believe you can, and have you offered your resignation to the president?"

      "No," Gonzales replied curtly. "I'm focused on making sure our kids are safe, making sure our neighborhoods are safe, making sure consumers are safe, and that's one of the reasons I'm here today."

      One Step Forward ...

      The plan came in two volumes, totaling 190 pages. The first volume contained the Task Force recommendations, while the second contained information and resources relating to identity theft. Among the recommendations:

      • The formation of a National Identity Theft Law Enforcement Center as a clearinghouse to collect, analyze, and share identity theft information among the various private and public sector agencies. The Center would be headed by the Justice Department, and would include the FTC, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, and the FBI, among others.

      • Decrease the usage and collection of Social Security numbers on the state, local, and federal levels. The Task Force recommended that the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) complete its review of how various agencies utilize SSNs, and to help develop guidance on limiting their collection to absolutely necessary functions.

      • Establishing federal standards for data breaches, including risk evaluations to determine the severity of the breach, consumer and media disclosures, and enforcing the standards in the public and private sector.

      • Developing a "Universal Identity Theft Report Form" to be used as the standard for all complaints across the board

      • Extensive education of the public, private, and consumer sector on how to protect oneself from identity theft.

      ... One Step Back

      Several aspects of the report may actually hinder stronger prosecution and enforcement against identity theft. The report recommends that its federal laws pre-empt existing state laws on identity theft and fraud, many of which are stronger and more favorable to the consumer than legislation currently proposed at the federal level.

      If the new recommendations become law, California's data breach disclosure laws -- acknowledged to be the strongest in the nation -- would be superseded.

      Were it not for those rules, the public might never have known about the ChoicePoint data breach that vaulted the issue to the national stage, cost the embattled data broker $15 million in an FTC settlement, and turned it into a model of privacy protection.

      Federal legislation proposed in the Senate, by contrast, would give law enforcement carte blanche to delay consumer notification of data breaches while they investigate, and would enable businesses to handle their own "risk assessments," rather than opening their records to neutral third parties.

      The report is also lukewarm on endorsing "credit freezes," which enable consumers to lock out access to their credit unless they give specific permission. Although many states already have credit freeze laws on the books, the report only recommends further study of the legislation.

      Indeed, the report's strongest words about credit freezes are these: "Because most companies obtain a credit report from a consumer before extending credit, a credit freeze will likely prevent the extension of credit in a consumer's name without the consumer's express permission."

      Both volumes of the report are available as free PDF downloads from the government's identity theft "resource" page, IDTheft.gov.

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