Current Events in April 2007

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    U.S. Food Supply at High Risk of Terrorist or Profit-Driven Tampering

    House Hears Testimony on Pet Food Poisonings; FDA's Lack of Authority Cited

    American food is 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.

    With increased reports of dangerous imported glutens, particularly from China, infecting pets and possibly humans, Representatives held one of a series of hearings today to determine how to strengthen our nation's food supply.

    "This has become a systematic problem that requires systematic change," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said.

    Representatives blamed the FDA's lack of power for the rash of recent food recalls.

    "Every American has reason to worry about pathogens in our food supply that sickens 72 million and kill about 5,000 of us each year," Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said. "It is important we learn how much of this death and illness could have been prevented by diligent and properly funded regulatory agencies, primarily the Food and Drug Administration."

    Foxes Guard Henhouse

    The most-noted flaw in the FDA's authority is its complete inability to order a food recall. By law, the manufacturer or distributor must voluntarily recall the tainted products.

    This shortcoming was dramatically illustrated over the weekend, when's Lisa Wade McCormick reported that the FDA admitted knowing of five companies that received contaminated Chinese rice protein concentrate.

    Three firms have identified themselves by announcing recalls; the other two are not publicly known because the FDA will not name them until the companies come forth voluntarily.

    Currently, recalls are dependant upon the media to disseminate information and for consumers to be conscientious and well-read buyers.

    DeGette has proposed legislation that will give the FDA and USDA the power to order recalls and also to increase recalls' effectiveness by forcing stores to remove dangerous products from shelves.

    This morning's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing raised a continuing concern about imported foods from China, which has been at the center of the pet food recall. Recent reports claim the Chinese manufacturer purposely poisoned the wheat, rice and possibly corn glutens used in pet foods and to feed hogs.

    After a handful of theories as to why pets around the country were dying, the FDA finally determined that Melamine, a toxic plastic, was to blame.

    "Melamine is used in plastics and is not edible," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said. "In light of that fact, the FDA is investigating whether it was intentionally added to the wheat gluten or other ingredients to boost the protein content in order to make the products more valuable."

    No Accident

    Many are convinced that it was no accident that the Chinese tainted the glutens.

    "Regardless of whether they are wheat, rice or corn-based proteins, they share two characteristics," Dingell said. "First, they were contaminated deliberately. Second, they came from our trading partners in China."

    Yesterday, the Chinese finally allowed FDA inspectors into the country to inspect the suspect processing plants. But that came after an initial request which the Chinese immediately turned down.

    "China's foot-dragging in a public health incident is totally unacceptable," Barton said. "Building a great wall of bureaucracy between our experts and their problem is not going to make the problem disappear."

    "The suspicion of international contamination is eerily similar to past incidents in China," Barton said. "A dozen years ago, 89 children in Haiti died after taking cough medicine made with, believe it or not, poisonous antifreeze that was traced back to China. The world never got an answer from the Chinese on how this crime occurred.

    "In an investigation started in 1998 when I was the chairman of this subcommittee, we found that 155 Americans were sickened by impure gentamicin sulfate made by a Chinese firm," Barton continued. "We never got a definitive answer on how this unapproved, impure drug ingredient got into that particular product."

    Terrorism Risk

    The poisoning of thousands of pets with dangerous food imported from China demonstrates how easily terrorists could kill Americans by poisoning food imported through a porous food inspection network.

    "So far, the evidence suggests that the deliberate contamination was for greed and not as a trial run for terrorist purposes," Dingell said.

    But a February Government Accountability Office report also concluded that the food network is a "high risk" and that terrorists could easily kill Americans through our own food.

    There are a handful of bills pending in both the House and the Senate that seek to strengthen the food inspection network, but any preliminary vote on legislation appears months away at best.

    The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold another hearing in approximately two weeks that will bring FDA officials to the stand.

    U.S. Food Supply at High Risk of Terrorist or Profit-Driven Tampering...

    South Africa Bans Gluten Products from China as Pet Poisonings Spread

    The pet food industry in South Africa will no longer accept any gluten products imported from China. That decision comes on the heels of Royal Canin SA's discovery of the chemical melamine in the ingredients.

    Royal Canin SA said tests revealed the corn gluten -- used in dog and cat dry pet food products manufactured by Vets Choice and Royal Canin -- was tainted with melamine. That corn gluten came from China.

    The company, which manufacturers Royal Canin premium dog and cat food and the cheaper brand Vets Choice, recalled the products last week because they'd caused kidney failure in dogs and cats, according to reports in The Namibian, an independent daily newspaper published in Windhoek, and

    The South African Veterinary Association said 30 dogs that had eaten the tainted food have died across the country in the past two weeks. The Associated Press reported the pets died from renal failure.

    In related news, Royal Canin USA recalled five brands of its Sensible Choice dry dog food and three brands of its Veterinary Diet food last Friday after learning the rice protein in the products was tainted with what the company calls "a melamine derivative."

    The company also said it will no longer use any Chinese suppliers for any of its vegetable proteins. Royal Canin USA said there are no confirmed reports of illnesses linked to the foods, but as a precautionary measure recalled the following brands of its Sensible Choice pet foods:

    • Chicken Meal & Rice Formula Senior DRY DOG FOOD;
    • Lamb Meal & Rice Formula Puppy DRY DOG FOOD;
    • Lamb Meal & Rice Formula Adult DRY DOG FOOD;
    • Lamb Meal & Rice Formula Senior DRY DOG FOOD;
    • Rice & Catfish Meal Formula Adult DRY DOG FOOD

    The company also recalled the following veterinary diet brands:

    • Canine Early Cardiac EC 22;
    • Canine Skin Support SS21;
    • Feline Hypoallergenic HP23

    "We are taking this proactive stance to voluntarily recall these products to avoid any confusion for our customers about which Royal Canin USA products are safe and which products may be affected," the company said on its Web site.

    Pet owners with questions can call the company at 1-800-592-6687.

    Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration say the ingredients imported from China -- and used in the more than 100 brands of recalled pet foods -- may have been intentionally spiked with an industrial chemical to boost their apparent protein content.

    That's one theory the FDA is pursuing as it investigates how melamine contaminated at least two ingredients used to make the recalled pet foods in the United States: wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate.

    There's also confirmation that the corn gluten used in some pet food in South Africa contained melamine.

    Tests revealed melamine in both wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate -- imported from China -- used in the pet foods linked to scores of kidney illnesses and deaths in dogs and cats across the country.

    "Melamine was found in all three of those it would certainly lend credibility to the theory that it may be intentional," Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's chief veterinarian, told reporters last week. "That will be one of the theories we will pursue when we get into the plants in China."

    Infected Hogs

    Over the weekend, the FDA announced it has opened a criminal investigation after learning more than 100 hogs were given feed that contained melamine-tainted rice protein.

    The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) said its testing had detected melamine in the urine from hogs at the American Hog Farm in Ceres, California.

    The hogs were slaughtered in California's Central Valley.

    Consumers who bought pork from the American Hog Farm between April 3 and April 18 are advised not to eat the meat.

    California health officials, however, said there are no reports of illness in either people or the hogs. Authorities are trying to track down all the purchasers.

    "The risk is minimal, but the investigation is very early on," said Kevin Reilly of the California Department of Health Services.

    Sundlof said criminal charges are a possibility, although it is no yet known if there was any criminal intent.

    The FDA also announced it's investigating the imported shipment of melamine-tainted rice protein concentrate used in pet foods.

    To date, the FDA says it's established:
    • That shipment of rice protein concentrate was imported and offloaded during the week of April 2, 2007 by the San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis, an importer and distributor of agricultural products. The rice protein came from Binzhou Futian Biological Technology in China;;
    • The shipment consisted primarily of rice protein concentrate in white bags, but also included one pink bag that was labeled, in part, with the word "melamine;"
    • On April 15, Wilbur-Ellis notified FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine about the suspect shipment. On April 16, the FDA launched a nationwide investigation that revealed eight import entries -- shipped from the Chinese firm -- since July 2006. FDA testing revealed melamine in both the white and pink bags;
    • Wilbur-Ellis recalled all of the rice protein concentrate it had imported from that Chinese company.
    • FDA investigators obtained records showing five pet food manufacturers -- in seven locations -- received the tainted rice protein. Investigators are currently inspecting those manufacturers and collecting additional samples;
    • The FDA initiated inspections at Royal Canin USA and C.J. Foods and, as a result, both companies recalled certain products;
    • FDA also confirmed the presence of melamine in some pet food products containing rice protein concentrate. Natural Balance Pet Foods recalled these foods as a result of that finding: Venison and Brown Rice canned and bagged dog foods; Venison and Brown Rice dog treats; and Venison and Green Pea dry cat food.

    The FDA is now sampling all rice protein concentrate from China and continues to sample all wheat gluten imported from that country. The federal agency says it's ready to increase its surveillance of other products, if necessary.

    South Africa Bans Gluten Products from China as Pet Poisonings Spread...

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      Survey: T-Mobile Tops in Customer Satisfaction

      Tops in customer care, cost and billing, study finds

      T-Mobile ranks highest in all six regions (including three ties) of wireless service, performing particularly well in customer care, cost of service and billing, according to J.D. Power and Associates. It's the fifth consecutive reporting period that the company has ranked highest across all six regions.

      Verizon Wireless ties for the highest ranking in three regions: Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and North Central. Overall, the provider performs particularly well in call quality and brand image.

      Alltel ranks highest in a tie in the Southeast Region, while U.S. Cellular and AT&T (formerly Cingular Wireless) tie for the highest ranking in the North Central region.

      Study results by region are:

      • Northeast Region: T-Mobile ranks highest, performing particularly well in service plan options, customer service, cost of service and billing.

      • Mid-Atlantic Region: T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless rank highest in a tie. T-Mobile performs well in cost of service, service plan options and customer care, while Verizon Wireless receives high ratings from customers in call quality and brand image.

      • Southeast Region: Alltel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless rank highest in a three-way tie. Alltel performs well in billing, while T-Mobile receives high ratings in cost of service, service plan options and billing, and Verizon Wireless performs well in the call quality and brand image factors.

      • North Central Region: AT&T; (formerly Cingular Wireless), T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless tie to rank highest in customer satisfaction in the most competitive region in the study. AT&T; performs above the regional average in cost of service, call quality and billing. T-Mobile receives high ratings from customers in cost of service and billing, while both U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless perform particularly well in call quality and customer care.

      • Southwest Region: T-Mobile ranks highest with strong performances in five of the six factors that determine overall satisfaction: customer service, service plan options, cost of service, brand image and billing.

      • West Region: T-Mobile ranks highest, performing particularly well in billing, service plan options, customer care and cost of service. As usage continuously increases and the number of new data-centric service offerings grow, call performance and network reliability are becoming more critical to wireless customers demanding consistent quality connections, according to the study.

      The semiannual study measures customer satisfaction based on 42 specific service-related measures grouped into six key factors that impact overall wireless carrier performance. In order of importance, they are:

      • call performance and reliability (32%);
      • brand image (17%);
      • cost of service (14%);
      • service plan options (14%); billing (12%) and
      • customer service (11%).

      Carriers are ranked across six regions in the United States: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, North Central, Southwest and West.

      The study finds that the call performance and reliability factor has increased in importance from 26 percent of the overall satisfaction score in 2005 to 32 percent in 2007. Specifically, call quality issues such as echoes and timely notification of voice mail messages have received the most significant increase in importance.

      Subsequently, the customer service factor has become less critical in determining overall wireless satisfaction -- declining from 17 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in the 2007 study.

      "It's no surprise that more carriers now advertise the importance of a reliable network as they try to differentiate themselves from the competition," said Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power and Associates.

      "Wireless network quality is key in distinguishing carriers that meet and exceed the service expectations of their customers from those that do not. However, there is still room for improvement, as 31 percent of customers who contact their carrier with a problem complain of call quality issues, such as a high degree of dropped calls and initial disconnects."

      T-Mobile ranks highest in all six regions (including three ties) of wireless service, performing particularly well in customer care, cost of service and bi...

      Congress Wary of Airline Promises

      House Committee Studies Passenger Bill of Rights

      Kate Hanni was one of thousands of passengers stranded for nearly nine hours in an American Airlines jet on a stormy tarmac in Austin, Texas last December. 

      Kate Hanni

      "During those nine intolerable hours, we ran out of water, toilets overflowed and we were only given a 45-calorie bag of pretzels, which I gave to my son," Hanni said. 

      "As time ticked by slowly, passengers started to get frustrated, angry, and feel helpless. We were left with no information on how long we would be held on the plane. 

      "Because of the lack of care and service, a mother made diapers out of T-shirts for her baby," Hanni continued. "On another aircraft, police arrested brawling people. … A small dog defecated on passengers, who began vomiting and were told to hold their own vomit bags due to full trash receptacles. 

      "People ran out of medications and others had no water with which to take theirs." 

      Rather than issue refunds and cancel the flight, American Airlines held the passengers hostage in the cabins before finally giving in to the pleas of those in need of medical attention. Hanni's flight was one of 66,868 that held passengers for more than an hour last year. 

      Incidents such as hers and that of the Jet Blue cancellations at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York  caught the eye of the national media and now Congress seems poised to take action. 

      Not Convinced

      The bipartisan Aviation Subcommittee did not seem convinced by the aviation industry's promise to regulate itself - the same promise they made to the same subcommittee in 1999, after a snow storm in Detroit stranded 50 Northwest Airlines flights on the tarmac. 

      Fifteen of those flights experienced delays longer than eight hours. 

      The Airport Transport Association (ATA), an airline trade group, convinced the then-Republican controlled Congress to let the ATA regulate the industry. 

      But data provided by Department of Transportation's inspector general, Calvin Scovel, at today's hearing indicated that delays have generally increased across the board. 

      "They have made unprecedented changes to their operations to regain profitability," Scovel noted in a written statement. 

      "If we don't exercise oversight they're going to keep taking advantage of passengers," Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transport and Infrastructure Committee said. "Unless the industry addresses this and addresses it now, there is going to be regulation." 

      Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the ATA is hardly suited to regulate the industry because its top priority is maintaining members and making them happy. 

      Chart supplied by Kate Hanni

      Representatives and Senators have written a handful of laws that address the issue, but today's lengthy proceedings were the first of a series that hope to discover the balance between consumer protection and declogging an already backlogged airport transportation infrastructure. 

      Airlines Oppose Legislation

      The leading bill is the bipartisan Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act which has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The bill provides airline passengers with new rights to potable food and water and sanitary facilities and a right to deplane when they are stranded on tarmacs for more than three hours at a time. 

      James May, president and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association said that any right for passengers to deplane will backlog the system more than it already is. May argued that any aircraft that has to return to the gate to drop off disgruntled passengers will lose its place in line for the runway and will also tangle traffic as it attempts to weave through other aircraft on the tarmac. 

      Sally Greenburg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said despite May's comments, the proposed legislation is needed to protect consumers. 

      "We believe the Passenger Bill of Rights is a measured response to the recent ill treatment of airline passengers and will help to restore the basic rights and protections that are sorely absent today," Greenburg said. 

      Representatives did commend Jet Blue for voluntarily implementing its own Customer Bill of Rights which incrementally gives vouchers or cash refunds for consumers left stranded in the airport or on the tarmac. 

      But Oberstar did not seem convinced that Jet Blue is an accurate representation of the entire industry. 

      "I appreciate the action Jet Blue took," Oberstar said. "But the other airlines have not made any changes to address these problems." 

      Jet Blue's chief executive officer and president, David Neeleman, told he was against any regulation, even if it was identical to the airline's current Customer Bill of Rights. 

      "There's too much regulation as it is," he said. 

      Congress Wary of Airline Promises...

      New York Sues Drexel Over Student Loans

      California Demands Answers from Education Finance Partners, Student Loan Xpress

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has taken the first legal action against a school in his nationwide student loan investigation. Cuomo announced a notice of intent to sue Drexel University in Pennsylvania over its revenue sharing agreements with Education Finance Partners.

      Earlier this week, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. demanded two California student-loan businesses produce records concerning their financial relationships with public and private universities, and vocational schools in California as part of his ongoing probe into the student-loan industry.

      In the New York probe, Education Finance Partners (EFP) agreed to Cuomo's College Loan Code of Conduct and will end revenue sharing agreements. Cuomo also announced settlement agreements with three more schools: Salve Regina in Rhode Island, Pace University and the New York Institute of Technology. Salve Regina and Molloy College both had revenue sharing agreements with EFP.

      Previously, Fordham University, St. John's University, and Long Island University all agreed to cease their revenue sharing agreements with EFP and reimburse students on a pro rata basis for the money received through those agreements.

      Drexel received over $124,000 from its revenue sharing agreements with EFP and accrued $126,000 more through March 2007 that has not been paid. Under Drexel's agreement with EFP, dated April 1, 2006, the school agreed to make EFP its "sole preferred private loan provider."

      In return, Drexel was to 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.

      Drexel had an earlier revenue sharing agreement with EFP that began in May of 2005 under which Drexel received 75 basis points (75%) of all referred loans. EFP was a non-exclusive preferred lender under the earlier contract. Since 2005, Drexel University has sent over $16 million in loan volume to EFP.

      Drexel solicits and corresponds with students from New York, and New York students and their families rely on Drexel's representations about preferred lenders; the New York Attorney General therefore has jurisdiction over Drexel in this matter.

      "This investigation is a two-front battle: lenders and schools. We have proceeded against lenders and now we are proceeding against schools. There is no reason for a school not to adopt the Code of Conduct," Cuomo said. "This office has been clear to schools: settle or we will commence litigation. Either way we will get justice for students."

      Salve Regina, Pace University, and NYIT agreed to the Attorney General's Code of Conduct, after the Attorney General's investigation that revealed various practices at each university could have potentially created conflicts of interest.

      Salve Regina University: Salve Regina University is located in Newport, Rhode Island. The Attorney General's investigation found that during the period of 2005-2006, Salve Regina received over $7,800 pursuant to a form of revenue sharing with EFP, which was one of the Salve Regina's preferred lenders. Between January 2004 and March 2007, certain lenders, some of whom appeared on Salve Regina's preferred lender lists, provided printing costs or services to the university and/or paid for meals and lodging for university employees at loan workshops, conferences, and/or advisory board meetings. Salve Regina agrees to accept the OAG Code of Conduct and will reimburse the affected students $7,839.74.

      Pace University: Pace University is in Westchester, New York. The Attorney General's investigation found that Pace hired Sallie Mae to staff financial aid call centers, and the Sallie Mae employees wrongfully identified themselves as Pace University employees. Additionally, a Pace administrator who oversaw student loans and advised Pace to drop the federal direct lending program and enter into contracts with Sallie Mae subsequently went to work for Sallie Mae after leaving Pace. This administrator may have had an inappropriate relationship with Sallie Mae while employed by Pace, Cuomo charged.

      New York Institute of Technology: The New York Institute of Technology has three campuses, two on Long Island in Old Westbury, Central Islip, and one in New York City. The Attorney General's investigation found that NYIT accepted payment from certain lenders, some of whom were on NYIT's preferred lender lists, including payments for sponsorships of University events and scholarships. When composing its preferred lender list, NYIT considered whether or not lenders had made such contributions or offered Opportunity Loan funds as a criterion. Additionally, some preferred lenders including Sallie Mae, Citibank, College Loan Corporation and AFC paid for meals and trips to student loan conferences for financial aid officers.

      Molloy College: Molloy College is in Rockville Centre, Long Island. The Attorney General's investigation found that Molloy had a revenue sharing agreement with EFP. Molloy received over $1600 from EFP as a result of this arrangement. Molloy has returned this money to EFP and requested that any future revenue due to it under the EFP agreement go towards reducing student loan payments.

      California Probe

      In the California investigation, Brown is probing Education Finance Partners Inc. of San Francisco and Student Loan Xpress Inc. of San Diego.

      "Schools and universities in California must be above reproach, and no further burdens should be visited upon students who are already weighed down by escalating student-debt responsibilities," Brown said.

      The Department of Justice is seeking the information to determine whether the lenders made unlawful payments to schools or university personnel.

      Brown said he is investigating whether any schools have improperly chosen some lenders in preference to others, and whether unlawful payments have been made to schools from the student lending institutions.

      New York Sues Drexel Over Student Loans...

      Gas Prices Top $3 in Five States

      Motorists Seem to be Accepting the "New Normal"

      California gasoline prices lead the nation with a gallon of regular self-serve averaging $3.35 throughout the state. Average gasoline prices are also above $3 a gallon in four other states -- Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Hawaii.

      Gasoline prices are up more than 60 cents in the last two months and began the seasonal summer increase about a month earlier than usual.

      Across the country, the average price for a gallon of regular self-serve is $2.86, 30 cents more than one month a go and 4 cents more than one year ago.

      Unlike the last few years, the latest price spikes have sparked little public outrage. Some analysts say consumers may now be regarding as normal what was once seen as exorbitant. Gas prices in the $3 range may be the "new normal," they say.

      Mid-grade gasoline is selling for an average price of $3.04 and premium costs $3.15. Diesel fuel sells for $2.94 a gallon

      The Energy Information Agency predicts that the average gasoline price will peak at $2.87 in May. Last year the average price peaked at $2.98 in July.

      This week the highest gasoline price in the country is found in Lee Vining, California where a gallon of regular unleaded is selling for $3.89.

      The cheapest gallon of regular gasoline is on sale in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for $2.47.

      Here is a look at some prices from around the country in the weekly Gas Price Round Up.

      California: Southern California's slight dip in gas prices just after Easter has turned out to be a temporary respite. Gas prices headed back up over the last week, coming within a dime of their all-time record highs in most areas, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.

      The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $3.32, which is six cents higher than last week, 19 cents higher than last month, and 32 cents higher than last year.

      In San Diego, the price is $3.35, which is five cents above last week's price, 18 cents above last month, and 32 cents above last year.

      On the Central Coast, the average price is $3.44, up 6.3 cents from last week, 20 cents above last month, and 36 cents higher than last year.

      In the Inland Empire, the average price is $3.34, 4.9 cents above last week, 19 cents higher than last month, and 30 cents higher than last year.

      "Last year at this time, gas price averages were just reaching $3 a gallon in Southern California, and this year we've been paying over $3 for more than five weeks," said Auto Club spokesperson Carol Thorp. "Local wholesale gas price spikes that happened last week seem to be related to this latest round of increases."

      In Northern California, Tahoe City is leading the state in high prices as many California areas in the north are setting record high gas prices.

      The California average has risen 69 cents in 2007, according to AAA but Truckee-Tahoe averages have increased by 79 cents between April 18 and January 18.

      Texas: Retail gasoline prices rose this week for 11 weeks in a row in Texas and the weekly AAA Texas gas price survey shows regular-grade gasoline prices averaged $2.78 per gallon. That is a seven-cent increase in just the last week.

      Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau said volatility tied to consumer demand, world events and profit-taking in the markets make it impossible to predict future price trends.

      El Paso has the most expensive gasoline prices among the 11 Texas markets surveyed, rising eight cents to an average of $2.85 per gallon. Corpus Christi remains the cheapest on the list with regular grade rising six cents to an average of $2.68 per gallon.

      Illinois: Gasoline has again touched $3 a gallon in Chicago, and is closing in on that number elsewhere in Illinois.

      Average prices for a gallon of regular gasoline in Chicago range from $2.83 to as high as $3.00, according to AAA Chicago, with many stations in the city selling gas for more than $3.

      Gas Prices Top $3 in Five States...

      Prius Traction Control Complaints on the Rise

      Toyota Can't Get a Grip on the Problem

      Toyota is unable to modify the troublesome Prius traction control system without placing the vehicle's sophisticated hybrid drive system in jeopardy, according to a Toyota service technician familiar with the Prius problem.

      In a mountainous or snowy areas, the little car can be more than just difficult, Prius owners complain.

      "I live in the mountains, up steep hills and dirt roads. I consider the slippage problem with the shutting down of power to the wheels just when you need more not less traction to be a very serious problem and a potentially life-threatening design flaw," a New England Prius owner told

      A Toyota representative told the Vermont hybrid driver that the system was "operating the way it's supposed to."

      "It became clear that they were resistant to accepting that operating the way it was supposed to was the problem," the owner told

      The hybrid's traction control system is managed by a computer program and several Toyota technicians have reportedly asked the automaker to modify the software to allow for more wheel spin before shutting the drive line down.

      So far Toyota has apparently refused to provide for the modification.

      Toyota spokesman Bill Kwon told previously that the traction control system in the Prius could impact performance in snowy conditions but he has insisted the slippage was not a safety problem.

      "Prius has TRAC (traction control) as standard equipment," Kwon said. "The purpose of traction control is to help prevent wheel spin and minimize slippage of the drive wheels by applying brakes and/or reducing engine power."

      Others familiar with the traction issue in the Prius suggest the Toyota concern is for the safety and reliability of the hybrid system, especially the front axle in particular.

      They suggest that Toyota engineers are concerned that if the traction control is turned off or modified, the hybrid system will produce so much torque in the Prius that wheel spin would lead quickly to broken axles and even wheels coming off.

      One Prius owner was recently told that this is the reason "Toyota is reluctant at this point to allow for even a moderate amount of more spin by changing the Prius traction control computer program."

      Currently the Prius system allows for no wheel spin at all and Toyota continues to brush off consumer complaints about the traction control system.

      Several Prius owners have reported to that they have warned Toyota of the tentative traction control system in the hybrid.

      "Fundamentally Flawed"

      "This system is fundamentally flawed in a way that could put people's lives at risk and poses dangers in environments like mine where navigating fresh slippery snow and steep inclines are a necessity," our New England reader said.

      The Toyota statement that the Prius traction control system is "working as it was designed" has left more than one Prius owner feeling that the system is operating as designed to "protect the safety of the car not the safety of the driver or passengers."

      Recently a Prius owner told that he thinks Toyota has created "a potentially life-threatening danger for driver and passengers by preventing the driver from being able to exercise control over the vehicle under hazardous conditions."

      Our Plainfield, Vermont, Prius owner is continuing to press Toyota for answers.

      "I questioned them regarding whether an override switch was available and learned it wasn't and later saw that this is the solution that others had suggested."

      Driving a Prius in snowy conditions takes a lot of getting used to. "I did find in a recent snowstorm that I was able to make it up a friends very steep road (just barely) crawling at about 3 or 4 miles per hour at best," he wrote.

      "I do see that it's possible to drive this car differently, flooring the gas peddle to barely crawl and have it work but it was so touch-and-go and had another car been coming (up or down) I wouldn't have been able to move out of the way and probably couldn't have restarted with no momentum from a standstill," he wrote.

      Our New England Prius owner has reluctantly concluded that, "it is completely clear that I am unable to trust my Prius in serious snow conditions and I now choose not to drive it whenever possible in fresh snow."

      "Yesterday, I was not even able to get the car to move more than a few inches in reverse on my almost entirely flat driveway over just a few inches of fresh, wet snow, even when there was no snow under the car itself," he wrote.

      On the other side of the country in Redwood City, California, yet another Prius owner has experienced the same traction control problems with a 2007 Prius.

      "The traction control has proven to be very troublesome. If a bump in the road on a hill causes a wheel to bounce the traction control cuts all power and brings the car to a standstill," Ralph wrote

      "This makes some roads and driveways passable to all other cars impassable to the Prius. This is a defect and can cause the car to become stuck very easily," he told us.

      Prius Traction Control Complaints on the Rise...

      U.S. Foreclosure Rate Surges 47 Percent

      What a difference a year makes

      What a difference a year makes. Foreclosure notices rose 47 percent from March 2006 to last month, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate research firm. The company said banks initiated 149,000 foreclosure actions in March 2007, the most since the company began collecting data.

      The March numbers were up seven percent from the month before. It makes for a national foreclosure rate of one foreclosure filing for every 775 U.S. households during the month.

      "Foreclosure activity shifted into a higher gear in the first two months of 2007, and March's numbers continued that trend," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac.

      But Saccacio said that while foreclosures are causing a major disruption in the subprime sector of the lending industry and saturating pockets of some local markets, "it's important to note that U.S. foreclosure activity overall is not far above historical norms."

      "Last year we saw a surge in foreclosures in the first quarter followed by a leveling off through the second and third quarters," he said. "However, if that pattern does not repeat itself, and foreclosure activity continues to accelerate, we may see more widespread consequences."

      Nevada, Colorado Top the List

      Nevada's foreclosure activity increased 29 percent from the previous month, helping the state register the nation's highest state foreclosure rate for the third month in a row. The state reported 4,738 foreclosure filings during the month, more than triple the number reported in March 2006 and a foreclosure rate of one foreclosure filing for every 183 households more than four times the national average.

      Colorado's foreclosure rate of one new foreclosure for every 292 households was 2.7 times the national average and second highest among the states. The state reported 6,267 foreclosure filings during the month, an 18 percent increase from the previous month and a 16 percent increase from March 2006.

      California's foreclosure rate also leaped upward. The state reported 31,434 foreclosure filings in March, the most of any state and an increase of 36 percent from the previous month. The state's total was nearly triple the number reported a year ago and accounted for 21 percent of the nation's total.

      The surge in foreclosure activity pushed California's foreclosure rate to one foreclosure filing for every 389 households -- third highest among all the states and nearly twice the national average.

      Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the nation's 10 highest in March were Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

      The five states with the most foreclosure filings in March -- California, Florida, Texas, Michigan and Ohio -- together accounted for 50 percent of the nation's total. Foreclosure activity increased on a year-over-year basis in all five of these states, and all five documented foreclosure rates above the national average, but foreclosure activity was down from the previous month in Florida and Michigan.

      Six out of the 10 cities with the nation's highest metro foreclosure rates were located in California. A 137 percent spike in foreclosure activity boosted the foreclosure rate in Stockton, Calif., to one foreclosure filing for every 128 households -- the highest metro foreclosure rate in the nation and more than six times the national average.

      Other California cities with foreclosure rates in the top 10 included Vallejo-Fairfield at No. 3, Modesto at No. 5, Sacramento at No. 6, Riverside-San Bernardino at No. 7 and Bakersfield at No. 10.

      Las Vegas documented the nation's second highest metro foreclosure rate, one foreclosure filing for every 139 households more than five times the national average. The metro area reported 4,307 foreclosure filings during the month, a 33 percent increase from the previous month. Other metro areas with foreclosure rates among the nation's 10 highest included Greeley, Colo., Detroit and Denver.

      U.S. Foreclosure Rate Surges 47 Percent...

      China Blocks U.S. Inspectors Seeking Answers to Pet Poisonings

      Rice Protein Suspected in Latest Round of Recalls

      The Chinese government has blocked requests from the Food and Drug Administration to inspect the facilities suspected of producing contaminated products that triggered a massive pet food recall in the United States.

      Rice protein concentrate
      Source: Binzhou Futian Biology Technology, Ltd. Web site

      That action prompted U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on Wednesday to send a letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States urging his country to immediately issue visas to U.S. food inspectors.

      "It is unacceptable that the Chinese government is blocking our food safety inspectors from entering their country and examining facilities that are suspected of providing contaminated pet food to American consumers," Durbin said.

      "We have asked for two things in our letter today -- that the Chinese government allow our inspectors in and that the Chinese ambassador to the United States meet with Congresswoman DeLauro and me to discuss the larger issue of contaminated food being sent to the U.S. These are reasonable requests and we hope that we can find a level of cooperation with the Chinese."

      Durbin and DeLauro learned about China's refusal to grant the food inspectors visas during a meeting Wednesday with FDA Commission, Andrew von Eschenbach. The Capitol Hill meeting focused on the latest pet food recall -- announced by Natural Balance earlier this week after the company learned some of its products contained rice protein tainted with the chemical melamine.

      That chemical is used in plastics and fertilizers, but is not allowed in human or pet food, according to the FDA.

      U.S. importer Wilbur-Ellis said it bought the rice protein concentrate from a Chinese company called Binzhou Futian Biology Technology, Ltd. That company's Web site says it processes a number of agricultural product and byproducts, including granule corn gluten meal, powdery corn gluten meal, and 30,000 metric tons of rice protein concentrate.

      It also states its rice protein is "mainly used to feed the animals. The rice protein concentrate, which is the by-product of rice starch, is rich in nutrition. It plays an important part in helping animals grow and against illness. It is a good additive, so the animals can grow stronger and eat more."

      Durbin: Safety First

      Back on Capitol Hill, Durbin said the FDA has tried since April 4, 2007, to get its food inspectors into the Chinese facilities suspected of making the tainted products.

      "At a time when China is exporting more foods into the U.S., the Chinese are refusing to allow our inspectors in to the country to investigate the source of the pet food contamination," DeLauro said. "The FDA needs to be allowed to investigate this so we can better protect our pets and identify the source of the source of the problem. While we have a significant trade relationship with the Chinese, the investigation of the contaminated product comes first."

      The FDA says the Chinese company Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., is the source of the melamine-tainted wheat gluten.

      Menu Foods of Canada and other pet food makers have recalled 60 million containers of dog and cat food -- sold under nearly 100 brands -- that contain the tainted wheat gluten.

      At least 16 pets have died -- and scores of others have suffered kidney disease -- after eating the contaminated pet food, the FDA says. The actual numbers, however, are likely much higher; anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers may be in the thousands.

      Durbin and DeLauro said it is imperative that China allow U.S. food inspectors into the facilities suspected of making the melamine-tainted products.

      "This incident has brought suffering to pet owners who have seen their animals fall prey to illness or death, and caused significant economic losses to U.S. companies that believed they were importing wholesome products," they wrote in their letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States. "Last year, the United States imported more than $2.1 billion of agricultural goods from China, up from nearly $1.8 billion the year before. Clearly, this is an important trading relationship."

      Last week, Durbin and Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) held a special hearing on the pet food recall. The hearing pitted FDA representatives and pet food lobbyists against the bipartisan Appropriations Subcommittee.

      "Many cats, dogs and other pets, considered members of the family, are now suffering as a result of a deeply flawed pet food inspection system," Durbin said. "The FDA's response to this situation has been wholly inadequate -- we need to establish standardized inspections, impose penalties on companies who delay reporting health problems and increase communication between the FDA and the state inspectors so that we can catch problems more quickly. These sound like basic steps but the FDA has failed to put them in place."

      After the hearing, Durbin told that he is working on legislation to address this problem, but he did not specify the scope of his pending legislative action.

      A North Carolina pet owner has one suggestion. She wants pet food manufacturers to be required to disclose the following information:

      • The sources of their ingredients, including the country of origin;
      • The names of the contract manufacturers for these companies;
      • The names of the companies and countries they receive their products from.

      "China is one of the most polluted and corrupt places in the world and the thought of any food products coming from there makes me want to gag," pet owner Aleda R. of Durham, N.C. told "There is no accountability."

      This pet food debacle has struck a personal cord with Aleda.

      "My dog has been eating IAMS dry food," she says. "She is a Chinese Crested, a small dog, who had a physical in October, with no problems. Because of the (pet food) scare, I just had her blood work (done) over again, and she has now experienced some 'off the chart on one of her kidney enzymes.'"

      More about the Pet Food Recall ...

      China Blocks U.S. Inspectors Seeking Answers to Pet Poisonings...

      Melamine Blamed for More Pet Food Recalls

      Natural Balance Recalls Several Varieties, Menu Foods Expands Its Recall

      The chemical melamine is again being blamed for causing kidney failure in cats and dogs.

      Only this time, it's in the rice protein of Natural Balance's Venison and Brown Rice canned and bagged dog foods, Venison and Brown Rice dog treats, and Venison and Green Pea dry cat food.

      "Recent laboratory results show that the products contain melamine," Natural Balance said in a press release posted on its Web site. "We believe the source of the melamine is a rice protein concentrate ... Natural Balance has confirmed this morning that some production batches of these products may contain melamine."

      Melamine is a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, but it is not allowed in human or pet food, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

      The nearly 100 brands of pet food products recalled in the past month -- and blamed for kidney problems and deaths of scores of dogs and cats across the country -- contain melamine-tainted wheat gluten imported from China, the FDA says.

      Natural Balance products, however, do not contain wheat gluten.

      And that's why the company's recall caught pet owner and industry experts by surprise.

      "This recall blows my mind," says Canadian author Ann N. Martin, who researched the pet food industry for years and wrote the books "Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food," and "Protect Your Pets: More Shocking Facts."

      Ann Martin's Books

      "Prior to writing my last book (in 2003), Natural Balance was a company that was making its own food, using quality ingredients, and happy to answer any and all questions you had," Martin told today.

      "Now look what has happened. They grew and apparently the ingredients they are using are turning out to be the same as the inferior companies. I'm extremely upset, and needless to say, they will not be mentioned in the revisions to this book."

      Menu Foods Expands Recall

      Meanwhile, Menu Foods on Tuesday announced it's expanding its recall to include one additional product -- Natural Life Vegetarian pet food sold in 13.2 ounce cans. The recalled product has the date Nov/22/09 on the bottom of the cans and the UPC code 12344-07114.

      The Canadian-based company said it recalled this pet food because: "Over the past several days, Menu Foods continued a detailed analysis of production records at its Emporia, Kansas, plant as part of the US Food and Drug Administration's ongoing investigation of this adulterated wheat gluten."

      But how did adulterated, melamine-tainted, rice protein end up in Natural Balance's pet foods? This is a company known for using only human-grade ingredients in its products.

      Natural Balance's Publicist Daniel Bernstein said the company started using the rice protein concentrate a month ago.

      The company added the ingredient, he said, to increase the protein content of the food. It immediately discontinued using that ingredient after receiving calls about sick animals.

      Bernstein said tests results have confirmed melamine in two of the four recalled products -- Venison and Brown Rice Dry Dog Formula and Venison and Green Pea Dry Cat Formula.

      But the company recalled the other products -- Venison and Brown Rice Canned Dog Food and Venison & Brown Rice Formula Dog Treats -- because they also contain rice protein. "We have not found melamine in those products," Bernstein told today.

      Finding melamine in any of the company's products came as a complete shock to Natural Balance, Bernstein said.

      "For the past month, this has been about the wheat gluten in the pet foods," he said, referring to the nationwide recall of pet food announced in March. "This is brand new to everyone. No one saw this comingthis is shocking and upsetting."

      Bernstein confirmed reports that a San Francisco-based company -- Wilbur-Ellis -- imported the rice protein concentrate from China.

      That company then sold the ingredient to Diamond Pet Foods, which packs some of the Natural Balance products. Diamond Foods, however, told USA Today that it doesn't use rice protein in any of its foods.

      Wilbur-Ellis also sold the rice protein concentrate to four other pet food makers, according to USA Today. The company would not disclose the names of those manufacturers, but said the other major pet food maker that received the ingredient -- besides Diamond Pet Foods -- tested the product and did not find any melamine.

      Wilbur-Ellis also said it notified the FDA on Sunday that it had detected melamine in some rice protein concentrate imported from China about a week ago, according to USA Today.

      The company said it has stopped importing the ingredient from that Chinese firm, Binzhou Futian Biology Technology.

      When asked if Natural Balance will add rice protein to its pet foods in the future, Bernstein said: "It's not likely. But it if does, it's not going to use the same line of rice protein."

      He added: "It's not an essential ingredient because until a month, it wasn't in any of the products."

      Natural Balance's president told USA Today the company has received reports of about 10 sick pets -- mostly dogs -- since last Thursday.

      The company says some pets developed kidney failure after eating its food. That's the same problem many of the pets who've eating the melamine-tainted wheat gluten have experienced.

      "The first calls came in last Thursday and Friday," Bernstein said, adding they were from pet owners across the country. "By Friday, we had six calls and that's when we started testing (the food). And once we heard pets were getting sick, we contacted our distributors."

      Bernstein said there are no reports of deaths in dogs or cats linked to the company's recalled foods.

      Pet owners, he said, should immediately stop using the recalled foods. They should also have their pets seen by a veterinarian if they show any signs of kidney failure, including loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting.

      Bernstein said he did not know how many containers of pet food are included the recall, but added: "it's a relatively small number."

      The recalled foods are packaged in bags, cans, and zip lock treat bags, and sold in pet specialty stores nationwide.

      None of Natural Balance's other products contain rice protein, the company said. And none of its other products are involved in the recall. Natural Balance says it will continue to work closely with the FDA.

      Pet owners with questions about the recall can contact the company at 1-800-829-4493.

      In the meantime, author Ann Martin -- who used to recommend Natural Balance to pet owners -- doubts she'll ever buy the company's products again.

      "I cook for my guys most of the time," she says, adding she fed her dog Natural Balance when she boarded him at a kennel. "(But) I'm almost afraid to try any foods now, even the quality ones, as they seem to have followed the lead of many of the multi-nationals and gone to the co-packers."

      Cat owner Carolynne V. of Brick, N.J. echoes Martin's sentiments.

      She says one of her cats recently developed kidney stones after eating Natural Balance's Venison and Green Pea food.

      And she's angry the company didn't investigate its products after Menu Foods announced its recall in March.

      "Until now, the Venison and Green Pea formulas had been the answer to my prayers in terms of feeding my allergic cats," she says. "But now I realize that I had only been putting my cats' health in jeopardy by feeding them (this) product. Our pets are loving family members and I cannot believe (the company's) irresponsibility in making health claims about (its) product that obviously are not true.

      "This leads me to believe that despite all of (the company's) published claims, it is using inferior ingredients in its products and I have discontinued the use of all Natural Balance products."

      More about the Pet Food Recall ...

      Melamine Blamed for More Pet Food Recalls...

      Natural Balance Recalls Pet Food

      One of the Few Brands to Use "Human Grade" Ingredients

      Another pet food company has recalled some of its products after receiving complaints that dogs and cats are vomiting and experiencing kidney problems.

      Natural Balance Pet Foods announced on its Web site that it is pulling all dates of Venison & Brown Rice Dry Dog Food and Venison & Green pea Dry Cat Food from the market.

      "We do not know what it wrong with the food at this time," the California-based company states on its Web site, "but we have heard that animals are vomiting and experiencing kidney problems. Although the problems seem to be focused on one particular lot, as a precautionary measure, we are pulling all dates of Venison & Brown Rice Dry Dog Food and Venison & Green Pea Dry Cat Food from the shelves."

      The message adds: "We are working closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Please discontinue feeding all Venison and Brown Rice Dry Dog Food and Venison and Green Pea Dry Cat Food." The company said no other Natural Balance products are affected by the recall.

      The FDA said that there is "no indication at this time whether this is related to the ongoing pet food recalls."

      On the company's 800 number, a recorded message Monday night stated the only test results Natural Balance has received back are bacterial reports. And those tests did not reveal any abnormal findings.

      Natural Balance's Web site said the affected brands of pet food contain no grains like wheat, barley, corn, and oats. And wheat gluten is not listed as an ingredient for either brand of Natural Balance's recalled pet foods.

      The FDA says the nearly 100 brands of pet foods and treats involved in the nationwide recall -- announced on March 16, 2007, by Menu Foods of Canada -- were made with melamine-tainted wheat gluten imported from China. Melamine is a fertilizer and a chemical commonly used in plastics.

      Expert Calls It "Very Upsetting"

      Ann Martin's Books

      Canadian author Ann N. Martin, who researched the pet food industry for five years, called Natural Balance's recall "very upsetting."

      In earlier interviews with, Martin said Natural Balance is one of the few pet foods on the market made with "human grade" ingredients.

      "These are ingredients that have been inspected and passed for human consumption," says Martin, author of "Food Pets Die For ... Shocking Facts About Pet Food," and "Protect Your Pets ... More Shocking Facts." Martin says she feeds her dog Natural Balance Premium food when she boards him at the kennel.

      When contacted Martin late Monday night about Natural Balance's recall, she said: "I had heard about this yesterday morning and can't figure out what the heck is going on. If there is something wrong with this food, and it is one of the top foods on the market, I will just forget telling people what foods they should feed their pets. This is very upsetting. "

      Pet owners can call Natural Balance's toll-free number at 800-829-4493 or visit its Web site for more information.

      South Africa

      In related news, the pet food recall has now spread to South Africa.

      Royal Canin South Africa, which manufacturers Royal Canin premium dog and cat food -- and the cheaper brand Vets Choice -- announced that it was recalling the products because they'd caused kidney failure in dogs and cats, according to reports in The Namibian, an independent daily newspaper published in Windhoek, and

      Royal Canin South Africa advised veterinarians in South Africa and Namibia to stop selling Vets Choice until further notice.

      The paper said laboratory tests are being done to determine if the food is contaminated.

      Nineteen dogs in Cape Town and Johannesburg -- that ate Vets Choice food -- have been diagnosed with acute kidney failure, according to News 24, South Africa's premier news source.

      A statement sent to veterinary surgeons in South Africa said: "In the interests of patients and pending tests being conducted on Vets Choice products, Royal Canin South Africa has decided to suspend all sales of Vets Choice with immediate effect and vets are requested to advise clients to cease feeding Vets Choice products to their pets until further notice."

      The South African subsidiary of Hill's Pet Nutrition previously recalled a batch of its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry food in the wake of the massive recall in the United States. The prescribed cat food is only available from veterinarians.

      The South African Veterinary Association called Hills' recall "a precautionary measure" and said it hadn't appeared to affect cats in South Africa, The Namibian reported.

      Dr Guy Fyvie, spokesperson for Hill's in South Africa, told News 24, the potentially affected products had never been released from the warehouse to South African veterinarians and all food sold in that country is safe.

      This isn't the first time South African pet owners have worried about the food they're feeding their dogs and cats.

      Earlier this year, approximately 35 dogs in that country died after eating toxic pet food. In that case, the pets died from ethylene glycol-contaminated food -- manufactured by Aquanutro -- and sold at Woolworths in South Africa.

      Finger-Pointing Begins

      The United States company that imported the tainted wheat gluten -- ChemNutra of Las Vegas, Nevada -- says it was victimized by its Chinese supplier, XuZhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd.

      In a letter posted on the company's Web site, CEO Steve Miller also said he is "appalled" that Menu Foods took so long to recall the contaminated pet food.

      "The possibility that any animal fell ill or died because of an ingredient we may have supplied to Menu Foods saddens us and also angers us because it means that ChemNutra has been victimized as well, by our own supplier," Miller wrote, adding his company will no longer do business with XuZhou Anying.

      "We are concerned that we may have been the victim of deliberate and mercenary contamination for the purpose of making the wheat gluten we purchased appear to have a higher protein content than it did, because melamine causes a false high result on protein tests," Miller said.

      Miller was referring to allegations that the melamine could have intentionally been added to the wheat gluten -- a theory raised earlier this month by the director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

      "Somebody may have added melamine to the wheat gluten in order to increase what appears to be the protein level," the FDA's Stephen Sundlof said. "Wheat gluten is a high-protein substance and by trying to artificially inflate the protein level, it could command a higher price. But that's just one theory at this point."

      Miller said his company had never heard of melamine before this recall.

      "We had no idea that melamine was an issue until being notified by the FDA on March 29," he wrote on the company's Web site. "It's simply not a chemical even on the radar screen for food ingredient suppliers."

      Miller also said his company is "distressed" with Menu Foods' handling of the pet food recall.

      "We are appalled and distressed that Menu Foods took so long to recall its products, although it clearly suspected there was a problem for weeks prior to the first recall," he wrote. "And it wasn't until eight days before they issued their first recall that Menu Foods told us that wheat gluten was one of many ingredients it was investigating."

      Questions Raised about ChemNutra

      Questions, however, have surfaced in recent weeks about ChemNutra and its ties to China. The Canadian investigative newspaper, Canada Free Press, describes the company's Chinese headquarters as a "rundown warehouse in rural China."

      That warehouse, the paper adds, is located within 50 miles of XuZhou Anying, the company blamed for supplying the tainted wheat gluten.

      The Las Vegas Review Journal says ChemNutra's Las Vegas office -- at Durango and Charleston Streets -- is "very small ... without even a sign on the door."

      ChemNutra touts its ties to China, stating it "imports high-quality nutritional and pharmaceutical chemicals from China to the US. We purchase our inventory from quality-assured manufacturers in China; most of whom we have strong relationships over the past twelve years."

      The company's president, Sally Miller, also has strong ties to China.

      ChemNutra's Web site states she has "more than 12 years experience in China as QA Manager and Purchasing Manager ... and was responsible for purchasing large quantities of nutritional and food ingredients in China for export worldwide."

      The Web site also states Sally Miller has an MBA -- and an Engineering degree -- in Food Engineering, but doesn't state where she earned those degrees. Canada Free Press learned she "earned an MBA from City University in Seattle, as well as (an) Engineering degree in Food Chemical Engineering at Hanzhou Institute of Commerce in Hanzhou, China."

      More about the Pet Food Recall ...

      Natural Balance Recalls Pet Food...

      Cosmetics: A Fresh Face or Just a Waste?

      Americans Spend Billions on Unproven Creams, Gels, Ointments

      Like many other men in their early thirties, I had always hoped there would be this golden period in my life between the last of my lingering adolescent acne and the greying of my hair. Then again, I planned to be a millionaire before the age of 30 and that didn't happen either.

      So I found myself in the drugstore the other day, staring bleakly at shelf after shelf of cosmetic products, all promising to cure the recent flare-up of my skin on the basis of natural ingredients like aloe vera, cucumber, even salmon eggs -- although presumably without the fishy flavor.

      The cleansers and toners that didn't feature chunky images of fresh fruit on the packaging were instead covered with drawings of complex amino acid chains and even the odd reputable-looking scientist in a white coat. Between the pictures of sliced avocadoes and the pseudo-science they had me sold and I came away with a bottle of each in my hands, hoping rather foolishly that I could buy what I wanted -- to look good.

      Americans spend billions on cosmetics each year. With the most modern role models coming through the TV set, everyone wants pearly white teeth, unblemished skin and the rich, flowing hair that all their favorite celebrities seem to have.

      Worse, in a society where products are frequently sold through fear, the underlying message is that with the odd freckle, blackhead or pimple, you stand no chance of getting a date, an interview or just some welcome attention from the opposite sex when walking down the street.

      Cosmetics companies understand this intimately. Like any major corporation, they hire teams of psychologists, researchers and PR consultants to identify the major causes of concern for their target public and all their advertising, packaging and product launches are centered around their recommendations.

      You can bet that if eyebrows went out of fashion, L'Oreal and co would be the first to sell lotions to prevent the growth of hair above your eyes.

      When I got home I eagerly applied the avocado cleanser and, while I impatiently waited the 20 minutes until the instructions allowed me to wash it off, I checked out the ingredients, wondering how they'd ever got avocado to be so soft and smelling so fresh. I was a little disconcerted to find that while there was indeed pulp of avocado contained within, it came only at the end of a long list of chemicals that I could barely pronounce, never mind identify.

      Go ahead, check the ingredients in just about any cosmetic you have in the bathroom and if you can explain what they all are I'll send you a free avocado.

      Which left me with the moisturizer containing the latest in amino acids. I belatedly realised that I'd been impressed by an ad on TV which featured an impressive computer simulation of the amino acids in question spinning around and melting into skin cells. With a hot date that night and blackheads on my nose, I was ready to believe anything.

      Spin Cream

      Cosmetics companies are really smart. They pay large sums to laboratories to come up with actual hard data about the behavior of things like broken-down proteins that can be put into neat little computer animations. Then they pay marketing spin doctors to find a way of implying that these latest biological innovations are actually going to make the slightest difference to your skin or your hair.

      And there's the rub -- and also why you'll never be able to sue them for misleading you in your purchase -- they keep the scientific mumbo jumbo to one side and the claims about the effects of the cosmetic quite separate.

      They'll say something like "such and such a vitamin is important for cell formation" which may be perfectly true but there's no evidence that smearing the vitamin on your face will help in the slightest.

      Their claims that the cream will hydrate your skin are true but just about any cream will do so. Only the the computer graphics show the vitamins entering the skin and enhancing the glow and sex appeal of the exceptionally beautiful model in question.

      Or take shampoos and conditioners. Companies like Garnier and L'Oreal are forever touting the use of specially catered proteins to give new life and verve to your hair, you know, to get the movie star look.

      There's just one problem -- now brace yourself -- your hair is dead. Really. And no amount of amino acids is going to change that. What the conditioner can do is make your hair look great -- for a while -- but that has nothing to do with all the science of hair growth. It comes down to the right balance of oils, chemicals and water in the product.

      But if the science is spurious or the advertisements misleading, how could the products ever be sold in a country like the US? Surely the government has safeguards in place to protect the consumer and test the claims of such products?

      Not a hope.

      For while the FDA does call for drug companies to produce documented studies that prove efficacy, cosmetic products are allowed onto the U.S. market without any efficacy tests being conducted and cannot even be recalled in the event that they prove hazardous to the consumer. The FDA believes that "cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients" and leaves it up to the consumer to decide if they work or not.

      It's an open question whether there are any health risks from using the kind of cosmetics found in most American bathrooms. Certainly many of the ingredients could be fairly toxic but the skin just isn't that absorbent -- we'd leak if it was.

      However, as we enter a futuristic technological era, some cosmetics now include nano-particles which can penetrate the skin and perhaps cause ailments ranging from breast cancer to genital deformities or damage to our children. Such charges haven't been proven but experience shows that it makes sense to take precautions sooner rather than later.

      Why wait a decade or so until people start getting sick from the latest skin rub?

      Safety First

      One such group is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has been pressuring companies for some time now to sign a convention based on safety measures introduced in Europe. Interestingly enough, while many smaller companies have signed, the giants like L'Oreal, Revlon, Gap and Proctor & Gamble have refused to join up.

      And why does the FDA not bother to regulate the safety of cosmetics in America? It's because they consider cosmetics to be "topical products that do not affect the structure or function of the skin."

      They don't do anything, in other words.

      Got that? All those expensive bottles that promise to give you the skin of a TV star are really nothing more than make-up and moisturizer. Your skin looks good or bad depending on the overall state of your health, not on how many layers of amino acids you splash on top. The best thing you can do for overall skin health is to drink lots of water, avoid fried and processed foods and get plenty of exercise.

      But as the best things in life can't be sold, you'll rarely hear the above and instead get lost in the vast array of cosmetic supplies that hypnotized me into making a purchase the other day. Dermatologists are beginning to tire of the claims of the cosmetics companies though and there's a call for a return to the basics of skin care. One prominent advocate is a Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, a New York dematologist, who summed it up:

      "Just two products, a gentle cleanser and a good sunscreen, are enough daily skin care for most people, and you can buy those at a drugstore or a grocery store."

      Yogurt Rub

      I spent last winter in India and I was struck at how many of the cosmetics available were typically outside the budget of many Indian families yet they all seemed to have glowing complexions. One day my landlady decided I was respectable enough to be invited for lunch and, towards the end of the meal, her teenage daughter began to apply some yogurt to her skin.

      After they had a good laugh at the look on my face, it was explained to me that, according to the principles of Ayurveda -- India's traditional holistic medicine -- most cosmetics for skin care can be found within the kitchen for next to no expense.

      They went on to show me how honey could be used as a moisturizer, slices of uncooked potato could tighten the skin and even papaya pulp or beaten eggs could be used as face masks. All without costing them any more than the leftover groceries.

      And these ancient traditions had not only the advantage of being cheap, they were also free of the kind of heinous karma that the cosmetics companies have built up over the years by testing on animals. For decades, the standard method for determining the irritation factor of new products has been to release drops of the cosmetic into the eyes of rabbits or guinea pigs and observe the toxic reaction.

      Amid recent animal rights campaigns and surveys that show a majority of Americans and Britons oppose animal testing, the cosmetics companies have done all they can to cast a smokescreen: they played with the stats to look innocent, they donated money to universities to further studies into alternative testing methods and hired the best PR teams that money can buy.

      Yet animal testing still goes on in a big way, despite all the media spin employed by the cosmetics giants. Naturally, these kinds of experiments have usually been outsourced to other companies to avoid any immediate moral fallout and bad publicity. Which is just as well as half the animals used in the testing die a few weeks afterwards.

      So think about that the next time you reach for your sunscreen. If the bottle doesn't proudly announce that it's free of animal testing then you can bet that many helpless creatures had to die in order for you to shrink those wrinkles.

      Ultimately, just about everyone wants to look good. Cosmetics wouldn't be a multi-billion dollar industry if they didn't. But products and industries should exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. We don't need teams of scientists, PR marketing whizzes, legal teams and graphic designers to put together products to make us look beautiful, much less healthy. As Dr. William P. Coleman, M.D., a dermatology professor from Tulane University in New Orleans tells us:

      "You have to think of cosmetics as decorative and hygienic, not as things that are going to change your skin. A $200 cream may have better perfume or packaging, but as far as it moisturizing your skin better than a $10 cream, it probably won't."

      The cosmetics industry would have us believe that enduring myth, that beauty is only skin-deep. We then take the next step of swallowing the notion that if we were only to spend enough money on our appearances then we'd look beautiful. The truth is, no amount of $200 wonder creams is going to do that for us.

      A good make-up artist can do wonders for the camera but at the end of the day it's only a mask.

      You can use some oats to cleanse your face, some yogurt to moisturise it. Failing that, you can buy pre-packaged alternatives at your local drug store. But don't let the jargon and sales pitches make you part with the better part of your wages to shrink those wrinkles. Your skin is fairly elastic but it gradually shapes itself into the expression it most commonly wears. Try smiling a little more often and as you get older your face will have its own characteristic charm.

      Beauty really does come from within.


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

      The cleansers and toners that didn't feature chunky images of fresh fruit on the packaging were instead covered with drawings of complex amino acid chains....