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    Feds Propose New Safety Rules for Motorcycle Helmets

    DOT requires labels for certified helmets, certification for novelty helmets

    Newly proposed rules will improve motorcycle safety by making it easier for riders to identify and use effective helmets, instead of unsafe "novelty helmets, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

    The proposal also will make it harder for riders to use novelty helmets in states that require DOT-certified helmets, she said.

    "Novelty helmets do little to protect riders during an accident," said Peters. "This proposal will make it easier for riders to know in advance whether the helmet they buy will keep them safe."

    The proposal would amend the agency's current motorcycle helmet safety rules to require manufacturers to place a larger, tamper-proof DOT label on the back of certified helmets. The new labels will make it harder for vendors to remove the labels on safe helmets and affix them to the unsafe novelty helmets.

    The proposed rule also would strengthen the tests helmets must go through to receive DOT certification, including updated tests on how the helmets hold up during impact, whether objects can penetrate the helmet and how well the helmet stays in place during a crash.

    Recent tests of novelty helmets that are not DOT certified showed they fail to meet current DOT performance tests.

    "As our testing has shown, these 'novelty' helmets do not have the energy absorbing capacity to protect a rider in a highway crash," said David Kelly, Acting NHTSA Administrator. "A DOT-certified and labeled helmet, as proposed today, will help consumers make more knowledgeable decisions when purchasing a helmet."

    The proposed rule will help mitigate the yearly increases in motorcycle fatalities and injuries that have plagued the nation for nearly a decade, Peters said. Fatalities have more than doubled since 1997--increasing by 144 percent. Yet new data indicate that nearly one in five motorcycle riders in states with helmet laws wear a non-compliant helmet.

    In 2006, helmets saved an estimated 1,658 lives. If everyone worn a helmet, an additional 752 lives would have been saved, Peters said. During the same year, 4,837 motorcyclists were killed; of those, more than 40 percent weren't wearing helmets.

    Feds Propose New Safety Rules for Motorcycle Helmets...
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    Green Consumers Don't Always Practice What They Preach

    Some eco-conscious buyers prefer fads over real changes

    Marketers have discovered the advantages of positioning their products as "green," and a new study released by Information Resources, Inc. does in fact show distinct variations in buying behaviors even among those consumers who claim to be concerned with the environment.

    But the analysis of numerous "green" product purchases across a variety of categories revealed significant disparity in how well environmentally conscious consumers actually follow their convictions by purchasing environmentally friendly products, the researchers said.

    By analyzing survey responses, TNS segmented consumers into eight distinct attitudinal segments based upon environmental concerns. By applying the TNS Shades of Green segmentation to its U.S. Consumer Network purchase panel, IRI was able to link the attitudes that individuals have toward the environment with their actual CPG shopping and purchasing behavior to determine whether "concerned" individuals actually follow through by purchasing environmentally sound products.

    "This analysis proves not only the efficacy of the Shades of Green segments in defining consumers to target, but also the undeniable importance of green positioning to manufacturers and retailers," said IRI President of Consumer and Shopper Insights Robert I. Tomei. "Eighty-two percent of the population claims to make going green a priority, but as this data proves, the behaviors of those consumers vary drastically. While certain green conscious consumers do make a concerted effort to buy green products, there are certain segments of the population that are environmentally sensitive but that does not necessarily translate into their actual behavior. This inconsistency is the real challenge for marketers and retailers in order for them to fully understand the nuances of green consumers and how to market to them effectively."

    The analysis reveals that despite containing individuals who claim eco-friendly beliefs, two key environmental attitudinal consumer segments -- the "Eco-Centrics" and the "Eco-Chic" -- show extremely different behavioral patterns related to green product purchases.

    While Eco-Centric consumers have shown a willingness to change their buying behavior and a commitment to use of environmentally-friendly products, the Eco-Chic segment, comprised of younger, more trend-influenced consumers, appears more interested in riding the wave of environmental consciousness by claiming to embrace environmental concerns, but not following through with their dollars.

    Eco-Chic consumers did show a willingness to try some green products at a comparable rate to the Eco-Centrics, but unlike the Eco-Centrics, the Eco-Chic consumers ultimately returned to their favorite non-green brands.

    For example, the Eco-Chic group was quick to purchase products from a recently launched eco-friendly household cleaning line, but their repeat rates for the same products were well below the general population average.

    In addition, when asked to choose between taste and perceived quality versus environmental friendliness, they ultimately chose the former as seen by lower than average purchasing of eco-friendly food and beauty items in categories, such as cereal, milk, oral care, and skin care.

    In contrast, the Eco-Centric segment, comprised of high-income, educated urbanites actively doing their part to protect and improve the environment, truly appears to follow through on their environmental beliefs with purchases of eco-friendly products. In 15 of 16 eco-friendly product groups analyzed, the Eco-Centrics tried products at a rate above the general population.

    Their willingness to try eco-friendly products spans from their food and beverage purchases, including cereal, yogurt, and milk, to their personal care and cleaning product purchases, including oral care, skin care, and laundry detergent. Perhaps more importantly, they continued to purchase these eco-friendly products -- with especially high repeat indices for light bulbs and dish detergent -- illustrating their long-term environmental commitment.

    In terms of retail shopping, the Eco-Centrics were more likely than average to shop in Trader Joe's and the club store outlet, the latter possibly an attempt to save gas by combining needs into a larger stock-up trip. They also shop pet specialty outlets, extending their eco-consciousness to their pets though purchases of eco-friendly pet food and pet care items, such as dog and cat food.

    Eco-Centric and Eco-Chic consumers also differ outside of product purchasing, with a significant disparity in these Shades of Green segments' health attitudes revealed by their responses to the IRI MedProfiler Health and Wellness Survey.

    Unlike the Eco-Chic segment, the Eco-Centrics read nutrition labels, are concerned with ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup and trans-fatty acids, and avoid refined and processed foods. They practice healthy habits, such as eating organic foods, whole grains, omega-3 and antioxidant rich foods, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. This segment is also more likely to be on a vegetarian, gluten-free, high- fiber, low fat, low salt, or low-sugar diet.

    On the other hand, Eco-Chic consumers are much less concerned about their health across the board. Although they are less likely to practice any kind of diet, read nutritional labels, or engage in healthy habits, they generally feel they are doing enough to stay healthy. They also indulge in fast food more than the general population.

    Green Consumers Don't Always Practice What They Preach...
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    Hershey's Says Chocolates Are Safe from Chinese Melamine Scandal

    Candy-maker says U.S.-made products are untainted



    The Hershey Company, which manufactures and sells Cadbury chocolates in the United States, said it does not buy powered milk or other milk ingredients from China.

    "All Hershey products use the highest-quality ingredients and are completely safe," the candy giant said in a written statement. "This includes Cadbury products manufactured and distributed in the United States by The Hershey Company."

    The announcement follows Monday's recall of 11-types of Cadbury chocolates made in China. The British-based candy company took that action after the products tested positive for melamine.

    "The products that are affected by this withdrawal include a range of Cadbury chocolate products and Choclairs, all produced in our Beijing plant," Cadbury said in a statement obtained by CNN.

    The company said the products were exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, the Pacific island of Nauru and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

    Monday's recall is the latest action in China's every growing melamine-tainted milk scandal, which is blamed for the recent deaths of four infants in that country and the illnesses of 53,000 other children. Authorities say some Chinese dairy plants may have added melamine to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

    Earlier this month, Chinese officials discovered melamine in powdered infant formula made in that country. It has since been found in dozens of other products.

    Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers. It is blamed for the illnesses and deaths of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States last year. Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

    Consumers and animals around the world have felt the ripple effects from China's melamine-tainted milk scandal, and the problems continue to spread.

    The Taiwanese company that makes Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea has recalled seven of its products because of possible melamine contamination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now warning consumers not to drink those products.

    Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority has recalled Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candies after the products tested positive for melamine. It also said other Chinese-made food had tested positive for melamine, including Dutch Lady-brand banana and honeydew flavored milk, Silang-brand potato crackers, and two kinds of puffed rice balls.

    The FDA is now inspecting White Rabbit candy at ports of entry. No melamine-tainted goods from China have turned up, FDA officials said.

    The New Zealand Food Safety Authority found high levels of melamine in Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candies.

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning consumers not to eat, distribute, or sell White Rabbit candy because of possible melamine contamination;

    Two gorillas in China that drank the melamine-tainted milk powder have signs of kidney stones. Doctors at Hangzhou Wildlife World say the gorillas--ages one and three--have been diagnosed with crystallization in their urine. "The crystallization now is very small, but it will grow bigger and then block the urine," Zhang Xu, a doctor from the animal hospital where the two gorillas were being treated, was quoted as saying. "No visible stones have been found so far."

    The FDA said it is not aware of any illnesses in the United States linked to the Chinese-made milk products.

    It also assured consumers the infant formula in the United States is safe. U.S. companies that make infant formula are not importing formula or sourcing milk-based materials from China, the agency said.

    FDA officials, however, warn that some Chinese-made infant formula could be on store shelves in Asian markets across the country. FDA investigators have inspected more than 1,400 of those stores, but have not found any suspect formula.

    The FDA said it will continue to take proactive measures to ensure the safety of America's food supply. The agency is now testing a variety of products that could contain milk-derived ingredients from China. Those products include candies, desserts, and beverages.

    Chinese officials are also cracking down on this problem.

    Police in that country have arrested 40 people in connection with this scandal. On Monday, police napped 22 people in northern China's Hebei province, according to CNN. Nineteen of those people were managers of pastures, breeding farms and milk-purchasing stations, the Xinhua news agency reported.

    Chinese police also raided 41 locations in Hebei and seized 490 pounds of melamine.

    Meanwhile, Cadbury has recalled the following products because of possible melamine contamination:

    • Cadbury Dark Chocette, 45 grams;

    • Cadbury Dark Chocette, 80 grams;

    • Cadbury Eclairs, 180 grams;

    • Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Pumpkin, 150 grams;

    • Cadbury Dark Chocolate, 40 grams;

    • Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bulk Pack, 5 kilograms;

    • Cadbury Dark Chocolate Bulk Pack, 5 kilograms;

    • Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut Chocolate Bulk Pack, 5 kilograms;

    • Cadbury Dairy Milk Cookies Chocolate Bulk Pack, 5 kilograms;

    • Cadbury Hazelnut Praline Chocolate (2008 Chinese New Year), 312 grams;

    • Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate (2008 Chinese New Year), 300 grams.

    The company said it is now implementing new food safety and quality checks at its Beijing plant.

    In related news, these are the Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea products recalled last week:

    • Mr. Brown Mandheling Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown Arabica Instant Coffee (3-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown Caramel Macchiato Instant Coffee (3-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown French Vanilla Instant Coffee (3-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown Mandhling Blend instant Coffee (2-in-1);

    • Mr. Brown Milk Tea (3-in-1)

    Hershey's Says Chocolates Are Safe from Chinese Melamine Scandal...
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      Voter Anger Rattles Congress; Bailout Fails

      Stock market plunges on news, world reaction may be swift

      The stock market plunged as the House of Representatives rejected 228-205 the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan hammered out over the weekend. The vote was a stunning defeat for the White House and Congressional leaders, but many saw it as a victory for taxpayers who have been increasingly outspoken about the bailout.

      Talk shows and Internet forums have been swamped with angry voters threatening to vote against anyone and everyone associated with the bailout.

      As Troy of Lancaster, Pa., put it in a posting to ConsumerAffairs.com: "I'm voting ANTI-INCUMBENT on my ballot. We did this a few years ago in the State of Pennsylvania, and fired nearly half the bums in the legislature. We need to do the same at the U.S. level."

      With an election just weeks away, it was hard to find anyone on Capitol Hill who was eager to vote for the measure as taxpayer outrage grew. "The American people rejected this bailout and now Congress did likewise," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

      Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling was one of the leading opponents of the measure, claiming it would have put the U.S. on the "slippery slope to socialism."

      President Bush was disappointed, his spokesman said.

      "There's no question that the country is facing a difficult crisis that needs to be addressed," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. He said the president planned a meeting for later today "to determine next steps."

      Wall Street analysts had insisted the action was necessary to keep U.S. credit markets from seizing up and global financial markets from collapsing, perhaps as early as Monday morning.

      Wall Street took the news hard. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted more than 750 points to close below 10400, the biggest one-day loss ever. Oil futures dropped on fears of slowing demand. Gold prices climbed.

      What now?

      The next question is, "what now?" It the situation is as dire as analysts have described it, what can consumers expect?

      That, of course, is the great unknown, but as banks decline to extend credit, even to good customers, businesses large and small will feel the squeeze. Particularly, businesses that rely on credit.

      A hardware store, for example, which borrows to pay for its inventory until it can sell it, may find that it can longer get the money to restock its shelves. It may have to layoff employees, or in a worst case, close its doors.

      Already, the nation's largest Chevrolet dealership has shut down this month, saying it could not get the money it needed to continue operating.

      People trying to sell their home may find a bad market will become a nearly impossible market.

      Elements

      The plan contains many of the elements originally proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Congress added provisions to make it politically palatable, since the plan drew strong opposition from the public.

      Among the provisions, the plan would have established a government entity to purchase mortgage-backed securities from banks, who for months have not been able to find anyone to buy them. That's because, with so many foreclosures, it's difficult to know how much value the securities have.

      Under the plan, the government would have offered to buy the assets at a low price. While the banks would lose money on the deal, they would at least have liquidity with which to make loans, and hopefully become profitable again.

      Voter Anger Rattles Congress; Bailout Fails...
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      Nemet Chevrolet Plans Appeal in Consumer Site Suit

      NYC auto dealer claims judge wrongfully dismissed its defamation complaint

      New York City auto dealer Nemet Chevrolet Ltd. has filed notice that it will appeal a federal judge's dismissal of a defamation lawsuit against ConsumerAffairs.com Inc. The appeal would be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

      Nemet, which operates Nemet Chevrolet in Jamaica, Queens, and other dealerships in the New York area, argues that statements published on the ConsumerAffairs.com Website are defamatory and claims that at least some of the 49 complaints were created by the consumer site rather than by disgruntled customers.

      In its notice of appeal, Nemet contends that U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia erred by dismissing Nemet's lawsuit and a subsequent amended complaint filed by Nemet earlier this year.

      In its notice of appeal, Nemet also argues that the ConsumerAffairs.com site:

      • Greets visitors with a prominent red "complaint button" without providing a corresponding "compliment button;"

      • Entices visitors to post defamatory statements with the possibility of financial reward as a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit;

      • Provides visitors with "instructions written by a class-action attorney on how to draft a complaint to better support a class-action lawsuit;" and

      • Contacts authors of complaints to help them better frame the statements.

      ConsumerAffairs.com argued that it has immunity from defamation and tortious interference under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

      Nemet is seeking injunctive relief and $500,000 in damages and $1,500,000 in punitive damages.

      It's not the first time Nemet has sued the consumer site. In July 2006, the company filed suit in New York Eastern District Court in Brooklyn. That case was dismissed Oct. 11, 2006 by Judge Brian M. Cogan.

      Nemet Chevrolet Plans Appeal in Consumer Site Suit...
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      WaMu Seized, JPMorgan Chase Buys the Remains

      Deal creates the largest U.S. bank; business as usual today

      Washington Mutual is no more. The Seattle-based thrift was seized by federal regulators last night and its branch network sold to JPMorgan Chase & Co. for $1.9 billion.

      It was the largest bank failure to date, and the acquisition makes Chase the largest U.S. bank by deposits.

      Its mortgage troubles aside, WaMu had experienced an old-fashioned run on the bank over the last few days, as customers withdrew $16.7 billion from accounts since Sept. 16. Regulators said that left the bank unsound and it was seized after closing time yesterday.

      All of WaMu's branches will open today and depositors will have full access to all their accounts, Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said.

      The sale is very good news for the U.S. taxpayer, since FDIC will not be required to make good on deposits. For depositors, its like the bank never went out of business.

      "For all depositors and other customers of Washington Mutual Bank, this is simply a combination of two banks," said FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair. "For bank customers, it will be a seamless transition. There will be no interruption in services and bank customers should expect business as usual come Friday morning."

      WaMu had about 2,300 branches and $182 billion of customer deposits at the end of June. During the past three quarters, it lost $6.3 billion. JPMorgan Chase plans to have 5,400 offices and $900 billion in deposits after it opens or acquires additional branches in California, Washington, Florida and elsewhere, the company said.

      Its credit rating was slashed to junk and its stock price collapsed over the last few weeks, as it tried to deal with $19 billion of losses on mortgage loans. As in most bank seizures, depositors are protected but shareholders are big losers. WaMu's stock was down 95 percent for most of the year and dropped to 45 cents late yesterday.

      WaMu's $310 billion of assets dwarf those of Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, previously the largest failed bank, which had $40 billion when it was taken over in 1984.

      WaMu Seized, JPMorgan Chase Buys the Remains...
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      Ski-Doo Snowmobiles Recalled - Cracked Joints

      September 26, 2008
      BRP US Inc. is recalling about 18,000 Ski-Doo snowmobiles. Cracks can develop in the welded joints of the drive axle assembly of the snowmobile and can result in complete breakage. If this happens the track of the vehicle can unexpectedly lock, causing riders to be ejected off the vehicle or lose control and collide with bystanders, a fixed object or other vehicles. This poses a risk of serious injury or death.

      BRP has received 20 reports of locked tracks, including one report of a broken femur and reports of minor injuries such as bruises.

      This recall involves Ski-Doo Model Year 2008 and 2009 snowmobiles. Models included in the recall are listed below. Model numbers are printed on the side panels of the snowmobiles.

      Ski-Doo Model Year 2008

      MXZ X 800R PowerTEKMXZ X 600HO SDI
      MXZ Adrenaline 800R PowerTEKMXZ Adrenaline 600HO SDI
      MXZ TNT 500SSMXZ Trails 500SS
      GSX Limited Touring 600HO SDIGSX Limited 800R PowerTEK
      GSX Limited 600HO SDIGSX Sport 500SS
      MXZ Renegade X 800R PowerTEKMXZ Renegade X 600HO SDI
      MXZ Renegade 800R PowerTEKMXZ Renegade 600HO SDI
      Summit X 800R Power TEKSummit Everest 800R PowerTEK
      MXZ X 600RS




      Ski-Doo Model Year 2009

      MXZ TNT 600HO E-TEC

      The recalled snowmobiles were made in Canada and sold by Ski-Doo dealers nationwide from June 2007 through September 2008 for between $7,000 and $12,500.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the vehicles and contact their local Ski-Doo dealer to schedule an appointment for a free repair. Consumers with recalled snowmobiles are being sent direct notice from BRP.

      For additional information, contact BRP toll-free at (888) 638-5397 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.ski-doo.com

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

      Ski-Doo Snowmobiles Recalled - Cracked Joints ...
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      Melamine Scare Spreads to Mr. Brown Coffee

      Chemical blamed for deaths of infants, pets found in instant coffee, tea milk products

      China's melamine-tainted milk scandal — blamed for at least four deaths — has now spread to instant coffee and milk tea products.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today warned consumers not to drink the Taiwanese-made Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea products because of possible melamine contamination.

      Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizer. It is blamed for the illnesses and deaths of thousands of pets in the United States last year. Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

      The Taiwanese company that makes the instant coffee and milk tea — King Car Food Industrial Co. Ltd — has recalled the following products:

      • Mr. Brown Mandheling Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown Arabica Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown Caramel Macchiato Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown French Vanilla Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown Mandhling Blend instant Coffee (2-in-1)
      • Mr. Brown Milk Tea (3-in-1)

      The FDA asked retailers and food service operators to remove the products from sale or service.

      FDA officials continue testing milk-based products imported from China and have not found any melamine contamination.

      Other countries, however, have found melamine in food products from that country.

      The New Zealand Food Safety Authority said it found high levels of that chemical in the Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candies.

      And the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is now warning consumers not to eat, distribute, or sell that brand of candy because of possible melamine contamination.

      Earlier this week, Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority recalled those candies after the products tested positive for melamine. It also said other Chinese-made food had tested positive for melamine, including Dutch Lady-brand banana and honeydew flavored milk, Silang-brand potato crackers, and two kinds of puffed rice balls.

      The FDA has added White Rabbit candy to its list of products being inspected at ports of entry.But no melamine-tainted goods from China have turned up.

      Gorillas

      In related news this week, two gorillas in China that drank melamine-tainted milk powder now have signs of kidney stones. Doctors at Hangzhou Wildlife World say the gorillas—ages one and three—have been diagnosed with crystallization in their urine.

      "The crystallization now is very small, but it will grow bigger and then block the urine," Zhang Xu, a doctor from the animal hospital where the two gorillas were being treated, was quoted as saying.

      "No visible stones have been found so far," he added.

      Meanwhile, the FDA said it is not aware of any illnesses in the United States linked to White Rabbit Creamy Candy or the Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea products.

      The melamine-tainted milk scandal surfaced earlier this month when Chinese officials said infant formula made in that country — by a company called Sanlu Group — was contaminated with melamine.

      That tainted formula is now blamed for the deaths of four babies in China and the illnesses in 53,000 others in that country.

      But FDA officials say the infant formula in the United States is safe. U.S. companies that make infant formula are not importing formula or sourcing milk-based materials from China, the agency said.

      FDA officials, however, warn that some Chinese-made infant formula could be on store shelves in Asian markets across the country. FDA investigators have inspected more than 1,400 of those stores and have not found any suspect formula.

      The FDA said it will continue to take proactive measures to ensure the safety of America's food supply. It is now working with state and local officials, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other federal agencies, and foreign governments, in those efforts.

      Meanwhile, FDA officials continue testing a wide variety of products that could contain milk-derived ingredients from China. Those products include candies, desserts, and beverages.

      Melamine Scare Spreads to Mr. Brown Coffee...
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      California Sues Baby Furniture Manufacturers

      Dangerous levels of formaldehyde in cribs, changing tables, state charges

      California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has sued five baby furniture manufacturers for failing to warn consumers about the dangerous levels of formaldehyde gas emitted by their products, including cribs and changing tables.

      Were suing these companies because parents deserve to know if theres a dangerous chemical in products for children, Brown said. Over the past two years, weve brought other actions to ensure the safety of childrens products, such as lead in toys and phthalates in baby bibs.

      "Increasingly, the wood and other materials in consumer products are produced globally, and the lack of tough safeguards and strict enforcement can lead to dangerous levels of exposure, Brown added.

      Passed by voters in 1986, Proposition 65 requires manufacturers to provide clear and reasonable warnings of chemicals in their products that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

      The states lawsuit alleges that Child Craft, Delta Enterprise Corp., Stork Craft, South Shore Industries and Jardine Enterprises manufactured baby furniture, such as cribs and changing tables, that emit formaldehyde — a chemical known to cause cancer — and failed to provide any warning about this risk.

      In addition to being a carcinogen, formaldehyde has been shown to contribute to respiratory problems like asthma. The levels of formaldehyde gas emitted from the baby furniture, when combined with other potential sources of formaldehyde in the home, are high enough to cause respiratory irritation to children sleeping in the cribs.

      Prop 65 standards

      The Environmental California Research and Policy Center, an organization that evaluates products for carcinogens, tested the companies baby furniture. Based on that testing and on his own test results, the Attorney General calculated that the furniture exposes children to formaldehyde gas at levels well above the Proposition 65 limit of 40 micrograms per day.

      In addition to violating Proposition 65 standards for emission levels, the baby products exceed the recommendations for formaldehyde emission set by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Department of Public Health.

      Formaldehyde is present in plywood, particle board (generally in the glues), fiberglass, paint and insulation. Concentrations can reach especially dangerous levels in rooms that are not well-ventilated.

      Businesses that violate Proposition 65 are subject to civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day for each violation. In addition, courts may order businesses to stop manufacturing products that are in violation of the standards. Todays lawsuit seeks to remedy past violations and to prompt manufacturers and retailers to prevent baby furniture containing formaldehyde from being sold without warning consumers about the risks of exposure.

      Unfair competition

      The state is also suing the companies for violating the Unfair Competition Law, which prevents businesses from undertaking any action that gives them an advantage over other businesses. In this case, by not posting warnings about carcinogens on their products like other companies must do under the law, the five companies unfairly profited. The state is seeking $2,500 for each violation.

      Proposition 65 is enforced through lawsuits brought by the attorney general, district attorneys and some city attorneys. Lawsuits may also be brought by private parties after notifying the attorney general of the alleged violation. Last November, Attorney General Brown and Los Angeles City Attorney Rockard Delgadillo sued twenty toy companies for manufacturing or selling toys with unlawful quantities of lead.

      Although Proposition 65 only requires companies to post hazard warnings, many businesses choose to eliminate the toxic chemicals altogether.

      Flame retardants

      Brown's suit is the latest in a series of warnings, studies and enforcement actions centered around chemicals that are widely present in products used by children.

      Earlier this month, a study suggested that although flame retardant chemicals used in clothing and other fabrics may keep children safe from burns, they might be causing harm in other ways.

      In the first nationwide investigation of chemical fire retardants in parents and their children, Environmental Working Group found that toddlers and pre-schoolers typically had 3 times more of the neurotoxic compounds in their blood than their mothers. The study suggests that U.S. children 1 to 4 years of age bear the heaviest burden of flame retardant pollution in the industrialized world.

      Laboratory tests conducted in collaboration with Dr. ke Bergman, a preeminent environmental chemist found that in 19 of 20 U.S. families, concentrations of the toxic chemicals known as PBDEs were significantly higher in 1- to 4-year-old children than in their mothers. The tests found the fire retardant Deca, banned in Europe but unregulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more often and in higher amounts in U.S. children than their mothers.

      In 2003 EWG published test results showing that the average level of fire-retardants in breast milk from 20 American moms was 75 times higher than the average levels measured in Europe. This study confirms that same high exposure in American children.

      "U.S. chemical law leaves children unprotected from toxic chemicals that other industrialized countries long ago banned," said Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst at EWG and co-author of the study. "It's time for real, comprehensive reform that puts the health of children first," Lunder added.

      The average levels of PBDEs in the blood of children tested by EWG were about 62 parts per billion, compared to 25 ppb in their mothers. In the limited number of studies of this age group in other countries, Spanish and Norwegian children had levels 6 to 13 times lower. Australian children have roughly equal levels.

      Toxic fire retardants in everyday items like furniture, sofas, televisions and computers could expose children to concentrations exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended safe level. Children ingest more fire retardants and other toxins when they put their hands, toys and other objects in their mouths.

      Children's developing brains and reproductive systems are extraordinarily vulnerable to toxic chemicals. In the case of PBDEs, laboratory tests in peer-reviewed studies have found that a single dose administered to mice on a day when the brain is growing rapidly can cause permanent changes to behavior, including hyperactivity.

      "It's well documented that U.S. adults are more exposed to chemical fire retardants than adults in other countries, but these findings show that young children are at even higher risk," said Anila Jacob, MD, EWG senior scientist and study co-author. "Parents want to protect their children, but once they are old enough to crawl or walk, they are more vulnerable to exposure to these and other toxic chemicals."

      "These chemicals are everywhere - in food, in our homes and schools," said Laurie Yung of Missoula, Mont., who was tested along with her 3-year-old son, Conner. "We need laws to protect us from exposure not only to these chemicals, but that will make sure chemicals are safe for kids before they're allowed on the market."

      "I am extremely disturbed to see children have higher exposures than their mothers, especially at a time that they are more vulnerable to the toxic effects," said Bergman.

      Other moms and kids in the study were from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

      Even as the chemical industry insists Deca is safe, the European Union has banned it from use, 10 U.S. states are considering or have enacted legislative bans, and major electronics manufacturers including Nokia, Sony-Ericsson and Samsung no longer use Deca and are phasing-out other bromine-based fire retardants.



      California Attorney General has sued five baby furniture manufacturers for failing to warn consumers about the dangerous levels of formaldehyde gas emitted...
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      Feds Probe Food Prices

      Skyrocketing prices of eggs, tomatoes, milk studied

      By Truman Lewis
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 23, 2008
      Federal prosecutors are conducting criminal investigations into possible price-fixing by egg producers and California tomato processors, The Wall Street Journal reports. It's the latest in a series of federal probes of alleged price-fixing by farmers and processors.

      Rapid increases in food prices have been blamed on the cost of fuel and feed but investigators say collusion may be an equally important factor.

      Besides the egg and tomato probes, investigators have been looking into cheese, milk and fertilizer markets, trying to determine if suppliers worked together to manipulate prices. Last year, the Justice Department said it was investigating citrus fruit prices.

      Milk prices have been a particularly sore point with many consumers, especially in New York City where shoppers have been paying $4.49 or more for a gallon of milk. Earlier this year, the New York City Council issued a report charging that high milk prices were due to "significantly decreased" oversight of New York State's Milk Price Gouging Law, resulting in citywide milk prices that are above the state-determined legal threshold.

      In July, Danielle of New York City complained that she was charged $5.99 for a gallon of milk at the Amish Market on 9th Avenue. Maryellen said she also paid $5.99 at the Broadway Farms Grocery on West 85th St. Kim of Manhasset, Long Island, said she paid $4.19 at a BP station in Levittown.

      Cynthia of Brooklyn told ConsumerAffairs.com, also in July, that she sent her son to the Produce and Meat Market on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn to get ready-to-feed infant formula for her newborn baby. On July 23, the formula was $7.99. Two days later, it was $9.99, she said.

      Price-fixing illegal

      It is illegal for competitors to share pricing information or conspire to drive up prices but there are numerous loopholes, including an exemption for farm cooperatives that's intended to help small farms bargain more effectively with big processors.

      Egg and tomato producers are claiming their collaborations are protected by that exemption, the Journal said, but a federal grand jury in Sacramento and the FBI are said to be continuing their probes.

      Besides being sold as fresh produce, tomatoes are an important component of many processed foods, including ketchup, pasta sauce and salsa. Tomato growers suffered a setback earlier this year when tomatoes were wrongly blamed for a Salmonella outbreak but prices have since recovered, rising 16% in the year ending in August, according to government statistics.

      Egg prices, meanwhile, are up more than 40% in the last year.

      Part of the dilemma facing prosecutors is weeding out legitimate influences on prices from the results of illegal collaboration.

      Food prices have been affected by the rising price of fuel, for instance, as farmers spend more to heat hen houses and transport animals to market. The growing use of ethanol has driven up the price of corn, a prime component of most animals feeds, to cite just a few examples.

      The price of corn has risen almost 50 percent in the last two years, as both the cattle industry and ethanol producers have competed to buy it.

      Increased consumer demand also drives up prices. Just as more Chinese are driving cars and increasing demand for gasoline, so are more families in emerging economies beginning to demand more meat, eggs and milk in their diets, putting pressure on prices in the U.S. and other developed nations.



      Rapid increases in food prices have been blamed on the cost of fuel and feed but investigators say collusion may be an equally important factor....
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      House Passes Credit Cardholder's Bill Of Rights

      Decisive majority endorses consumer protections



      The House of Representatives today passed by a large margin legislation designed to protect consumers from abusive lending practices of credit card companies.

      HR 5244, "The Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights Act," passed the House 312-112, with 228 Democrats and 84 Republicans voting to support it. 111 Republicans and one Democrat voted against the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

      Chances for passage of the legislation in the Senate this term are mixed, as the legislative calendar is shortened due to the 2008 Presidential election campaign, and the proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial system by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is taking center stage.

      Supporters of the bill used the proposed bailout as a backdrop to justify passing stronger laws to protect bank customers from the more underhanded tactics of the financial industry. The legislation would prohibit:

      • Bait-and-switch interest rate and fee hikes for any or no reason at all during the life of the card;

      • Assessing hidden and unfair interest rate charges by charging interest on balances already paid off;

      • Unjustifiably maximizing interest charges by requiring consumers to pay off balances with lower interest rates before those with higher rates;

      • Charging late fees when consumers mail their payments seven days in advance of the due date;

      • Applying certain unfair interest rate hikes retroactively to balances incurred under the old rate.

      "We are providing a $700 billion bailout for banks--how can we not provide even the most basic protections for Main Street?," said bill author and sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

      Consumer advocates hailed the passage of the bill as a big step forward for protecting American livelihoods. "[This] bill would curb some of the most arbitrary, abusive, and unfair credit card lending practices that trap consumers in a vicious cycle of debt," said Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America.

      "We urge the Senate to include credit card reform as part of legislation it passes to rescue banking firms," Plunkett said. "Cash-strapped consumers shouldn't continue to be gouged by excessive credit card rates and fees by many of the same financial institutions that will benefit from the bailout."

      Opponents of the bill claimed that its passage would cause banks to reduce available credit lines and raise interest rates at a time when the worsening economy has Americans increasingly reliant on credit cards to pay for everyday expenses.

      "If creditors cannot properly price credit for riskier consumers, some creditors may make the entirely rational decision of withholding credit from the higher-risk consumers altogether," according to one Republican insider. "The people whom this bill purports to protect--those with imperfect credit histories and young people or new market entrants without much of a credit history--will be those who find it most difficult to get credit under this legislation."

      But supporters pointed out that banks are raising interest rates and fees on even their best cardholders, simply to earn more profits and maintain a cushion of revenue as the economy continues to falter.

      "Consumers in perfectly good standing with their credit card company are understandably outraged when that company hikes their interest rate based on information unrelated to the card," said Pamela Banks of Consumers Union. "But it's even more outrageous to apply this type of rate increase to credit card debt already borrowed at the lower rate."

      Tamara Drout of the nonpartisan policy research center Demos pointed out that the costs of America's credit card debt are borne excessively by African-American and Latino households. "Over 90 percent of African-American families earning between $10,000 and $24,999 had credit card debt," Drout said.

      "Meanwhile, only 7 percent of white cardholders are charged interest rates over 20 percent, but 15 percent of African-American cardholders and 13 percent of Latino cardholders pay such rates," Drout said.

      "Credit card issuers have not learned the lessons of the mortgage crisis," said Lauren Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center. "It is both unfair to consumers and irresponsible banking to lure people in with deceptively low rates and then, once they have incurred a large balance, explode their interest rates."

      House Passes Credit Cardholder's Bill Of Rights...
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      Seniors Hit Hard by Financial Crisis

      Collapsing home prices, tight credit, dwindling investment income a lethal brew

      Collapsing real estate values and an imploding Wall Street are making life uncertain for everyone, but seniors are being hit especially hard.

      The economic upheaval has shattered many seniors' retirement plans and, even worse, has cut into the income of many of those who have already retired and has sharply reduced the value of most seniors' primary asset -- their home. Lenders are cutting seniors no slack, as a growing list of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com illustrates.

      "Lost everything when my business failed and now, at 63, working two parttime jobs and getting $563 a month in early retirement pay," said Elwood of Sinking Spring, Pa., who also supports two family members.

      Elwood's situation became desperate when he was unable to complete a "short sale" of his home. In a short sale, the buyer pays less than the remaining amount on the seller's mortgage. In some cases, lenders will forgive some or all of the difference but lately, banks have been squeezing consumers for every last cent.

      Elwood said he found a buyer for his home but Chase Mortgage rejected the deal and began foreclosure proceedings.

      "I am now on anxiety medication, been in the emergency room at the Veterans Administration hospital with panic disorder. I am working for minimum wages just to live," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      Lethal mixture

      The combination of tight credit and falling property values has foiled the plans of seniors who want to stay in their homes but are being forced out by rising interest payments as well as for those who had planned to sell their homes and retired to a warmer or less expensive locale.

      It is also forcing many, like Elwood, to stay in the workforce or go back to work. A government study last month found 16.4% of Americans aged 65 or over were still working -- the highest percentage in 38 years.

      And, like Elwood, many seniors are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments. A study by AARP finds that seniors account for an estimated 28% of all delinquencies and foreclosures. Many more may be on the brink of falling behind on their payments.

      In Encino, Calif., a couple in their late 60s put their home on the market after they lost their furniture store business because of the credit crunch. Their realtor, Karin, told ConsumerAffairs.com she presented Chevy Chase Bank with 15 offers, six of them for more than the home's appraised value.

      The couple owed $640,000 on their mortgage and the highest offer was $575,000. Karin said that when Chevy Chase rejected the deal, she offered to reduce her commission and the buyer offered to increase the price but "no one at Chevy Chase took notice or cared."

      "When I first called to announce a short sale, the person in loss and mitigation told me outright, 'Why don't they just foreclose?'"

      In St. Petersburg, Fla., Nancy found a cash buyer willing to pay the full amount of the outstanding loan on her home but she said Chase Mortgage insisted on a $6,800 prepayment penalty.

      "Their greediness is taking years off my life," Nancy said. "The company is getting their full amount of the mortgage but are so greedy that they want their extra prepayment penalty. They don't give any alternatives or consideration to their customers."

      Consumers 55 and over accounted for nearly a quarter of all bankruptcies last year, another AARP study found, further evidence that for all too many seniors, the golden years are turning to dust.

      Seniors Hit Hard by Financial Crisis...
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      Lawn Mower Horsepower Overstated, Class Action Claims

      Mower manufacturers clipped Texas consumers, plaintiffs charge

      A class action lawsuit claims that lawn mower companies have clipped Texas consumers by overstating the horsepower of their engines. It seeks damages of $5 million, including refunds for affected consumers.

      The suit, filed in a Texas federal court, names Sears, Deer and Co., Tecumseh Products, Briggs and Stratton, Kawasaki Motors, MTD Products, Toro Company, American Honda Motor, Electrolux Home Products, Kohler Company, Platinum Equity, and Husqvarna Outdoor Products. The companies sell about six million mowers nationwide each year, according to court documents.

      It alleges that, since 1994, the companies misrepresented the horsepower of their lawn mowers and mower engines in an attempt to charge higher prices.

      "The more horsepower generated by a lawn mower's engine, the better and faster the lawn mower is able to perform," the suit charges. Horsepower labels allowed for a "fudge factor of up to 15 percent to be added," the complaint says.

      The plaintiffs — Gene Bennett, Clarence Laird and Laci Canion — argue that the misrepresentations allowed the defendants to market and sell identical engines as different products at different prices.

      According to the suit, the companies formed a group called the "Power Labeling Task Force," which the plaintiffs allege was used to "meet, discuss, conspire, conceal and further their fraudulent horsepower misrepresentations."

      The suit also charges that the task force created a misleading disclaimer titled "Understanding Horsepower" and placed it on the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute's Web site.

      The complaint argues that the disclaimer purposely misled the public and was an effort to conceal the fraudulent horsepower labeling practices.

      Plaintiffs charge that many other labeling methods were used to conceal the actual horsepower generated by the respective lawn mower's engine. These methods included the use of "gross" horsepower, which is the theoretical horsepower an engine could achieve under ideal laboratory conditions. Or the use of the "torque" on lawn mower engine's labels, despite that "engineers assert that torque is not an appropriate quantifier of power," the plaintiffs state.

      The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge T. John Ward.

      Lawn Mower Horsepower Overstated, Class Action Claims...
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      GM Recalls 2008-09 Saturn Vues

      Fluid Leak Could Cause a Fire

      General Motors is recalling 42,408 of its 2008 and 2009 Saturn Vue crossovers because power steering fluid could leak onto the exhaust system sparking a vehicle fire.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported on its Web site that "some of these vehicles have a condition in which the nut securing the power steering line to the power steering pump may loosen."

      The safety agency warned that as a result, fluid could leak from the power steering system and "contact hot exhaust components resulting in a possible engine compartment fire."

      Saturn dealers will inspect the steering system and if there are indications of a fluid leak a technician will tighten the nut attaching the hydraulic line to the power steering pump and replace any lost fluid.

      The recall is scheduled to begin September 26. Saturn Vue owners can contact General Motors at 1-800-972-8876.

      General Motors is recalling 42,408 of its 2008 and 2009 Saturn Vue crossovers because power steering fluid could leak onto the exhaust system sparking a ve...
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      More Impurities Showing Up In Ground Water, USGS Says

      Study shows increase in nitrate contamination


      As the U.S. population and related development rises, so does the impurities found in drinking water that comes from the ground.

      A new study by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found an increase in nitrate, the most common chemical contaminant in the world's ground water, including in aquifers used for drinking-water supply.

      Nitrate in U.S. drinking water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because of concerns related to infant health and possible cancer risks. Use of man-made synthetic fertilizers has steadily increased since World War II, raising the potential for increased nitrate contamination of the nation's ground water, despite efforts in recent decades to improve land-management practices. Monitoring nitrate trends in ground water through time is important in determining how quickly ground-water systems respond to changes in chemical use and best management practices.

      For the study, monitoring data collected by teams across the country in multiple aquifers were analyzed to characterize near-decadal trends in nitrate concentrations in ground water between 1988 and 2004. Results from the study were published in a companion supplement to the September-October issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality.

      Findings show statistically significant increases in concentrations of nitrate in seven of the 24 well networks tested. Median nitrate concentrations of three of those seven well networks increased above the US Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per million. Concentrations decreased in one network located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The study included estimates of the age of the ground water (time since the water recharged to the aquifer); nitrate concentrations in ground water increased in response to the increased use of fertilizers since World War II.

      "This study highlights the importance of maintaining long-term ground-water monitoring programs in the nation, because sustained monitoring provides critical information on changes of our nation's ground-water quality, and whether pollution prevention programs are effective in protecting this nation's ground water," said Michael Rupert, a hydrologist with the USGS.

      The USGS implemented the program in 1991 to support national, regional, state, and local information needs and decisions related to water-quality management and policy. The program is designed to answer: What is the condition of our Nation's streams and ground water, and how are conditions changing over time? In the second decade of the Program (20012012), a major focus is on regional assessments of water-quality conditions and trends at sites that have been consistently monitored for more than a decade.



      More Impurities Showing Up In Ground Water, USGS Says...
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      Saturn Aura Gets a 5,000-Mile Road Test

      Coast-to-coast dash & back tests Aura's mettle


      The 5,500-mile coast-to-coast-to-coast marathon road test of our 2007 Saturn Aura XR started at the UPS Store in the quiet Washington, D.C., suburb of Oakton, Va. It wound up about half a mile from there two weeks later after a quick trip to Los Angeles and back.

      The initial assignment seemed simple enough. A young family member was headed to California and needed to ship her worldly goods so they would arrive a day or so after her flight landed. But in the parking lot, it became clear it wouldn't be so simple.

      "How do I know they won't lose my stuff? Or break it?" she asked, a chin tremble becoming evident. "How do I know I'll ever see any of this again?"

      "It's insured. If they drive a front-end loader over it, they'll have to pay up," I offered, knowing as soon as I said it that my assurance wasn't what was needed.

      Soon, we had not only backed out of the UPS Store parking lot, we were headed west on Interstate 66 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the Saturn loaded down with such priceless and irreplaceable objects as personalized coffee cups, shot glasses and candleholders.

      The drive on I-66 was pleasant enough as we climbed up out of the swamp that, though far from drained, nevertheless is home to our so-called government. Soon we turned south on I-81 into the fabled Shenandoah Valley, whose beauty has been oft celebrated in song. It is perhaps those ballads that attract so many tractor-trailer trucks and passenger cars to the thin ribbon of asphalt that passes for a highway in Virginia.

      The asthmatics among us felt our chests tighten and our young passenger asked what had happened to the mountains. "They're still there, you just can't see them through the smog," I assured her.

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but for the next five hours we breathed air that belonged inside the tailpipe of a 1950 Ford and watched an ugly brown cloud hover and ooze its way through the hills, dales, gulleys and what-have-you. I could taste Virginia on my tongue for days afterwards.

      It being Sunday afternoon, besides the ever-present moving wall of semis, we had the usual collection of speed demons, sight-seers and hungover students from the many universities that line I-81. On one occasion, we let the Aura blast itself free of a rolling clot, giving the 3.7-liter engine a firm tap and holding on tight to the wheel.

      Now, you don't normally think of Saturns as fast but the XR is a surprisingly responsive sports version of its more sedate cousin, the XE, voted North American Car of the Year in 2007. Besides the engine on steroids, the XR boasts a six-speed electronic transmission with Formula One-style steering-wheel-mounted shift levers, a very tight suspension and 18-inch wheels. The price on the sticker: $27,019.

      Stutter steps

      The one thing it has a little too much of for my taste is power at high speeds. Kick the accelerator hard when you're doing 80 or so and the smoothly-loping stallion becomes a bucking bronco, crazily dancing in tiny little stutter steps. There's not nearly as much torque steer as in the early days of front-wheel-drive cars but there's enough to be scary.

      The first -- and last -- time I floored it to maneuver through a tight spot, I feared we were about to do the front-wheel equivalent of a fishtail. As an accredited member of the 720 Club, I have had two more go-rounds than necessary and don't relish having any more, thanks very much.

      Not too many years ago, I floored an insanely-powerful 1995 Alfa Romeo 164 sports sedan on an empty highway, just to see what would happen. What happened is that it jumped into the next lane, leaving me to consider whether it would be better just to walk home.

      Saturn -- or more precisely Opel, on whose design the Aura is based -- has built an exceptional sports sedan. But a car with this much power at high speed needs to be rear-wheel drive, in my humble opinion. The electronic stability control helps keep the car on the straight and narrow but I would not want to be anywhere nearby when one of these broncos comes loose on a damp pavement.

      Having learned to be tender with the accelerator, we gently worked our way free of traffic-clogged, smog-ridden Virginia, drifting into Tennessee and meeting up with Interstate 40, which was to take us through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and a slice of California.

      Evacuees


      The "largest cross in the Western Hemisphere" in Groom, TX, attracts passing I-40 motorists.

      It seems to be my fate to be on the road when disaster strikes and this trip was no exception. We left on Sunday, August 31, just as Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Evacuees fled north to Memphis on I-55, then spread out from there.

      Many went east on I-40, we learned that evening as we pulled into motel parking lots jammed with cars bearing Louisiana license plates.

      "Hmmm, might be hard finding a room," I cautioned my passenger, who was blissfully sleeping in the back and could not have cared less.

      We rolled on through the enveloping darkness, occasionally making half-hearted stops to inquire, in the manner of a door-to-door firewood salesman, "You don't have any rooms, do you?" In a filled-up Marriott Courtyard, we chatted with a family -- a couple, their children, aged parents and two dogs -- that had been on the road for 15 hours and were sorely in need of rest.

      "We lived through Katrina, so I guess we can live through this," the hard-pressed husband told me, though he didn't seem so sure.

      Everyone we encountered was quite nice to the evacuees but the options were definitely limited. For the two of us, it was an inconvenience and nothing more but for entire families wandering the highways and wondering if they would have homes and jobs to go back to, it was a very sad and tense Labor Day weekend.

      We rolled on into Arkansas, where a very helpful Howard Johnson's manager on the outskirts of Little Rock assured us there were no rooms anywhere in Tennessee or Arkansas. "You'll have to head for Oklahoma," he said.

      "Well, I was headed for Oklahoma anyway so that should be no problem," I assured him. But in fact, we found lodging about 5 a.m. the next morning at the Russellville, Arkansas, Holiday Inn. We paid the regular price and the friendly manager assured us the restaurant would be serving breakfast later than usual the next morning so we could sleep in without fear of going hungry.

      Complaints of price-gouging always surface after storms and no doubt many are valid, but we found no instances of jacked-up gas or food prices and not one hotel clerk even suggested that a room could be had for a few dollars extra.

      After putting in 15 hours behind the wheel, I was not too thrilled to find the Aura waiting for me the next day, but the car is so comfortable and well-appointed that I was really none the worse for wear and we were soon traveling west through the last few miles of Arkansas, headed for the Sooner State and sampling new XM channels.

      Generation gap

      A generation gap became evident as we tussled over whether it was better to listen to XM's Fine Tuning or plug our young passenger's iPod into the Aura's sound system. She won and for the rest of the trip, the iPod and the Aura's speakers teamed up to keep us entertained.

      I missed listening to the news but there are so many XM channels and we had so many miles to go that I didn't take the time to search out the XM news channels and hunting for local stations is apparently something that's just not done anymore.


      Even payday lenders aren't doing well in Grants, NM.

      We had an uneventful trip through Oklahoma and most of New Mexico, no thanks to the very poorly-marked and badly-lit Albuquerque freeways. We actually wanted to stay in Albuquerque but there was so much highway construction and so little useful exit information that we continued on to the mighty little metropolis of Grants.

      "Virginia," the Holiday Inn Express clerk pondered, studying our license plate. "That's near Oklahoma, isn't it? I've been to Oklahoma. There's a lot of states border Oklahoma."

      They surely do, we agreed.

      The next day we crossed into Northeastern Arizona and I was able to bore my passenger with tales of my adventures as young reporter in Arizona back in the prehistoric 70s. Why, there was the time I got stuck in a sand storm on the Hopi reservation and completely sandblasted my Fiat roadster. Then there was ... oh, never mind.

      We passed through Flagstaff, a lumberjack's town that is rapidly becoming a yuppie refuge, climbed through the beautiful Coconino Mountains and up onto the high plateau that would take us into California and the dread Mojave Desert.

      London Bridge

      As we passed Lake Havasu City, I recalled covering the dedication of the London Bridge, moved stone by stone from London to the Arizona desert. Our press contingent flew from Phoenix to Lake Havasu on Frank Sinatra's private jet, I told my passenger, realizing as her eyes glazed over that the term "Frank Sinatra" was not in her vocabulary.

      "Carrying any fruits?" asked the bored functionary at the California Entry Station. Her manner made it clear we were not to make any comments about everyone on board being straight and so we shook our heads and went wordlessly into the Mojave.

      There is beauty in the desert if you know where to look for it, but most of the drivers on I-40 were looking for Barstow. Cars routinely flew past us at speeds of 100 or more.

      The desire to get through the desert is understandable but it's also wise to think about the fact that when it's 110 outside, a car's tires, cooling system and other components are being stressed beyond their normal limits. Trying to match one's speed to the temperature is an invitation to a tire tread separation or worse.

      The very same Fiat that had suffered so grievously on the Hopi reservation blew its engine going up the hill towards Indio a year or so later and I well remember the few hours I spent standing there until a cowgirl stopped her pickup to give me a lift into town. Take it from one who's been there: the desert is not where you want to be stranded.

      Thanks to that first, 15-hour day, we motored stately into big LA right on schedule late Tuesday afternoon, made our way to the hotel and, the next day, unloaded gobs of luggage and personal treasures at our destination.

      A collander

      The Aura's trunk is cavernous under normal circumstances. We had even more room than normal, thanks to our having left the spare tire in the garage of an Eastern Long Island beach house a few months before. This was not due to any foresight on our part; rather, it was due to one of several annoying fit and finish problems with the Aura.

      To put it bluntly, the Aura's trunk leaks like a collander. The spare tire well had several inches of water sloshing around in it when we discovered the problem. The rug and well cover were getting moldy, and the jack and spare wheel were getting rusty when we emptied the trunk and dried it out as best we could.

      While having some other work done, we asked the service manager at Saturn of Fairfax to check the leak in the trunk. He said we would need to bring the car back and have a separate service order written, since we had failed to mention it when the car was brought in.

      "Well, it's sitting there ten feet away from you. Why don't you walk over there and see if the problem jumps out at you?" we asked. He flatly refused and we haven't been back there since. A few days later, as if the service manager had put a hex on the car, it spit out its right-hand door handle, leaving an unsightly gap that puzzles valet parking attendants.

      Another oversight: The battery ran down one evening when a guest driver inadvertently disabled the automatic headlight switch, causing the lights to stay on for hours. There was a nice new set of jumper cables in the trunk but as far as we can tell, the trunk can be opened only electronically, through a switch on the dash or with the remote control.

      At any rate, unburdened of our passenger's luggage, we bid her farewell and made our way to LAX Lot B, the long-term parking area, where we intended to leave the car for a colleague who would soon be moving to our Los Angeles office. We jumped on Virgin America, were lulled to sleep by the mood lighting and arrived more or less refreshed at Dulles Airport in Virginia a few hours later.

      A week or so later, plans again went awry. The colleague would not be in Los Angeles after all and the car was orphaned at LAX, where there is a 30-day parking limit. Hello again to Virgin America, back on the Lot B bus and into the Aura.

      The Lot B cashier looked suspiciously at our credit card and peered closely at our license plate.

      East Virginia?

      "Is that East Virginia or West Virginia?" she asked sharply. Not wanting to get into an extended discussion of place names, we informed her it was East Virginia, an assertion she duly noted in her official records.

      We took time out for a quick oil change at Pep Boys and washed off the Oklahoma bugs and LAX jet fuel at the legendary Santa Palm Car Wash in West Hollywood. Lubed and looking good, the Aura nosed east -- back across the desert, through the mountains and the MidSouth or whatever it's now being called -- into Virginia (state motto: Radar Detectors Illegal) and back up the smoky, smelly Shenandoah Valley, where the air was as foul at midnight as it had been at high noon a week earlier.

      We were one exit away from the UPS Store parking lot when the Aura surged with unnecessary vigor past a few late-night travelers. One was a Virginia State Police officer who eyed us suspiciously but decided we were harmless as we sought refuge in the right lane and slowed to 60.

      We would give you total mileage but the Aura's onboard computer resets its trip odometer each 1,000 miles, a fact we discovered much too late to do anything about it. Let's call it 5,300 miles. We averaged about 26.6 miles per gallon, much better than the dismal 12 or 13 the car normally gets crawling around DC and its Virginia suburbs.

      Perhaps most significantly, after two marathon trips involving long hours of high-speed driving on unfamiliar and often dark and crowded highways, we arrived in good spirits and with none of the soreness and stiffness that often accompanies long hours behind the wheel.

      The Aura is an outstanding highway cruiser. It will glide along all day at 80 or so as the engine barely turns over at about 1,800 rpms. Except for the annoyances noted above, we'd have to give the Aura five stars for comfort, performance and value. Now if only the trunk didn't leak.

      The 5,500-mile coast-to-coast-to-coast marathon road test of our 2007 Saturn Aura XR started at the UPS Store in the quiet Washington, D.C., suburb of Oakt...
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      Asian Baby Death Toll From Infant Formula Rises

      FDA claims U.S. formula is safe, despite pet deaths last year


      While babies continue to die and be hospitalized by tainted formula in Asia, the Food and Drug Administration says formula in the U.S. does not contain the dangerous chemical found in the Chinese product.

      At least three babies have died in China from acute kidney failure and more than 6,200 others have fallen ill while at least 158 are in critical condition after consuming baby formula that contained the dangerous chemical melamine.

      At least 22 dairy producers that exported to many parts of the world are involved in a quickly widening corruption scandal involving the Chinese government that exempted at least some of those manufacturers from any testing, according to The Washington Post.

      Melamine is used to make chemicals and fertilizer, but has sometimes been used to boost the apparent protein levels when illegally combined with food. That combination was proven deadly last year when thousands of pets, many in the U.S., died because Chinese companies that exported pet food components to the U.S. mixed it into their recipes.

      Chinese parents told The New York Times they are outraged manufacturers would not only use a chemical that is illegal when combined with food, but that they would use it only a year after the same unscrupulous practice killed dogs and cats.

      Although the companies distributed their products to many parts of the world, especially in Asia, an FDA spokeswoman assured ConsumerAffairs.com baby formula in the U.S. is safe.

      "All makers of infant formula that can be legally marketed in the United States have confirmed that they do not use milk products from China in the manufacture of their products," Stephanie Kwisnek wrote in an e-mail.

      Asian Baby Death Toll From Infant Formula Rises...
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