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Toyota Land Cruiser Earns High Marks in Consumer Reports Tests
SUV lauded for comfort, while other brands get low grades10/31/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Land Cruiser Earns High Marks in <em>Consumer Reports</em> Tests...
The Toyota Land Cruiser earned a "Very Good" overall rating in tests of four luxury SUVs priced above $45,000 for the December issue of Consumer Reports. It ranks seventh overall in the category.
Redesigned for 2008, the Land Cruiser drew praise from CR's engineers and editors for its comfortable ride, overall level of refinement, and excellent off-road capabilities.
The Land Cruiser was tested against the Porsche Cayenne S, Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE, and Hummer H2. The Cayenne S and Range Rover Sport both achieved "Good" overall scores. The H2 came in last in the category, with a "Fair" score. Prices ranged from $61,900 for the Land Rover to $71,985 for the Porsche.
But in CR's testing, competitive models costing thousands less have earned higher overall scores.
The best luxury SUV in Consumer Reports tests is the considerably less expensive Lexus RX 400h hybrid, which slightly outpointed the non-hybrid RX 350. Other top-scoring luxury SUVs are the Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz GL450, Volvo XC90, and Audi Q7, in that order.
None of the vehicles in this test group are recommended. The reliability of the Range Rover Sport and Cayenne is much worse than average, and the magazine doesn't have sufficient reliability data yet on the redesigned Land Cruiser, it said. The H2 scored too low in CR's testing.
CR recommends only vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on its Annual Car Reliability Survey of more than seven million print and web subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test, according to Consumers' Union, which publishes the magazine.
The Land Cruiser is quick, plush and refined. It has a composed, comfortable ride and quiet cabin. It's a capable off-roader, but it's fuel-thirsty and lacks agility. The third-row is cramped, especially given the SUVs rather large size.
The vehicle, with a $67,707 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price as tested, is powered by a 381-hp, 5.7-liter V8 that provides effortless acceleration. CR averaged 14 mpg overall in its own fuel economy tests. Drivers will find plenty of room all around. The front seats are quite comfortable, and the second row can seat three adults with ease. The third row is cramped, low, uncomfortable, and difficult to reach.
Despite its heft, the Cayenne is quick and sporty. It can tow a heavy trailer and has some off-road capability. Even for those who can afford it, the Cayenne is not to everyone's taste. The ride is stiff, and controls are complicated. The Cayenne ($71,985 MSRP as tested) is propelled by a smooth, muscular, 385-hp, 4.8-liter V8 that delivers excellent response and power. CR averaged 15 mpg overall in its tests on premium fuel. The interior has lots of padded trim, nicely stitched leather seats, and thick carpets. But that opulence is spoiled by oddly grained dash trim, wide panel gaps, and flimsy cup holders. The driver's space is roomy, front seats are very comfortable and supportive-if you fit them-but narrow and confining if you do not. The rear seats are firm but well shaped and easily accommodate three adults.
The Range Rover Sport offers plenty of interior opulence. Though designed primarily for on-road driving, the Sport remains a competent off-roader like other Land Rovers. But its hefty weight takes a toll on both acceleration and fuel economy, and its controls can be frustrating to use. The Range Rover Sport HSE ($61,900 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 300-hp, 4.4-liter V8 mated to a smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission. Together, they deliver just adequate acceleration and 14 mpg overall on premium fuel. The Range Rover Sport's interior has a very tasteful, high-end trim. Drivers get a high, commanding view of the road ahead. The front seats are well shaped and comfortable but a bit narrow. The rear seats are roomy and comfortable for three adults.
The Hummer gets awful fuel economy, handling is ungainly, the brakes are subpar, and a terrible view out makes it difficult to judge the vehicle's position within a traffic lane and parking. The short list of good points includes a decent ride and good towing and off-roading capability. The base Hummer ($66,335 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 393-hp, 6.2-liter V8 engine that dishes out plenty of power. Fuel economy is the worst of the group by far, at 11 mpg overall with only 7 mpg in the city. Inside, CR found a mixture of some high-quality materials and cheap-looking panels and wide gaps around the center console. Even average-sized drivers feel a bit cramped and closed in. The front seats are wide and fairly comfortable. The rear seats easily hold three abreast, and the cushions are fairly comfortable.
Hospitals Score Low in Patient Survey
Patients prefer higher quality of care than what they receive10/30/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Hospitals Score Low in Patient Survey...
People don't much like what they find when they go the hospital.
In a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), researchers analyzed the first national data on patients' experiences in hospital settings and found that though patients are generally satisfied with their care, there is substantial room for improvement in a number of key areas, including pain management and discharge instructions.
The study appears in the October 30, 2008 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
"These data really represent a sea change for the health care system. Patient-centered care is at the heart of a high-performing system and until now, we have lacked information on how patients feel about their care. With this information now freely available, providers and policymakers can begin to focus on improving patients' experiences in the hospital," said lead author Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, and assistant professor of health policy at HSPH.
The researchers analyzed data collected in the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey, which asked patients questions about their hospital experiences and their demographic characteristics.
Responses were grouped into six areas: communication with doctors, communication with nurses, communication about medications, quality of nursing services, how well hospitals prepared patients for discharge and pain management. More than 2,400 hospitals reported data.
The results showed that, on average, about 67 percent of patients would definitely recommend the hospital at which they were treated. Patients were more satisfied with hospitals that had a greater ratio of nurses to patients, which wasn't surprising to the researchers. However, the HCAHPS survey provides the first national data to show the important role that nurses can play in providing patient-centered care.
Another important finding of the study was that hospitals with more satisfied patients generally provided higher quality of care as measured by standard quality metrics. Hospitals in which patients rated their care highly were more likely to provide the appropriate care for heart attack, congestive heart failure, pneumonia and prevention of surgical complications.
"Our study confirms that there need be no tradeoff between ensuring that care is technically superb and addressing the needs of the patients," said senior author Arnold Epstein, MD, MA, and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at HSPH.
There were large variations in patient-satisfaction performance across the country. For example, 71.9 percent of hospital patients in Birmingham, AL, gave their care a high rating (9 or 10 on a 10-point scale); hospitals in Knoxville, TN and Charlotte, NC received the next-highest scores.
On the other hand, patients gave hospitals in East Long Island, NY, Fort Lauderdale, FL and New York City the lowest marks.
The researchers were surprised by some results. Pain management has been the target of both accreditation and quality-improvement initiatives for many years, but nearly a third of patients did not give high ratings in that area. Discharge instructions have similarly been targeted for quality initiatives, but about a fifth of patients did not rate communications in that area highly.
"Given that we spend more than $2 trillion annually for health care in our country, we should expect that the basics are addressed, like always treating pain adequately," Jha said.
In Times of Tight Credit, Retailers Revive Layaway
"Buy now, pay later" becomes "Pay a bit at a time"10/29/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
In Times of Tight Credit, Retailers Revive Layaway...
Before there was VISA and Mastercard, there was layaway. Consumers who didn't have quite enough cash on hand to make a large purchase could put the item "on layaway."
That meant the merchant would set the item aside for the consumer until they came in and paid for it. Often the consumer would come in weekly and put down small amounts until the item was paid for.
In this new era of tight credit, retailers like Kmart and TJ Maxx have experienced a sharp increase in customer demand for their layaway programs, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Holiday consumers see layaway as a payment alternative at a time when credit card companies are reducing purchase limits and access to loans is tightening amid the country's ongoing financial crisis.
"People are shying away from credit cards, because maybe their limits have been reduced or they simply don't want to carry any debt ahead of an economic recession," said Bob Robicheaux, Ph.D., chairman of the UAB Department of Marketing and Industrial Distribution. "And if a purchase can't be put on credit because it's restricted, then the best option is to use layaway and put $10 dollars down then make equal payments toward the purchase in the weeks before the holidays."
Robicheaux said smaller retailers are more likely to offer layaway programs because those businesses know their customer personally, leading to a degree of trust between buyer and seller. Companies offering layaway this holiday season could see a competitive advantage over larger retailers that have done away with the service.
"Companies with layaway programs are essentially offering their customers free credit, and many consumers are likely to take advantage of that in these economic times," Robicheaux said. "So I see a distinct advantage for some retailers to capitalize on."
Layaway, as a practice, was mostly abandoned by many retailers as the popularity of credit cards surged in the 1990s.
"Flawed" 401(k) Laws Putting Retirement at Risk
Defined-contribution plans not meant to replace pensions10/29/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
ongress needs to reform flawed 401(k) laws that could push back retirement for millions of Americans whose savings have collapsed along with the stock mark...
Congress needs to reform flawed 401(k) laws that could push back retirement for millions of Americans whose savings have collapsed along with the stock market, a University of Illinois elder law expert says.
Law professor Richard L. Kaplan says 401(k) accounts were meant to supplement traditional defined-benefit pensions, but have evolved into the sole nest egg for the bulk of U.S. workers whose employers offer any kind of savings program.
The shift, he says, has left workers with the illusion of a company-funded pension when in fact it's largely their own money in investments that are generally tethered to the stock market, which has lost $8 trillion during an economic meltdown over the last year.
"People mistakenly think they have an employer pension plan and don't understand that their retirement income, other than Social Security, is in very serious jeopardy right now," said Kaplan, who wrote a 2004 article on the risks of 401(k) plans that appeared in the Arizona Law Review.
He argues that Congress should rewrite laws to allow 401(k) programs only in concert with defined-benefit pensions, even if it means more companies join the roughly half of U.S. employers that offer no retirement savings plan.
"As matters stand currently, workers are being tricked," Kaplan said. "They think they have a pension plan at work when it's really their own money and every aspect of the 401(k) program -- participation, contribution level, investment allocation, withdrawal arrangement -- is problematic when it's the person's only savings plan."
Even the lure of cashing in when employers offer matching contributions is "less than compelling," he said. Matches are typically small, and many employers have reduced or eliminated them in recent years. Beyond that, he says, workers who change jobs after just a few years often lose those employer contributions anyway.
"If people want to save for their retirement, they can always set up an Individual Retirement Account at virtually any financial institution, including their neighborhood bank," Kaplan said. "The dollar limit on contributions is lower for IRAs than for employer-based plans, but the vast majority of 401(k) plan contributions are within current IRA limits and thus would not be impacted by this difference."
When 401(k) laws were adopted in 1978, the new savings accounts were envisioned as part of a three-pronged plan for retirement, a supplement for monthly checks from Social Security and conventional defined-benefit plans, he said.
But as 401(k) plans were being launched, Kaplan said, employers already were veering away from defined-benefit programs because of new costs created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, adopted four years earlier.
The act, intended to make worker pensions more secure, also made defined-benefit plans more expensive through new regulations and insurance premiums to safeguard pension funds, he said.
Only about half of employers offer any retirement savings program and, of those, nearly 60 percent offer just a 401(k) plan, Kaplan said. Many provide little or no company contribution, a trend he says has quickened in the last few years.
"We're only now beginning to see a cohort of people on the cusp of retirement who have the bulk of their retirement funding coming from 401(k) plans," he said. "It's a relatively new phenomenon."
Because the stock market plunge has withered savings, many of those workers may have to postpone retirement and keep working, Kaplan said. That, in turn, would reduce job openings for younger workers and boost employer health insurance costs due to an older workforce.
"You might also just have more older people who are poor, which was the historical norm," Kaplan said. "Before Social Security, it was not unusual for older people to be poor or to move in with sons or daughters, not because they couldn't physically get around but because those were the people who had a significant source of income."
In his 2004 law review article, Kaplan argued that flaws with 401(k) plans made a case against efforts afoot then to privatize Social Security, which he said would create the same risks and put future retirees in further financial peril. He doubts the move will resurface any time soon in the wake of the lingering turmoil on Wall Street.
"The cause of Social Security privatization has been set back considerably," said Kaplan.
More Pets Turned Over To Shelters in Ailing Economy
Families give up cherished friends as costs rise and jobs disappear10/28/2008ConsumerAffairs
More Pets Turned Over To Shelters in Ailing Economy...
By Lisa Wade McCormick
October 28, 2008
Leanne Potts can't shake the painful image.
A distressed pet owner told Potts she'd lost her home and business and could no longer afford to take care of her beloved dog. The Chattanooga woman then asked Potts' organization to take her 8-year-old Basset Hound.
The story is one her animal rescue group in Tennessee is encountering often during these tough economic times.
"It was heartbreaking to take the dog from her," says Potts, president of Bellyrubs Basset Rescue, a non-profit group that finds homes for Bassett Hounds.
"This was a middle class woman who lived in a nice part of Chattanooga. She and her husband owned a restaurant and had taken out a second mortgage to start the business. The business failed and they lost everything."
Potts' group took the woman's Bassett Hound, but she had three other dogs. Another rescue group took one of the dogs.
"But the other two were older dogs," Potts says, adding they were 10 and 12-years-old. "They were on a lot medication for arthritis. The woman told us she couldn't afford that medication and couldn't find anyone to take those dogs."
That forced the woman to make a heart-wrenching decision.
"She put the older dogs down," Potts says, unable to mask the sadness in her voice. "She said she would not take them to the pound, she couldn't keep them or couldn't find any rescue group to take them. And she didn't want them to suffer without their medication. So she had them put down."
Potts worries that other pet owners in her area may soon be forced to make similar decisions.
"We've been hit really hard (economically)," she says. "Tennessee is leading the nation in personal bankruptcies. We're getting a lot more calls from individuals who want to give us their dogs because they're losing their homes.
"With all the foreclosures and job losses, the animals are the final victims," adds Potts, whose organization has rescued 71 dogs this year. That's a 50 percent increase since 2007. "They're the forgotten victims in all of this."
Animal rescue groups and shelters across the country echo Potts' concerns. Many tell ConsumerAffairs.com they've seen an increase in the number of pet owners forced to give up their dogs and cats because of the ailing economy.
"We've seen a lot of that," says Kathy Burkley, executive director of the Humane Society of Westmoreland County in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. "A lot of people are either losing their homes or can't afford their homes."
Two people recently brought their dogs to Burkley's facility, which is a no-kill shelter. "They wanted to leave their two big dogs with us because they couldn't afford them anymore," Burkley says. "We asked them if they could give us a few days because we didn't have any space."
The people walked out, but left their dogs in the shelter's parking lot.
"We looked out the window and saw they had tied up those dogs to a telephone pole," Burkley says. "We couldn't get a license plate because they walked here."
This particular story, however, has a happy ending. "Both those dogs were adopted," Burkley says.
But some distraught pet owners simply leave their dogs and cats in their foreclosed homes when they're forced to move out.
"Our humane agents have seen that happen several times," Burkley says. "People leave their dogs and cats and walk away.
"Last week, we took in eight Jack Russell Terriers that were left in a house without food or water."
Burkley's facility has seen the impact of the tough economy in other ways.
"We run a clinic once a week where pet owners can bring in their animals for shots and check-ups," she said. "We've started to see people coming in with absolutely no money. When we ask them if they can afford to pay even $10, they say 'no.' Last Tuesday, we had two emergencies and the people had no money to give us."
Problems across the country
Across the country, the ailing economy is taking its toll on pet owners in central Oregon.
ConsumerAffairs.com learned the Humane Society in that area has seen an increase in the number of people forced to give up their animals because of foreclosures and job losses.
"Animals are the victims when finances are tight," says Lynne Ouchida, community outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of Central Oregon (HSCO). "Like all shelters across the nation, we have felt the impact of the economy on animals and witnessed the tears when people have to give up their animals due to foreclosure."
Unlike other shelters, though, Ouchida's facility isn't seeing pet owners give up just one animal.
"What we're getting is people turning in multiple dogs, cats, birds, and small animals. They're giving up all the animals in their homes. This is something we used to rarely--if ever--see. But now, we're seeing people give multiple animals at one time."
Even horses in Ouchida's part of the country have become victims of the troubled economy. Many people in central Oregon own small ranches, and some of those ranchers are now abandoning their horses because of the high cost of hay and veterinary care, Ouchida says.
"Often times they do not consider the long term costs, and during difficult financial time, horses are found abandoned on public lands. This can also happen to long time ranch folks."
Some ranchers have even tried--unsuccessfully--to euthanize their horses because they can't afford to hire a veterinarian, Ouchida says.
Ouchida's shelter has seen another sign of the sagging economy--more people are asking for pet food.
"We provide pet food to the homeless, those needing assistance, and to seniors," she says. "These people need help with the food, but while we are receiving more requests for food--and our goal is to help people keep their animals--we are not getting the donations we need because of the downturn in the economy. In last year, we have seen huge drops in dog food and cat food donations."
Thanks to one philanthropic young girl, though, Ouchida's facility now has enough pet food to feed its animals.
Mimi donates ten pieces of kibble for every person who goes to those Web sites and plays a trivia game.
She's partnered with pet food company Castor and Pollux. Their efforts have already provided over 49 million pieces of kibble to 11 shelters nationwide.
"Freekibble is truly helping to feed the 4,000 animals cared for each year (at our facility)," Ouchida says. "But it also allows us to support our pet food program for those in need. We distribute pet food and treats to those in need via Meals on Wheels, VFW LaPine Community Kitchen and Pantry, and local soup kitchens.
"We also help anyone who asks for pet food assistance via the phone or walks into our shelter."
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has also helped Ouchida's facility--and scores of other animal shelters and rescue groups nationwide--deal with the increasing number of animals they're seeing in this tight economy.
Earlier this year, the HSUS started a special foreclosure fund to help "establish, expand, or publicize services or programs that assist families in caring for their pets during the current economic crisis."
"We started seeing that pets were getting into trouble as people got into (financial) trouble," Nancy Peterson, manager of the HSUS's Feral Cat Program, told us. "I would say this is a national phenomenon. That doesn't mean every shelter in every community is effected to the same extent, but we know it's happening."
Under the program, animal shelters and rescue groups can apply for grants of up to $2,000.
"So far, we've given out about $80,000 to 46 organizations," Peterson says. "We seeded the grant with $15,000 and now have $105,000 thanks to the generosity of a lot of wonderful people. And we will continue to provide grants as long as we have money."
Animal groups that have received the grants appreciate the HSUS's generosityand say it will help them care for distressed animals and their owners in these difficult times.
"During this foreclosure and financial crisis we have noticed a marked increase in the number of people abandoning their pets," wrote Valerie Slamka, founder of A Purrfect World in New Jersey. Her organization received a $2,000 grant from the HSUS.
"We intend to use the grant to help educate people about viable alternatives, to expand our foster network to accommodate those in need of temporary assistance and, if necessary, find suitable homes for pets from our list of potential adopters."
The founder and president of the Community Partnership for Pets in North Carolina says her organization will use the $2,000 grant it received to help struggling pet owners.
"We will be using this grant to provide emergency veterinary care to low income families," said Mary Cervini. "Just the thought of an animal dying in the back of a car while the family is trying to negotiate a payment plan with the veterinarian's office is a terrible situation."
A pet owner in central Oregon, who recently received assistance from the humane society there, never forgot that act of kindness.
"She had come upon some tough times and couldn't feed her dog," Ouchida told us. "We gave her some dog food. And now that she's back on her feet, she wants to do a fundraiser to help us."
What you can do
In the meantime, officials with animal shelters and rescue groups offer the following advice to pet owners faced with a financial crisis:
Contact your local humane society or animal rescue group. "They probably have programs in place to assist people who come upon difficult times," Ouchida says. "Most have ways to help people. And the goal of animal welfare groups is to help people keep their animals...it's most stressful for animals to go home to home."
Never leave your pets in a foreclosed home. -"It is irresponsible and cruel and most likely illegal to abandon a pet," says the HSUS's Peterson. "A pet could linger there for a long time and die a slow and painful death."
Be proactive."If you're facing financial problems, deal with them," says Potts, president of the Bellyrubs Basset Rescue. "Talk to your lenders now, pay attention to these (presidential) candidates, and talk to your family and friends. And we tell people that if they take their pets to a shelter, the odds of their animals getting out are slim."
Try to keep vaccinations and flea treatments current. "But I know that if people don't have the money, they don't have the money," says Burkley, with the Humane Society of Westmoreland County. "The wellness part is just so important because you don't want your pets to get sick. We have people who skip that and find themselves and their pets in a worse situation--something more life threatening and expensive."
Don't be afraid to ask for help. "I have given some products free to people who don't have the money and say their dog is infested with fleas," Burkley says.
Animal lovers can also help struggling pets--and their owners--during these tough economic times by:
Providing temporary housing for pets while their owners get settled;
Supporting their local animal shelters by donating food, money, or time. Some children across the country have asked their family and friends to make donations to animal organizations instead of giving them presents for their birthdays, Christmas, or other holidays;
Helping a pet owner in need by pay for their animals' food or veterinary bills;
Contacting local animal control officers if they know about a pet living in a house that is abandoned.
Mars Recalls Cat Food Sold at Wal-Mart due to Salmonella
15 states see recall of "Special Kitty" product10/28/2008ConsumerAffairs
Mars Recalls Cat Food Sold at Wal-Mart due to Salmonella...
Mars Petcare US has recalled a limited number of bags of its SPECIAL KITTY Gourmet Blend dry cat food sold at Wal-Mart stores in 15 states because of possible Salmonella contamination.
The company said the potentially-tainted cat food was sold at Wal-Mart stores in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia.
"Mars Petcare has been working cooperatively with Wal-Mart to address this issue, and the affected product of this lot has already been removed from Wal-Mart's shelves," the company said in a statement released on Monday. "As a result, consumers can be assured that all SPECIAL KITTY Gourmet Blend products that remain on Wal-Mart's shelves are safe and not subject to this recall."
The cat food involved in the recall include the 3.5 pound, 7 pound, and 18 pound bags with the following UPC codes: 81131 17546, 81131 17547, and 81131 17548. The recalled bags also have a Best if Used By date of August 11, 2009 and a lot code that starts with the numbers "50."
The company said it is not aware of any illnesses in pets or humans linked to the recalled food. Cat owners, however, should immediately stop feeding the food to their pets, the company said.
Salmonella can cause serious infections in dogs and cats, experts say. People can also be infected if they handle the tainted food. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable.
Symptoms of Salmonella infection in humans include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. Salmonella can, in rare cases, cause such serious illnesses as arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and urinary tract symptoms.
Pets infected with Salmonella may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may only have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.
Pet owners whose cats ate the recalled food and have these symptoms should contact their veterinarian.
For more information about the recall, pet owners can contact the company at 1-877-568-4463.
ATV Injuries and Deaths Continue to Rise
Consumer groups say hazards from all-terrain vehicles "unabated"10/28/2008ConsumerAffairs
For the eighth year in a row, serious injuries caused by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) increased, and children under age 16 continued to suffer a significant...
For the eighth year in a row, serious injuries caused by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) increased, and children under age 16 continued to suffer a significant portion of those injuries, according to a report released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Estimated deaths on ATVs increased as well.
"Every year, more and more families are devastated by deaths and injuries caused by ATVs. This tragic problem continues to be in dire need of an aggressive and immediate solution," stated Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety for Consumer Federation of America. "Congress, CPSC, state legislatures, the ATV industry, and the consumer and health care community still have miles to go before we adequately reduce the hazards caused by ATVs."
"This new report shows more of the same -- continued high death and injury rates among children on all-terrain vehicles," said American Academy of Pediatrics President David T. Tayloe, Jr., MD, FAAP. "ATVs continue to kill and seriously injure children at alarming rates. The CPSC's meager efforts to stem the tide have been entirely ineffective, and industry has done nothing to make these dangerous vehicles safer."
Major findings in the CPSC's 2007 Annual Report on ATV-related Deaths and Injuries include:
Serious injuries requiring emergency room treatment rose from 146,000 in 2006 to 150,900 in 2007, an increase of less than one percent that was not statistically significant. Since 2001, there has been a statistically significant 37% increase in serious injuries.
The estimated number of ATV-related fatalities fell slightly from 948 in 2005 to 882 in 2006. To date, 542 reports of ATV-related fatalities have been identified for 2007, but this number is expected to increase as additional data are gathered. The states with the highest numbers of reported deaths identified in the period 2005-2007 were West Virginia (143), Florida (123) and Kentucky (114).
In 2007, at least 107 children younger than 16 were killed on ATVs. This accounts for 20 percent of fatalities.
Children under 16 suffered 40,000 serious injuries in 2007 -- or 27 percent of all injuries. This is a 2 percent increase from the 2006 estimate. CPSC found that this decrease was not statistically significant. Since 2001, there has been a statistically significant increase of 17% in the number of children under 16 seriously injured on ATVs.
The CPSC data include a risk estimate of ATV injuries per 10,000 four-wheel ATVs. The risk estimate for 2007 is 153.9 compared with 163 in 2006. In making this determination, CPSC estimated that there were 9.5 million ATVs in use in 2007 and 8.6 million in use in 2006. In August 2006, CPSC denied a petition filed over six years ago by consumer and health groups demanding action on ATVs. Instead, the Commission moved forward with a rulemaking that would result in ATV standards. There is no timeline for the full rulemaking process and work on the rulemaking appears to have stalled.
The CPSC's rulemaking, however, describes the development of a "transitional ATV" for children age 14 and older, which is of particular concern to consumer and public health advocates. These ATVs would likely have engines larger than those currently recommended for children under 16.
The CPSC, the ATV industry, the Consumer Federation of America, and many other consumer advocates recommend that children ages 12 through 15 not ride ATVs with engines larger than 90 cc's.
On August 14, 2008, the President signed into the law the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which includes a provision focused on ATVs dealing primarily with protecting the economic interests of the largest ATV manufacturers.
The provision makes the current ANSI/SVIA voluntary standard mandatory; requires that the manufacturer of any ATV imported into the U.S. be party to ATV Action Plans; requires that CPSC continue its rulemaking process and consider multiple factors when categorizing youth ATVs; and requires that CPSC consult with NHTSA to determine the safety of numerous aspects of ATV safety.
The ANSI/SVIA standard sets forth a description of a transitional ATV, which contradicts that of CPSC's proposed rule. The speed limit for transitional ATVs in the ANSI/SVIA standard is considerably higher than that in CPSC's proposed rule.
"The CPSC data show that the hazards posed by ATVs continue unabated. Children should not be riding adult-size ATVs, ATVs must be designed to eliminate hazards and enforcement must be effective at both the federal and state level," stated Weintraub.
Checking Account Fees Hit Record Numbers in 2008
ATM surcharges, bounced check fees, monthly service charges all up10/27/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Checking Account Fees Hit Record Numbers in 2008...
A new study finds that checking account fees have risen again this year to an all-time high. Bankrate's 2008 Checking Study details the average fees associated with using and maintaining an interest bearing account, including bounced check fees, ATM surcharges, and monthly service fees.
Bankrate's survey of leading banks yielded the following data:
• ATM surcharges moved to $1.97 while the cost of using an outside ATM reached $1.46, putting the total average cost of using an out-of-network ATM at $3.43. Additionally, bounced check fees rose 2.5 percent this year, up to $28.95.
• With interest bearing accounts, monthly service fees hit a new high at an average of $11.97. Minimum balances also set a record with an average balance of $3,461.84 needed to keep an account open.
• For non-interest bearing accounts, monthly service fees hit a new low at an average of $1.96. Minimum balances also hit a new low with an average balance of $109.26 required.
To avoid some of the penalties associated with checking accounts, Bankrate's experts recommend taking the following steps:
• Consumers should keep close tabs on their accounts by balancing their checkbooks regularly as well as checking their account balances regularly online. Furthermore, sign up for overdraft protection with a funded savings account to ensure that you don't bounce a check.
• Use foresight when taking out money from your bank's ATM. Taking out $30 or $40 dollars from an out-of-network ATM is the same as paying 9 percent interest on your money.
• Investigate online banks. Many reputable online banks have generous ATM fee reimbursement programs for frequent users.
"In today's uncertain economic environment when every dollar counts, it is more important than ever for consumers to be vigilant about avoiding bank fees," said Bankrate Sr. Financial Analyst, Greg McBride. "Bankrate.com's annual Checking Study provides consumers with the tools and advice to find the best account and avoid unnecessary fees."
Bankrate.com surveyed one interest checking account and one noninterest checking account at each of the largest banks and thrifts in each of 25 large markets to find the latest trends on checking account and ATM fees. There were 247 interest accounts and 226 noninterest accounts surveyed at 249 banks and thrifts in the top 25 metropolitan areas.
The complete study is available online..
How to Appeal Your Property Tax Bill
Make sure you're not paying more than your house is worth10/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
How to Appeal Your Property Tax Bill...
When home values fall, so can property tax bills, but sometimes not before you initiate the tedious process to prove your home's assessed value warrants a tax reduction.
Pay close attention to your next property tax bill.
Your home may be worth less than the local tax assessor believes and that could mean a smaller property tax bill.
However, unless the assessor takes it upon himself or herself to update property values, against which taxes are typically levied, it's up to you to appeal your tax bill.
Pay particular attention to the fact that property tax systems vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
• Property taxes are typically based on some assessed value of your property, but that's where the similarity ends.
• How property values are actually assessed, how that assessed value is taxed, the length of time between assessments, the process to appeal the assessment and the laws that govern it all, are all as local as your real estate market.
• You must visit your local jurisdiction to learn the local system, its rules and your rights to appeal. Don't assume the assessor isn't already at work for you, but also don't assume he or she is.
The Federation of Tax Administrators can point you to your property tax assessor or administrator where you can get all the details you need for appealing your property tax.
Right now is a good time to take stock of your property tax bill.
Generally, when home prices rise, so do property taxes. The opposite is also true, when home values fall, so do property taxes.
Today's increased incidence of foreclosures, slow sales and lender reluctance to finance the full value of a home make it obvious that home values are down in many locations.
The previous housing boom frenzy caused many buyers to bid up the price of the property and artificially inflate the value. In some markets, sellers who purchased homes at the height of the boom and must now sell, are finding they have to price their home to move. That causes home value declines.
The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) reported that as many as 60 percent of all homes are over-assessed and not in line with their actual value -- and that was during boom times.
Also many errors are clerical mistakes according to the American Homeowners Association (AHA).
The vast majority of homeowners who find errors and contest their bill enjoy a lower property tax, says the AHA, which offers a quiz that points to signals your home could be over assessed.
Tell-tale signs include:
• Errors in the description of your property on the tax bill.
• Compatible homes in the area that have sold for less than your appraised value.
• Neighbors with lower assessments on similar houses. Some homes retain the same assessed value for years and assessed values often don't rise in step with market values or home sale prices.
• Value reducers in your home or area, including drainage problems, easements, re-zoning, heavy traffic, nearby railroad tracks, freeways, industry or toxic waste.
• Depreciation factors, including age, the quality of materials, inefficient heating, structural cracks, deterioration, or chronic defects.
The AHA's kit is a good deal because it's an informative package that is free. NTU's costs $7, but likewise remains a bargain from an independent non-commercial source. However, your local jurisdiction has all the information you need to appeal your property tax assessment and it's a good bet that information and the process is free.
Watch out for private, sometimes questionable property tax reduction operations charging larger fees and promises. Avoid official-looking mailings and email come-ons that offer to do the work for you -- for a fee -- with "guarantees." Some are out right scams appealing to your sense of dread at going it alone. They want only your money and have no plans to appeal your property tax assessment.
In any event, you can wait until your assessment arrives or visit your property tax assessor's office to examine your account.
When you do, consider the following questions:
• Did you buy your home in a bidding war? Yesterday's over-valued property is today's over-assessed property.
• Are there errors in your tax records? Look closely at your records and make sure there aren't reporting errors. A condo listed as a single-family home, an incorrect age, square footage that's off, too many rooms and other descriptive factors could falsely boost assessed value.
• Do the math. Some tax laws put a cap on how much above the market value an assessment can be and how much it can rise each year. An appeal that results in a reduced assessed value, may not be permanent. You could quickly return to your higher value, market conditions permitting.
To appeal the assessed value and related property tax, prepare yourself for a tough row. You may even have to appeal an initial rejection.
First, pay close attention to your local rules' period of time when you must complete the appeals process.
Even if the process is free if you go it alone, you may need the help of a real estate agent, realty attorney or other licensed professional to assist you gathering some of the evidence you'll need to make your case.
You'll have to look at comparable homes in your community to determine how much the owners are paying for property taxes. The information is largely public and available from your tax assessor's office.
You'll typically have to find at least three other comparable homes in your neighborhood that have lower assessments. Obviously, the lower, the better.
A real estate agent or other professional who has access to the multiple listing service can do a comparable market analysis of homes recently sold and in escrow to hone in on your home's true value -- something you may not be able to accomplish with older public records.
An appraiser with multiple listing service access can do the same, as well as perform an appraisal of your home.
In either case, you could be out a few hundred dollars for professional assistance. Don't make a case if you don't think it's worth the cost to appeal.
The AARP also says some states have programs for property tax deferrals and other programs that let certain home owners postpone payment of some or all property taxes. There are also some tax rebates and exemptions.
Don't forget, property taxes are also one of many home ownership related expenses that qualify for a deduction on your income tax returns. The smaller the tax, the smaller the deduction.
Broderick Perkins parlayed 30 years of old-school journalism into a digital real estate news service, the DeadlineNews Group, offering "News that really hits home!"™. The Silicon Valley bootstrap includes the Web site DeadlineNews.Com and the back shop Deadline Newsroom. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Personal Bankruptcies On the Rise
Bankruptices on the rise but the choice can have serious consequences10/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
Personal Bankruptcies On the Rise...
With two million people losing their homes to foreclosure this year and unemployment at a five year high, personal bankruptcies are on the rise again as well, up more than 28% over last year. Expectations are that bankruptcies will top 1.1 million for the year.
That's according to the American Bankruptcy Institute which reports American families are now going bankrupt at the rate of 22,000 a week, a figure that is trending upward as the nation falls deeper and deeper into a recession.
Some may see bankruptcy as a personal bailout, their individual version of the government bailout offered to banks. After all, wasn't it too much debt that drove our largest financial institutions into needing a $700 billion dollar bailout? Too much debt is one of the key reasons that more and more Americans are being driven into bankruptcy, along with rising unemployment and unpaid medical bills because of lost health benefits.
But with laws tightening to make bankruptcy filings more difficult, not to mention more expensive, bankruptcies are nothing like bailouts. In fact, there are a few things you need to know if you are considering going down this rough and financially dangerous road.
First and foremost, filing for bankruptcy destroys your credit rating and could make it extremely difficult to borrow money for many years thereafter. Typically, a bankruptcy will stay on a credit report for at least ten years.
Steps you can take prior to bankruptcy
Since bankruptcy is a very serious step with short and long-term consequences, make sure you have exhausted all other options before taking this route. One way to try to forestall it is to try to work out with as many of your creditors as possible partial payment options even if you both agree that it will take months or even years to finally repay the debts that are owed.
Another option is to approach family or friends for monetary gifts or loans. If they turn you down, or if they are tapped out themselves, consider selling whatever valuables you have that might generate revenue such as gold, sterling silver, even heirlooms, art works, furs, bicycles, or cars.
See if you can get a second or even a third job or ask a teen and young adult family members who are able to work, in addition to going to school full-or part-time, if they can contribute to your family household income needs. Renting out a room or part of your apartment or house, if it is allowed in your community, is another possible source of revenue.
If you have exhausted all possible avenues and bankruptcy still seems like the only alternative, there is a small bright side. Some experts say those who file for bankruptcy are already in such bad shape their credit scores are already very low. Therefore, wiping out their debts by filing for bankruptcy may even improve the chances for some people to eventually rebuild their credit ratings.
So, if there are no viable alternatives to bankruptcy, the first step is for you to find a good lawyer who has expertise in bankruptcy filings. If you don't have one, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys can provide you with a list of names in your area. They'll help you determine what kind of bankruptcy you should be filing because there re two main options. Most personal bankruptcies tend to be either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.
Chapter 7 is the simplest and least expensive personal bankruptcy alternative. It's what you do if you can't pay your unsecured debt, such as credit card payments. The process, which takes only a few months, will wipe off your credit card balances. Bankruptcy lawyers say the primary reason people chose Chapter 7 is so they can protect their car and home.
Some assets, such as pension plan, qualified retirement plans like IRAs or 401(k)s, are exempt from Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which means you can keep them. So if you find yourself falling into financial trouble, the one thing you don't want to do is to cut back on pension or retirement contributions.
The more complicated version is Chapter 13 which is a court-supervised three-to-five year repayment plan that lets you keep more of your assets. It can also help to reduce car or mortgage payments that aren't covered under Chapter 7. In a Chapter 13 filing, your debts are not wiped clean. Instead, during repayment plan, you pay back some of your debts. After that, most of the rest of your debts are forgiven.
Also with Chapter 13, you may be able to alter a car loan or catch up on back mortgage payments. As for other types of assets you may want to keep that aren't protected under Chapter 7, Chapter 13 may apply. But again, this will vary from state to state and there are a number of rules governing how much you have to repay each creditor.
There are other types of bankruptcies, such as Chapter 11, which is corporations use but usually is too expensive for most individuals. Then there is Chapter 12, which works like Chapter 13 but is designed for family farms.
Keep in mind that there are some things no type of bankruptcy will help you with such as student loans, child support, alimony and back taxes.
How bankruptcies work
Declaring bankruptcy can be a long and painful process. Once you find an attorney, you then set up a meeting where you bring your past tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, and documents showing any assets and debts. You also have to agree to go through credit counseling.
You then file with the bankruptcy court which should issue an automatic stay that stops creditors from harassing you or trying to seize your assets. Shortly thereafter, within four weeks, you may have to meet with what's known as a creditor's trustee to review your situation. Following this, the court may wait another two months to see if any objections are filed to your bankruptcy petition. You'll also need to enroll in a credit education course. Finally, if the court rules in your favor, you will receive an order that discharges you from most of your debts.
Perhaps the most important asset that may be protected from creditors in bankruptcy is your home, provided it is your primary residence. The amount you can protect varies from state to state. Florida and Texas have what's called "homestead exemptions" which means your home is protected. Some states have rules governing occupancy and that you have to actually own the property. Other states only allow you to keep a home, provided you have a certain amount of equity invested in the property.
There also are other assets such as your car and some personal effects that may be protected, but the limits will vary from state to state.
Nobody likes bankruptcies but in these difficult times they are becoming an ever-growing part of American life. One Richmond, VA-based counseling agency, Clearpoint Financial Solutions, recently told the Richmond Times Dispatch that it has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of people seeking help over last year, along with other signs of hardship, including:
• A 25 percent increase in the amount of debt people are placing in debt-management programs, indicating a rise in delinquency rates with consumer credit.
• A 22 percent increase in monthly housing expenses among people seeking counseling.
• A 23 percent increase in the number of clients who are now living with friends or relatives because they can't afford to rent or own a home.
You and any of your family members may be having a hard time dealing with the emotional ramifications of declaring bankruptcy, such as feeling guilty about telling those who performed work for you that you will not be able to pay them, or how your self-esteem is impacted by your grave financial situation. If so, consider seeking out a therapist who can help you deal with those emotions and provide the kind of help you probably won't get from a credit counselor.
Just remember that these are very hard times and you are not alone in having to go down the personal bankruptcy road. It's becoming one crowded highway.
Feds Issue New Identity Theft Recommendations
But delay enforcement of "red flags" fraud program for businesses10/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
Feds Issue New Identity Theft Recommendations...
The Bush administration last week issued its annual Identity Theft Task Force Report, including 31 recommendations for combating identity theft and fraud, and boasting of a 26 percent increase in identity theft convictions from 2007. The 70-page report details steps taken by federal agencies to implement recommendations originally proposed in the Identity Theft Task Force's strategic plan, published in April 2007. The strategic plan, itself based upon recommendations made by the Task Force when it was founded in 2006, emphasized reductions in the use of Social Security numbers as an identifier for both businesses and government agencies.
"The SSN is highly valuable for identity thieves because it is often a necessary (if not necessarily sufficient) item of information that a thief needs to open new accounts in the victim's name," the task force wrote. "One of the most practical and cost-effective ways to prevent breaches is to collect and maintain sensitive data only when it is necessary to do so."
The Task Force recommended that the government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) take the lead in reviewing how federal agencies use Social Security numbers and issuing new recommendations for reducing or eliminating their use in everyday paperwork. In addition, the task force reported that OPM has been working with the Social Security Administration (SSA) to conduct studies on the feasibility of replacing a Social Security number with a new unique identifier for all federal employees.
The task force also reported progress on working with state and local governments to reduce or eliminate usage of Social Security numbers as an identifier for their daily business.
The ID "passport"
The task force also focused on its efforts to improve restitution and aid for victims of identity theft, for whom it takes an average of 600 hours and $6,000 to get any damage to their identities fixed. The chief recommendation was widespread adoption of a "passport" document for victims to use in order to verify their identities while disputing or investigating charges of identity theft.
The Justice Department has launched a pilot "passport" program in Ohio, where victims enter their information into a statewide database that is shared with other law enforcement agencies, in order to reduce additional fraud and enable the victim to more easily go about their business.
The Task Force also recommended extending partnership with lawyers and legal aid services on both the state and federal levels to get victims of identity theft more legal representation in order to gain restitution.
The Task Force reported that in 2007, 2,470 suspected identity thieves or fraudsters were charged with crimes relating to identity theft, and 1,943 were convicted, up from 1,534 in 2006.
Among those indicted were ll members of the hacker ring charged with stealing 40 million credit and debit card numbers from the TJX company and its affiliates, considered the biggest data breach in history.
The Justice Department also reported progress in identifying and prosecuting criminal groups that traffic in the "underground economy" of stolen credit cards and personal information, including members of the "Shadowcrew" identity theft cartel.
Lowering the red flag
The Task Force acknowledged that the private sector's usage of personally identifying information constitutes a potential security risk, and recommended increased education and training for companies on how to better handle the data they collect.
At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is part of the Task Force, announced that it would be delaying implementation of the "red flags rules" for businesses to implement identity theft protection plans until May 1, 2009.
Under the "red flags rules," financial institutions and business entities that offer credit or services provided through credit were required to develop and implement plans to protect their customers' data from identity theft and better identify potential fraudulent transactions. Businesses covered by the rules included banks, mortgage lenders, telecommunications companies, auto dealerships, and many others.
The rules, which were passed in 2003 as part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), were not scheduled for implementation until January 2008, and full implementation was originally delayed until November 2008. The FTC said that because many businesses that are not covered by FTC jurisdiction did not know they were affected by the rules, they would not be able to comply with the deadline quickly enough.
"These entities indicated that they were not aware that they were engaged in activities that would cause them to fall under the FACT Act's definition of creditor or financial institution," the agency said. "The Commission's delay of enforcement will enable these entities sufficient time to establish and implement appropriate identity theft prevention programs, in compliance with the Rule."
Brits Get Treats, Yanks Get Tricks From Food Companies
American products use food dyes, while UK equivalents go all-natural10/24/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Brits Get Treats, Yanks Get Tricks From Food Companies...
While British consumers enjoy products made by General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft and McDonald's that are free of synthetic food dyes, American customers lack such royal treatment, according to the October issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Despite evidence linking food dyes to hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children, companies continue to use the controversial dyes in American product lines. But interestingly enough, they substitute natural colorings in the United Kingdom.
In the U.K., Fanta orange soft drink gets its bright color from pumpkin and carrot extract, but in the U.S. it comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6. Starburst Chews and Skittles, which are both Mars products, also contain synthetic food dyes in the U.S. but not in the U.K. Similarly, in the U.S., McDonald's strawberry sundaes are colored with Red 40 but --amazing as it might sound --real strawberries in the U.K.
"British candy has all the sugar of American candy, and it's certainly not health food," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Nutrition Action's publisher. "But as Halloween approaches, it's a shame that American kids trick-or-treat for candy dyed with discredited chemicals while British families have many of the same foods, minus the dyes."
Americans consume five times as much food dye as they did 30 years ago, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration. But in the wake of two British studies that found food dyes (and possibly the preservative sodium benzoate) impair the behavior of many children, the British government pressured companies to switch to safer, natural colorings and the European Parliament approved a warning label for foods that still contain the dyes.
In June CSPI urged the FDA to ban Red 40, Yellow 5 and six other synthetic dyes. The group wants parents of children sensitive to the chemicals to file reports online, which CSPI will then forward to the FDA.
Can Coffee Offset Liver Damage from Alcohol?
The Healthy Geezer10/24/2008ConsumerAffairs
There was a study of more than 125,000 people who drank coffee. The study, showed that one cup of coffee a day cut the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis of the l...
Q. I'm a social drinker who has several glasses of wine every evening, but I'm told I can avoid any liver damage if I drink plenty of coffee. Sounds ridiculous. What do you think?
There was a study of more than 125,000 people who drank coffee. The study, published recently, showed that one cup of coffee a day cut the risk of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver by 20 percent. Four cups a day reduced the risk by 80 percent. It's not known yet why coffee protected livers in this study.
Even "social drinkers" can develop cirrhosis, a condition that causes irreversible damage to the liver. Whether you get cirrhosis depends upon the amount of alcohol you drink and a predisposition for the condition.
If you drink a lot of alcohol, you will hurt your liver. However, you will not necessarily get cirrhosis. You have a one-in-three chance of getting cirrhosis if you drink 8 to 16 ounces of liquor a day (or the equivalent in other alcoholic drinks) for 15 years or more.
More men than women get cirrhosis. There is a theory that more men get cirrhosis because they're heavier drinkers.
Women can't tolerate as much alcohol as men can. Studies show that a much higher percentage of women, consuming less alcohol than men, suffer from cirrhosis.
In the United States, excessive alcohol consumption is the single greatest risk factor for cirrhosis. Chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus is the second leading cause of cirrhosis.
The liver, which is located in the upper right side of the abdomen, is the largest organ in the human body. It weighs about three pounds and is--believe it or not--about the size of a football. You cannot live without a liver.
The liver is a multipurpose organ that performs hundreds of tasks. Among its functions are the digestion of fats, removal of harmful substances from blood, production of cholesterol, control of infections and the coagulation of blood.
In cirrhosis of the liver, scar tissue replaces healthy tissue; this blocks blood flow through the liver and prevents it from working efficiently.
At the onset of cirrhosis, there may be no symptoms. As the liver deteriorates, the following may occur: internal bleeding, fluid retention in the legs and feet, bruising, yellow skin and eyes, fluid in the abdomen, itchy hands and feet, dark urine, loss of appetite and weight, nausea, fatigue, and red spider veins.
Although liver damage from cirrhosis is irreversible, treatment can help prevent more damage and reduce complications. Giving up alcohol is the primary treatment. Improving nutrition is often part of treatment, too.
A doctor can diagnose cirrhosis through symptoms, a medical history, a physical exam, and tests.
Tests that are often used in diagnosis include a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a scan using a radioactive substance that highlights the liver. A doctor might look at the liver using an instrument that is inserted into the abdomen. A liver biopsy can confirm a diagnosis.
All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti
Shimano Dura Ace Bicycle Wheels Recalled10/23/2008ConsumerAffairs
Shimano Dura Ace Bicycle Wheels Recalled...
October 23, 2008
Shimano American Corp. is recalling Dura Ace carbon clincher wheels for bicycles. Rim surface and spoke hole plugs on the wheel can cause a puncture to the inner tube, resulting in a flat tire. This can cause the rider to lose control and fall.
This recall involves the Shimano Dura Ace Carbon Clincher Wheel Sets with model number WH-7850 C24CL sold for road racing bicycles. The rim has labels that read 'Shimano WH-7850', 'Dura Ace', and 'Carbon 1380.' These wheels are intended for use with high-end adult road-racing bicycles.
The wheels, made in Malaysia, were sold at bicycle specialty stores and dealers nationwide from April 2008 through August 2008 for about $1,300.
Consumers should stop using the bicycles with the recalled wheels, remove the wheels, and return them to their local bike dealer or retailer for a free inspection and repair.
For more information, contact Shimano American Corp. at (800) 353-4719 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's web site at bike.shimano.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
West Virginia Wipes Out Credit Card Debt for 1,451 Citizens
Attorney General cleans the slate for victims of shady debt collector10/23/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
West Virginia Wipes Out Credit Card Debt for 1,451 Citizens...
As thousands of consumers discover each year, shady companies that promise to get rid of your credit card debt always fail to deliver. It turns out that getting rid of that debt is a lot harder than they say.
Your state attorney general, on the other hand, can sometimes wipe the slate clean, especially if there is something about the debt, or the way it is being collected, that bends or breaks the rules.
In West Virginia, for example, Attorney General Darrell McGraw has entered into a settlement agreement with Financial Credit Services ("FCS"), a debt purchaser based in Palatine, Illinois, that purchased canceled debts of $6,675,474.64 for 1,451 West Virginia consumers.
According to FCS, the defaulted credit card accounts in question were originally owed to numerous mainstream credit card banks, including Bank One, Citifinancial, Chase, GE Capital, Household, MNBA, and Providian.
McGraw began an investigation of FCS in January, 2007 after receiving consumer complaints disclosing that it was collecting debts in West Virginia without a license. The complaints also disclosed that FCS threatened to file suit and report debts to credit bureaus when it did not intend to take these actions. The attorney general also alleged that FCS did not have any verifiable proof of the debts that it sought to collect other than computer spreadsheets.
In addition to relieving consumers of the alleged indebtedness, FCS also agreed to refund all payments it collected, which so far amounts to only $2,481.00. The amount actually collected was likely small because FCS said it only contacted three per cent of the consumers.
"My office remains concerned about the debt purchasing industry, which typically purchases accounts for pennies on the dollar and rarely obtains any proof of the debt that would be admissible as evidence in a court, McGraw said. "This practice is troublesome because state and federal laws require that collection agencies be able to verify a debt when disputed by consumers, an important obligation to consumers that debt purchasers can rarely meet."
Uninsured Aren't Primary Cause of Crowds in Emergency Rooms
New study challenges assumptions about health care crisis10/22/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Uninsured Aren't Primary Cause of Crowds in Emergency Rooms...
The 47 million Americans who lack health insurance are the reason emergency rooms are crowded all the time -- right? And only the uninsured visit the emergency department for minor complaints, because it's easier than going to a doctor -- right?
Not so fast. According to a new study by a University of Michigan team, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the reality of what causes ER overcrowding is a lot more complicated. And some widely repeated perceptions about the uninsured and emergency care may be rooted more in assumptions than in solid fact.
Those faulty perceptions, they conclude, may be getting in the way of real efforts to solve both the uninsurance problem and the problem in American ERs.
In truth, the uninsured do not make up a disproportionate share of ER patients, because they are the only group that faces the full cost of care, the study shows. It also demonstrates that people who have insurance are more likely to contribute to ER overcrowding and to use the ER for minor complaints or in place of a primary care doctor's visit, because primary care offices are also overcrowded.
The study is based on an exhaustive review of 127 medical research papers, and on detective work to find out whether often-repeated statements about the uninsured and emergency care were actually based in fact.
Most of the papers were published in the last decade, when both the plight of the uninsured and the state of the nation's ERs captured the national spotlight.
Although it challenges some of the most-repeated mantras about the uninsured and ER care, the study does confirm that solid evidence exists for many of the things that Americans have come to believe about the uninsured and emergency care.
For instance, the study shows, the number of people without insurance visiting American ERs is rising -- but less quickly than the numbers of uninsured are rising. Meanwhile, patients with insurance are going to the ER more frequently.
There is also solid evidence that caring for patients -- insured and uninsured -- in an ER is more expensive than treating the same complaint in a doctor's office. Uninsured people definitely have a hard time finding primary care doctors who will see them as outpatients, but even insured patients have difficulty finding primary care.
"What we found is that there is a perception that -- because one of the roles of the emergency room is a safety net for the uninsured -- it is the uninsured who must be causing all the problems in ER care," says first author and emergency physician Manya Newton, M.D., MPH, M.S., a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the U-M Medical School.
"The crisis in emergency medicine and the problems of the growing uninsured population have been conflated," she said. "While there's excellent research out there on both issues, the myths about how the uninsured use the emergency department threaten to interfere with the policy-making process. The rise in ER use has much more to do with the aging of the population, the increase in chronic diseases, and the decrease in available primary care than with the uninsured. Policies based on false assumptions risk diverting energy and money from confronting the true drivers of emergency department crowding."
At the least, Newton and her co-authors conclude from their review, ER policy solutions will need to address the lack of timely access to primary care by the uninsured and insured alike.
The uninsured have a nearly impossible task in finding primary care. But both insured and uninsured have trouble getting appointments in less than two to three weeks, or finding primary care after regular business hours and on weekends -- which leads them to the always-open ER.
A reluctance by some physicians to take on the legal liability of counseling a patient over the phone, instead of instructing them to go to the ER, may also contribute, Newton says.
Meanwhile, Newton says the evidence is very strong that the overall cause of ER overcrowding is an "input-throughput-output" problem at American hospitals.
Patients come to the ER for treatment, and under federal law the ER cannot turn them away. Some of them need at least an overnight stay in one of the hospital beds upstairs from the ER. But those beds are often full because of a lack of safe and appropriate places to discharge current patients to -- so patients get backed up down in the ER, making it more crowded.
The closure of hospitals, ERs, and long-term skilled nursing facilities around the country makes the situation worse and worse, the researchers say. Fewer beds plus more patients equals an ER calamity.
Newton and her colleagues began the study after noting a curious phenomenon in the medical literature: many papers whose introductory passages included phrases like "It is well understood that..." and other statements of conventional wisdom about the uninsured and ERs. They often appeared without direct citations of studies that could support such statements.
Chevy Volt Gets a Jolt with Mixed Review
Car And Driver praises and buries electric car equally10/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
Chevy Volt Gets a Jolt with Mixed Review...
General Motors, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday, has staked a large part of its future on a little car called the GM Unveils Chevy Volt The carmaker hopes that consumers will embrace this next-generation hybrid when it goes into production in 2010.
And how has the automotive press received GM's offering? Praise is not universal.
"Proud as we are of GM for getting by for a century, we're not piling on the presents in the form of unqualified praise and optimism about the Volt, which will start rolling down GM's Hamtramck, Michigan, assembly line in November, 2010, Car And Driver said in its October 2008 review. "After all, we remember the 1996 GM EV1, an electric car that proved only that electric propulsion wasn't ready for prime time."
In terms of style and design, the magazine gives the Volt relatively high marks, saying photographs don't really do it justice. Up close and personal, the writers say, the Volt is well proportioned and "convincingly cool."
The "coolness" extends to the vehicle's interior, according to the writers. But they also point out that only two passengers will fit in the back seat.
The Volt will be powered with GM's new E-flex architecture, the T-shaped lithium-ion battery. It should deliver the equivalent of 150 horsepower and 273 pounds per foot of torque to the drive train. At that rate, GM expects the batteries to deliver about 40 miles of city-type driving before the batteries are drained.
Once that happens, a 1.4 liter E85-powered engine kicks on to recharge the batteries, extending the range up to 250 miles or so. After that, the car will need to be plugged into house current to recharge the battery pack.
As any consumer who has a cell phone or other electronic device knows, lithium ion batteries lose their capacity to hold a full charge over time. How much life can motorists expect from the Volt's battery engine?
Car And Driver quotes GM officials as saying the batteries will last 10 years or 150,000 miles, but the battery pack hasn't faced that real world test yet.
Which brings the reviewers to the real question about the Volt it's price tag. While GM says the car will probably sell for around the mid $30,000 range, the reviewers point out it will probably be closer to $40,000 before a consumer can drive it off the lot.
The bottom line?
"Cost isn't the only thing that will limit the Volt's appeal," the magazine concludes. "It will be compact, and its limited seating capacity and practicality may render it ill-suited as primary transportation for folks with large families. Further, its limited range also eliminates its usefulness to people that live in rural areas."
Budgeting to Play Big Role in Holiday Shopping
Price is the chief factor in deciding where to spend10/21/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Budgeting to Play Big Role in Holiday Shopping...
If retailers need yet another reminder that this Christmas shopping season will be challenging, consumers are happy to oblige.
According to the National Retail Federation's 2008 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $832.36 on holiday-related shopping an increase of less than 2 percent from year's $816.69. This represents the lowest increase in planned consumer spending since the survey began in 2002.
Though shoppers choose to visit stores for different reasons, consumers say one factor will play the biggest role in buying decisions this year: price. According to the survey, 40.0 percent of shoppers say that sales or promotions is the largest factor when determining where to shop, while another 12.6 percent state that everyday low prices are most important.
Other consumers rated selection and merchandise quality as the primary factor. Only a handful of consumers said they are making buying decisions based on a convenient location or helpful customer service this year.
"Retailers are going into this holiday season with their eyes wide open, knowing that savings and promotions will be the main incentive for shoppers," said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin. "No one is canceling Christmas because money is tight, but consumers will be sticking to their budgets and looking for good deals when deciding where to spend this holiday season."
As in previous years, gift giving is the largest component of shoppers' budgets. This year, the average person will spend $466.13 on gifts for family, $94.52 on friends, $26.70 on co-workers, and $43.50 on other gifts.
For the first time in the survey's history, people say they plan to spend less on gifts for family members ($466.13 in 2008 vs. $469.14 last year). Spending is expected to be particularly weak among young adults, as 18-24 year-olds plan to spend $50 less on gifts than one year ago.
"It might not be easy to pull back on small gifts for a co-worker or a child's teacher, but consumers feel like their family understands their current situation," said Phil Rist, Vice President of Strategy for BIGresearch. "Americans might eliminate an extended family gift exchange or buy one big present for all of the kids to compensate for a budget-friendly Christmas this year."
According to the survey, 40.2 percent of consumers will start their shopping before Halloween. This figure is consistent with numbers from previous years and demonstrates that bargain hunters are looking for ways to spread out spending over a period of time.
With sales and promotions the theme of the 2008 holiday season, it's no surprise that most consumers plan to do some shopping at discount stores. Additionally, more than half of American adults plan to shop at department stores, while more than one-third of shoppers plan to shop at clothing and electronics stores.
As the Internet becomes more of a mainstay in the retail landscape, Americans are heading online to compare prices, research retail locations, and look for gift ideas before heading to stores. Although the number of people buying gifts online is expected to remain flat over last year, shoppers will rely on the Internet more than ever to browse for holiday gifts and research products. According to the survey, the Internet will influence 33.6 percent of holiday purchases, up from 30.2 percent last year and 28.9 percent in 2006.
Though most consumers plan to stick to a budget this season, many are padding it with a little something extra. Knowing that the holidays often abound with good deals, more than half of shoppers are planning to make additional non-gift purchases for themselves or their families this holiday.
Some may have even been holding back on personal purchases for the last few months to take advantage of holiday pricing. Shoppers will spend an average of $119.83 on these purchases, up from $106.67 last year.
NRF continues to expect holiday sales to increase 2.2 percent to $470.4 billion.
Baby Boomers Scramble to Reassess Future
What to do when your retirement disappears before your eyes10/20/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Baby Boomers Scramble to Reassess Future...
The events of the last 30 days have been unnerving for almost everyone, but perhaps no more so than to the nation's baby boom population, just beginning to prepare for retirement.
Many have their retirement savings in stock portfolios, which in some cases have lost nearly 50 percent of their value in the last few months--much of it in the last few weeks. Granted, these are paper losses, and the stocks could regain their value. But that can take years, and for many boomers, who are unaccustomed to waiting for much of anything, time is something for a luxury these days.
The stock market lost 27 percent of its value between September 30, 2007 and September 30, 2008, a roughly $7 trillion drop. The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that equity losses in Americans' retirement accounts totaled $2 trillion in the last 15 months. But now is hardly the time to sell stocks, as many shares are at their 52-week lows.
"The slumping stock market, falling housing prices, and weakening economy have serious repercussions for older Americans who are approaching retirement or already retired," said Richard Johnson, a retirement expert at The Urban Institute, a Washington, DC think tank. "Seniors have little time to recoup the values of their homes, 401(k) plans, and individual retirement accounts--all important parts of their retirement nest eggs."
While older adults are staying in the labor force longer to bolster their retirement incomes, a looming recession with the prospect of rising unemployment may limit their opportunities.
The tanking of the real estate market is also hitting boomers especially hard. For many, escalating home values have been a major source of their wealth. From 1998 to 2006, the median home equity for Americans age 55 and older jumped by 42 percent. Many planned on tapping that equity for retirement.
But they may have to wait a while before they can do that. According to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, the average home value fell 3.9 percent in just a little over a year. Boomers who happen to live in one of 20 metro areas that enjoyed the highest price appreciation have been even harder hit, with prices declining more than 16 percent over the same period.
Remaining in the labor force may be a boomer's best bet for maintaining their income. But a significant downturn could lead to downsizing, or of firms going out of business altogether. New York City is bracing for the loss of as many as 160,000 because of the collapse of many banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds.
Finding a new job could be tougher, since firms may cut back on hiring during the downturn. Many retirement experts say boomers contemplating retirement but worried about losses to their retirement accounts should keep their present jobs for longer than they planned, if at all possible.
Pfizer Pays $894 Million to Settle NSAID Claims
Allegations involve Bextra and Celebrex10/20/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Pfizer Pays $894 Million to Settle NSAID Claims...
Drug maker Pfizer Inc., says it will pay $894 million to settle lawsuits filed over safety concerns over some of its painkiller products. Similar concerns forced rival Merck to withdraw Vioxx in 2004.
At issue are claims involving Pfizer's non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine Bextra, which is similar to Vioxx. It also settles litigation filed in response to Celebrex, another pain killer in the same class that remains on the market.
The settlement resolves substantially all of the personal injury cases, consumer fraud cases and state attorneys general claims, the company said.
"We are pleased by the favorable rulings we have achieved in this litigation and believe that now is the right time to resolve these matters," said Amy W. Schulman, senior vice president and general counsel of Pfizer. "Inevitably, litigation can be distracting and putting these matters behind us helps our shareholders and, most importantly, patients and doctors."
Though claims against Celebrex are among those covered by the settlement, Pfizer said the agreement should in no way diminish the drug's integrity.
"Pfizer stands by the safety and efficacy profile of Celebrex. It is one of the most rigorously- and continuously-studied drugs in the world, as evidenced by its approval and use in 111 countries during the past 10 years across several different pain indications," said Joseph M. Feczko, chief medical officer for Pfizer. "We believe that putting these matters substantially behind us should better enable physicians to consider Celebrex purely on the strength of its clinical data, and its ability to meet the diverse needs of patients in pain."
The announcement follows favorable rulings in which federal and New York state court judges overseeing a majority of the personal injury cases ruled that the plaintiffs' lawyers failed to present reliable scientific evidence to prove Celebrex can cause heart attacks or strokes at its most commonly prescribed dose.
Pfizer said it believes these rulings would have likely limited the scope of these cases had the litigation continued. By settling these matters now, the parties are minimizing the future cost and disruption inevitably associated with litigation.
These rulings within the past year are consistent with the conclusion reached by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2005 that, based on the available data, the benefits of Celebrex outweigh its risks for appropriate patients at approved doses. The FDA requires that all prescription NSAIDs carry the same cardiovascular boxed warnings.
The personal injury settlements will resolve more than 90 percent of the known personal injury claims brought by law firms representing persons who allege that Pfizer's NSAID pain medications were the cause of a heart attack, stroke or other injury. Pfizer said it will work to finalize agreements with each of the law firms with which it has agreements in principle before the end of the year.
Pfizer said it has also has reached an agreement in principle to settle payor class action consumer fraud cases involving Bextra and Celebrex in which plaintiffs allege economic loss relating to the promotion of these medications. The settlement will resolve these cases on a nationwide basis and is subject to approval by the appropriate courts.
In addition, Pfizer has reached agreements in principle to resolve claims brought by 33 states and the District of Columbia, primarily relating to alleged Bextra promotional practices. Under these settlements, Pfizer will make a total payment of $60 million to the states and adopt compliance measures that complement policies and procedures previously established by the company.
Fructose Sets Table For Obesity, Study Suggests
Combination with bad diet can easily lead to weight gain10/20/2008ConsumerAffairs
Fructose Sets Table For Obesity, Study Suggests: A new study may shed light on why Americans have started packing on the pounds over the last two decades....
A new study may shed light on why Americans have started packing on the pounds over the last two decades. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health suggests eating too much fructose can induce leptin resistance, a condition that can easily lead to becoming overweight when combined with a high-fat, high-calorie diet.
Fructose, often made from corn syrup, has become a favorite food industry sweetener for processed foods because it is cheaper than sugar.
Although previous studies have shown that being leptin resistant can lead to rapid weight gain on a high-fat, high-caloric diet, this is the first study to show that leptin resistance can develop as a result of high fructose consumption. The study also showed for the first time that leptin resistance can develop silently, that is, with little indication that it is happening.
The study, "Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding," was carried out by Alexandra Shapiro, Wei Mu, Carlos Roncal, Kit-Yan Cheng, Richard J. Johnson and Philip J. Scarpace, all at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. The study appears in the American Journal of Physiology--Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, published by The American Physiological Society. The study suggests fructose can promote weight gain beyond its coloric content. If it can change the function of a regulator like leptin, then other high calorie foods may have greater impact of weight gain than they would otherwise.
Leptin is a hormone that plays a role in helping the body to balance food intake with energy expenditure. When leptin isn't working--that is, when the body no longer responds to the leptin it produces--it's called leptin resistance. Leptin resistance is associated with weight gain and obesity in the face of a high-fat, high-calorie diet.
Obesity has been a growing problem in the U.S. and in other parts of the world and fructose has been suspected of playing a role. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit, but it's not the normal consumption of fruit that is the problem. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are about 50% fructose and these ingredients have become increasingly common in many foods and beverages. With sugar and high-fructose corn syrup being added to many foods, people now eat much more fructose than ever before.
The University of Florida researchers hypothesized that a high-fructose diet could lead to leptin resistance, which in turn could lead to exacerbated weight gain in the face of a high-fat, high-calorie diet, a typical diet in industrialized countries. To test their hypothesis, the research team performed a study with two groups of rats. They fed both groups the same diet, with one important exception: one group consumed a lot of fructose while the other received no fructose.
During these six months, there were no differences in food intake, body weight, and body fat between rats on the high-fructose and the rats on the fructose-free diets. In addition, there was no difference between the two groups in the levels of leptin, glucose, cholesterol or insulin found in their blood. There was only one difference at the end of the six months: The rats on the high-fructose diet had higher levels of triglycerides in their blood.
The researchers next tested the animals to see if they were leptin resistant. They injected all the animals with leptin, to see if they would respond by eating less. Animals whose leptin response is functioning normally will lower their food intake. The researchers discovered that the rats on the high-fructose diet were leptin resistant, that is, they did not lower their food intake when given leptin. The no-fructose animals responded normally to leptin by eating less.
This first six months of the study showed that leptin resistance can develop silently. "Usually, leptin resistance is associated with obesity, but in this case, leptin resistance developed without obesity," Shapiro said. "This was very surprising."
Having seen that leptin resistance could develop silently, the researchers next wanted to find out what would happen if they switched the rats to a high-fat, high-calorie diet -- the kind many Americans eat. They found that the animals exposed to the high-fructose diet, the leptin resistant rats, ate more and gained much more weight and fat than the leptin responsive animals on the fructose-free diet. All told, this study showed that leptin resistance can:
develop by eating a lot of fructose
develop silently, that is, with very little indication it is happening
result in weight gain when paired with a high fat, calorie dense diet
Scarpace said the study suggests it is the interaction between consumption of large amounts of fructose-containing foods and eating a high-fat, high-calorie diet that produces the weight gain. "This study may explain how the global increase in fructose consumption is related to the current obesity epidemic," Shapiro said.
Other studies have shown that elevated triglycerides impair the transport of leptin across the blood brain barrier. The researchers hypothesize that the elevation in triglycerides produced by fructose prevented leptin from reaching the brain. If leptin does not reach the brain, the brain will not send out the signal to stop eating.
"The presence of high fructose alters the way leptin works, fooling the brain so that it ignores leptin," Scarpace said. Consumers should be cautious about what they eat, checking labels to see how much sugar the items contain, Shapiro said.
The researchers hope to perform future studies to find out if leptin resistance can be reversed by removing or reducing the fructose content of the diet.
Internet Gaming Addiction May Be Growing Health Problem
Can online virtual worlds cause loss of grip on reality?10/20/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Internet Gaming Addiction May Be Growing Health Problem...
The positive or negative impact of video games on children can usually be counted on to spark a lively debate, but it's not just kids who are playing games and in some cases causing mental health experts to worry.
Researchers and educators at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are examining the virtual world of an online game called Second Life, for both its addictive and educational potential.
In Second Life, created by Linden Lab in 2003, users are able to create an image called an "avatar" by right-clicking and selecting everything from hair color to chin length to muscle tone. The basic level of membership is free and includes training for the avatar to learn how to walk, talk and fly.
This virtual world is populated by islands, created and inhabited by avatars of other users. Clothes, houses and furniture, even body parts, can be purchased using Linden dollars, which can be bought with real money. Avatars can also "marry" other avatars.
Cindy Burkhardt Freeman, assistant professor of clinical nursing at the UT Health Science Center at Houston School of Nursing, has written about massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) and virtual worlds such as Second Life. She said users should proceed with caution.
"Patients started coming in affected by it," said Freeman, who sees patients in her private practice in The Woodlands. "They didn't come in for thatno one came in for that problembut it would come out in talking."
In her article for the January 2008 issue of The Journal of Nurse Practitioners, Freeman said one of her patients was suffering from depression brought on in part by his wife's addiction to Second Life.
"She was carrying on an affair with a guy on another continent through the game," Freeman said. "It ruined the family. She just got sucked into it. She was away from her family even if she was in the house."
Freeman's story, "Internet Gaming Addiction," was later named No. 1 on the list of the journal's "Top 25 Hottest Articles."
"Work, relationships, responsibilities, and even personal health and hygiene may be neglected by persons who are unable to control the amount of time spent in on-line activities," Freeman wrote. "They may get restless or irritable if they are unable to play. They may sacrifice time from family, friends and work. They may spend increasing amounts of time playing and may totally lose track of the time."
According to a 2006 Stanford study led by Nick Yee, Ph.D., 39 percent of male players and 53 percent of female players said the quality of friendships with their online friends was comparable or better than their real-life friends.
"You can become someone totally different from who you are. If you don't like yourself, you can change that," Freeman said.
The American Medical Association has called for more research on gaming and addictive behaviors. Directives ordered at the 2007 AMA annual meeting included encouraging organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to fund quality research on the long-term effects of video games.
"This is something that is just coming to be recognized as a problem," Freeman said.
But universities, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit organizations see a totally different side of Second Life. They are so committed to the virtual world and its possibilities that they have purchased property (with real money) and created buildings.
Cynthia Phelps, Ph.D., assistant professor of Health Informatics at The School of Health Information Sciences at the UT Health Science Center at Houston, studies Second Life as part of her class on "Emerging Technologies for Teaching, Learning and Research." The class is taught in Second Life.
"We're looking at how you can use Second Life for education," Phelps said. "If you needed to teach a class to people in different parts of the world, you could teach it in Second Life, where everyone can show up."
Phelps said the ability to create things in the 3-D space is one of its attractions. On a recent day, her avatar was checking out the Palomar Pomerado West Health campus on Second Life, a virtual copy of the real-life center that will open in 2011 in San Diego.
Second Life can host educational meetings where instructors from around the world come together; virtual emergency rooms where nursing school students can train and retreats for people with disabilities, among many other opportunities.
Mental health experts, meanwhile, will likely continue their debate over whether online gaming's potential for addiction outweigh its positive benefits.
Hyundai Issues Two Elantra Recalls
Both involve possible airbag problems10/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
Hyundai Issues Two Elantra Recalls...
Hyundai-Kia has issued two airbag-related recalls for its Hyundai Elantra model. The first affects 2001 models, the second both 2001 and 2002 models.
In the first recall, about 150,000 2001 Elantras are being recalled to fix a problem with the front airbag sensor. The company said that if liquid is spilled in the cupholder on the central console, it could drip onto the airbag control module. As a result, airbags might not deploy during an accident.
Dealers will add a protective cover to correct the problem.
In the second recall, 2001-2002 Elantras are being recalled because of a potential problem with the side impact airbag wiring harness mounted under each front seat. Material placed under the front seats could cause the wiring harness to malfunction, which in turn could prevent the airbags from deploying during a crash.
Dealers will install new harness attachments and connector clips.
For more information, customers can contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 or go to www.safercar.gov.
Spotting Signs of Cocaine Abuse
The Healthy Geezer10/17/2008ConsumerAffairs
Cocaine is an addictive drug; you can be hooked with a single use. It causes a short-lived high that is immediately followed by depression, edginess, and c...
Q. I'm afraid that my grandson may be using cocaine. Is there any way I can tell for sure? And how dangerous is this drug?
This is a topic that is unusual for The Healthy Geezer. It's not about a senior health issue, but it does affect seniors. Many of us are grandparents who worry about the drug culture of our grandchildren. We also wonder if there's anything we can do to prevent kids from getting into a drug habit. Well, the first step we can take is to educate ourselves. That's what this column is about.
Cocaine, the strongest natural stimulant, is an addictive drug; you can be hooked with a single use. It causes a short-lived high that is immediately followed by depression, edginess, and a craving for more of the drug. Cocaine interferes with the way your brain creates feelings of pleasure, so you need more of the drug to feel normal.
Cocaine is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. It is a drug that comes in the form of a white powder that is snorted. It can be converted to a liquid form for injection. Crack is cocaine processed into a crystal form for smoking. Crack, also called "rock," looks like small chunks of soap.
Cocaine, in any form, is illegal. It is the most frequently mentioned illicit substance reported to the Drug Abuse Warning Network by hospital emergency departments throughout the nation.
Cocaine is lethal. It can cause strokes, heart attacks and respiratory failure. In addition, it can cause irregular heartbeat, depression, violent actions, and loss of sexual function.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the following are the signs that someone may be addicted to cocaine:
Periods of severe depression
Decline in personal hygiene or appearance
Constant runny nose
Frequent upper respiratory infections
Changes in sleep patterns
Loss of interest in friends, family, and social activities
Loss of interest in food, sex, or other pleasures
Hearing voices when nobody has spoken, or feeling paranoid
Expressing more anger, becoming more impatient or nervous
And here are some more I collected from other sources:
Frequently need for money
Seizures from high doses
The presence of any unexplained white powder
Small spoons, mirrors, razor blades and rolled paper money used for snorting
Small bottles with screw-top lids and small plastic packets for storing
Increase in body temperature, respiration and pulse
Grinding of teeth
Obsessive touching or picking at various objects and parts of the body
Repetitive dismantling of mechanical objects
There are many slang terms for cocaine. Here are just some: big C, blanco, blow, blast, Bolivian, Charlie, coke, Columbian, girl, heaven, happy powder, Mama Coca, mojo, nose candy, Peruvian, pimp, she, sniff, snort, snow, toot, trails, white lady, stardust.
Cocaine was first used in the 19th century in surgery as an anesthetic and to reduce bleeding; it constricts blood vessels. Safer drugs came along to replace it.
According to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 33.7 million Americans over the age of 12 reported trying cocaine at least once. Among students surveyed, 3.7 percent of eighth graders, 5.2 percent of tenth graders, and 8 percent of twelfth graders reported using cocaine at least once.
Law enforcement sources indicate that one gram of cocaine powder usually sells for $100 in most cities. Crack cocaine tends to be sold in 0.1 and 0.2 gram rocks that generally sell for about $10.
In 1970, Congress classified cocaine as a Schedule II substance, which means it may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
For referral to treatment programs in your area, call the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline and Treatment line at (800) 234-0420
All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti
Retirement Postponed for More Americans
What older workers can do to find employment in uncertain times10/16/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Retirement Postponed for More Americans...
The financial meltdown shaking the economy from Wall Street to Main Street has dealt a staggering blow to millions of Americans nearing retirement or already in retirement.
With nest eggs already having lost an estimated $2 trillion, a growing number of would-be retirees are contemplating remaining in or returning to the workplace, employment experts say.
The good news is that older workers are finding jobs just as quickly as their younger counterparts, as companies recognize the value and effectiveness of employing experienced workers who have seen their share of downturns, according to John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
"The key to job search success for these seasoned job seekers is to get back in the market as quickly as possible," said Challenger. "The longer they wait, the more competitive it will become. Unemployment is going to get worse before it gets better. Fewer jobs and more people vying for the same job means there is no time to delay."
Unlike the downturn stemming from the dot-com collapse, which seemed to have a more profound impact on the younger generation of workers who were employed and invested in these firms, the investment banking and housing collapse may affect older Americans disproportionately, due to the fact that their retirement nest eggs are concentrated in their homes, pensions, 401k plans and stock portfolios.
The value of defined-benefit pension plans has fallen by 15 percent, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Account balances among 401(k) participants have shrunk between 7.2 and 11.2 percent, according to an analysis of more than 2 million plans by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The CBO reports that Americans have seen about $2 trillion disappear from their retirement savings.
Even before the recent increase in Wall Street volatility, America's aging workers were altering their retirement plans. An April survey by AARP found that 20 percent of 55- to- 64-year-olds, and 25 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, planned to delay retirement because of the economic downturn.
"That percentage has likely skyrocketed in recent weeks as the financial crisis reached new heights and the stock market plunged. It could take three to five years, if not longer, for retirement accounts to regain their value. This means many older workers will be putting off retiring for at least that long," said Challenger.
Challenger pointed out that staying in the workforce is not as simple as going to your human resources department to announce that you will be canceling your retirement plans. It is even more difficult for the already-retired to reenter the workplace. Challenger provided the following advice:
How Older Workers Can Find/Keep a Job
Consult Your Employer Immediately
If your employer expects you to end your service with the company soon due to retirement, she needs to know your plans have changed. Inform superiors immediately that you have decided to continue working. Your bosses may be interviewing for your replacement, if they have not found one already.
Do Not Get Identified as a Member of the Old Guard
In some cases, workers nearing retirement begin to detach from their jobs and co-workers. Sometimes a new management team or boss takes over. Being perceived as part of the old guard by the new regime could be highly damaging. In fact, not being liked by your boss could be the single most important reason people are discharged, not their lack of skills and abilities. You must get along with members of the new team. It will not continue automatically; you must consciously work at developing new relationships, even if the people in charge are younger than you.
Emphasize Commitment and Corporate Memory
When you decide to tell your employer you do not wish to retire, you will have to prove why they should keep you on. Show your commitment. Have ready multiple examples of how much company specific knowledge you possess and why it would take years for a new hire to build up that understanding of how the organization really works. Stress the wide-ranging and congenial relationships you have with people throughout the company system.
Stress Relevant Experience And Willingness To Expand.
Your employer should feel that you can continue your current position, as well as possibly taking on new tasks. It is important to convince your boss that you are highly creative and flexible and that age has nothing to do with learning new concepts and accepting new ways of doing things.
Dismantle the Myths.
Older job seekers should face the fact that they will probably be interviewing with someone who may be 10, 20 or even 30 years their junior. These individuals will have their own preconceptions or prejudices about older individuals that could taint their view of the candidate before the interview ever starts, which may include:
• Older people are sick more and take more leave.
• They are set in their ways and therefore cannot be trained.
• Younger workers and older workers will clash.
• They are only looking ahead to the day they can permanently retire.
Employers are not permitted to ask questions that pertain to age, but the questions may still exist in the mind of the interviewer.
How To Sell Yourself
Demonstrate Your Flexibility And Creativity.
You want to counteract stereotypes that suggest older workers do not have imagination. Talk to your employer about ways you can solve problems and develop ideas to make your employer more money or be more competitive.
Look and Act Young.
Everyone knows people who are 50 who look and act as if they are 65 and people who are 65 who look and act as if they are 50. Dress in currently fashionable clothes and show enthusiasm for the opportunity. Exhibit a sense of excitement and energy, traits that younger individuals do not always show.
Stay Current and Embrace Technology.
Do not appear as if the world has passed you by. When deciding to keep your position, it will be helpful if you are up-to-date on current technology and new applications. If you do not have at least a rudimentary understanding of computers and how they work, take a class at night. Employers do not expect to spend a lot of time teaching employees how to use computers.
Get Yourself Noticed.
Consider this idea: Find out what your supervisor's favorite civic or charitable activities are and volunteer to work for those organizations. That will bring you into regular contact with the supervisor in a non-job situation, which should increase your visibility and give you additional opportunities to make a favorable impression. Developing some shared experiences off the job will be a definite plus for you.
Throughout the interview process, do your best to accommodate the schedule of the interviewer. This may mean meeting early in the morning, in the evening or even on the weekend. The job seeker who says he/she cannot come in for an interview after hours will screen himself or herself out of the interview process immediately, regardless of age. It sends the message that once on the job he/she will not be willing to put in extra hours to get the work done.
What Not To Do
• Do not apologize or act defensive. Never again say the following: "Nobody really wants to hire someone my age." You cannot have a defeatist attitude or it will show during the interview. Employers want to hire people who are confident about themselves and their abilities, regardless of age.
• Do not lead with your resume. It might show that you graduated from college before your interviewer was even born. Try to get the interview based on your experience and what you can offer the company. You cannot omit dates from the resume or stop the chronology early. It is a red flag to employers that something is amiss in your work history and will prompt questions from the interviewer. The goal is that by the time the interviewer asks to see your resume, you will have already won him or her over and age will not be an issue.
• Do not tell the interviewer you took early retirement. You do not want to give the impression that you are thinking of retiring in a few years. First, it reminds them that you are older and second, that the idea of retirement is more important than the job for which you are interviewing.
• Do not mention accomplishments from more than 10 years ago -- unless they are extraordinary or the only example of experience you possess that meet the employer's needs. If you do mention a past accomplishment, talk about it as if it happened today.
• Do not talk down to, patronize, or become convinced that you could not work for a younger manager. You do not want to make the interviewer feel that you are better than he or she. If you have a problem working for someone younger than yourself, resolve this conflict immediately because odds are the jobs you are interviewing for involve working for people who are younger than yourself. It is a reality you have to accept and deal with properly. Leave your ego at the door.
Consumers Getting Frustrated with DTV Coupon Program
FCC member says transition will be "messy"10/16/2008ConsumerAffairs
Consumers Getting Frustrated with DTV Coupon Program...
The big switch to all-digital signals for over-the-air television is still four months away, but many viewers are already experiencing technical difficulties, particularly with the government's voucher program to subsidize buying converter boxes to receive the new transmissions.
ConsumerAffairs.com is already receiving complaints from frustrated readers who cannot redeem or replace their coupons, or who can't find available converter boxes to purchase before the coupons expire. The program currently allows households to download or order two coupons per household, good for 90 days from the date of purchase, with no ability to receive more or replace them if lost.
That was news to Jacqueline of Warrington, PA, who "received Expired and unused DTV coupons and they won't replace them. We are entitled to 2 usable coupons and were refused replacement when I appealed. This program is not for the people, it's extremely stingy and merely a facade of a helping hand."
Robert of Salt Lake City, Utah "ordered my dtv converter box coupons in May 2008 and have not received them yet. Further investigation/attempts to re-order has resulting in a denial of a new application and denial of an appeal. I have tried calling to get an explanation, but keep getting disconnected. I've emailed them, requesting a proof of delivery (my mail goes to a PO box) and they have not responded."
And Cathi of Coleman, Texas "requested my DTV Convertor Box Coupons....they never arrived, I went online to check on status and was told they were sent, when I emailed and questioned where they were and asked for a replacement I was told they could not repalce the coupons that I never received. This coupon program is a joke!"
The DTV program has been beset with numerous glitches since its inception, from the coupon program's flaws, to lack of consumer awareness of the transition, to retailers providing inaccurate information about what equipment customers may need to upgrade.
The two agencies in charge of the transition are the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an arm of the Commerce Department. At a special FCC meeting on Tuesday, Commissioner Robert McDowell warned the transition could get "messy...but we'll get through it."
McDowell said that local television networks should be flexible in advertising the transition, according to specific needs of their communities. Some residents may need additional equipment to view digital television, such as new "rabbit ear" antennae, he said.
The FCC has been spearheading a major publicity push for the DTV transition, including the highly publicized switchover test program in Wilmington, North Carolina.
The NTIA has sparred with Congress over funding the coupon program on several occasions. At a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing in September, acting NTIA head Meredith Baker Atwell reiterated that the agency would not renew coupons after they expired, saying it would cause problems and costly delays.
Also in September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report stating that the NTIA did not have a plan in place to address funding shortfalls for the coupon program. NTIA has said that it would fall under the purview of Congress t o authorize more funds for the program.
From the beginning, observers of the transition have said that certain parts of the country would be disproportionately affected, including minority, low-income, and elderly households. The latest Nielsen research poll shows that as many as 9.6 million households would immediately lose television service if the DTV switchover happened today.
But now, with economic times as tough as they are, households across the board are cutting back on expenses--including cable and satellite television service. This may mean even more households will need coupons and equipment to receive over-the-air digital signals.
As Jacqueline told ConsumerAffairs.com, "with cable price increases beyond affordability and the economy's severe downturn, we'd like to keep our working older tv's and need converters to keep them out of the landfill."
What you can do
The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:
FDIC Chief: Not Enough Help for Homeowners
Bailout plan props up institutions but not consumers10/16/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Chief: Not Enough Help for Homeowners. Bailout plan props up institutions but not consumers....
FDIC Chief Sheila Bair
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) says the Bush Administration's bailout plan may help stabilize financial markets and prop up banks but it doesn't do enough to help consumers who are threatened with foreclosure.
Sheila Bair became the first high-ranking Bush appointee to lash out against the massive bailout, although GOP Presidential candidate John McCain has also proposed more help for troubled homeowners. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bair said the plan "has been a frustration for me."
"Why there's been such a political focus on making sure we're not unduly helping borrowers but then we're providing all this massive assistance at the institution level, I don't understand," she told the Journal.
Consumer advocates and political candidates from both parties have criticized the bailout for being too harsh on troubled homeowners, and at least 20 states (including California, Colorado, New York and Nevada) have launched formal foreclosure intervention or prevention initiatives.
In last night's Presidential debate, Republican John McCain proposed using $300 billion of the $750 billion bailout fund to "go in and buy those home loan mortgages and negotiate with those people in their homes, 11 million homes or more, so that they can afford to pay the mortgage, stay in their home."
"Now, I know the criticism of this," McCain said. "What about the citizen that stayed in their homes? That paid their mortgage payments?' It doesn't help that person in their home if the next door neighbor's house is abandoned. And so we've got to reverse this. We ought to put the homeowners first. And I am disappointed that Secretary Paulson and others have not made that their first priority."
Democrat Barack Obama said the financial bailout package already contains a provision that is supposed to get homeowners into a position where they can renegotiate their mortgages.
"I disagree with Senator McCain in how to do it, because the way Senator McCain has designed his plan, it could be a giveaway to banks if we're buying full price for mortgages that now are worth a lot less. And we don't want to waste taxpayer money. And we've got to get the financial package working much quicker than it has been working," Obama said.
Bair did not criticize anyone by name but noted that both Bush Administration officials and Congressional leaders took "painstaking measures" to ensure that the Hope for Homeowners program would limit resale profits for homeowners who receive assistance under the plan.
Bair said she supports the bailout plan but criticized it for attacking the economic meltdown "at the institution level as opposed to the borrower level, and it's the borrowers defaulting," the Journal said. "So why not tackle the borrower problem?"
Her comments are likely to spark another round of criticism of the bailout plan largely crafted by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Bair, who was nominated by President Bush to head the FDIC and confirmed by the Senate in 2006 has emphasized the FDIC's consumer protection role during her tenure. Paulson, Bernanke and other supporters of the bailout plan say that returning liquidity and investor confidence to the marketplace -- rather than protecting individual consumers -- is government's primary responsbility.
Paulson and Bernanke have been modifying their flight plan en route. When Congress debated the $700 billion bailout, the objective was for the government to buy up unmarketable debt securities, thereby establishing a market value for them, and returning liquidity to the marketplace.
Money for banks
Not a word was mentioned about Uncle Sam buying stock in major banks. But in response to actions in Europe, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson told banking leaders Monday that the government will use $350 billion of the bailout package to purchase preferred stock in their institutions. Oh, and it's an offer they can't refuse.
The objective, administration sources say, is to quickly pump the emergency money into the U.S. financial system. Events are moving too quickly, they say, to wait on setting up the cumbersome system for analyzing and buying bank's bad debt.
Administration officials say the first $350 billion of the $700 billion bailout package will be spent before the end of this year, and will all go for bank stock, which can be resold later, hopefully at a profit. The remaining $350 billion will be spent by the new president, who will take office in January.
World's largest "spam gang" has assets frozen10/15/2008ConsumerAffairs
The spammers who send you all those offers of cheap prescription drugs and male enhancement products have been ordered to stop it....
Pet Owners Eligible For $24 Million in Landmark Melamine Settlement
But many say money is no replacement for loss of beloved animals10/15/2008ConsumerAffairs
Pet Owners Eligible For $24 Million in Landmark Melamine Settlement...
Pet owners whose dogs or cats became ill or died last year after eating melamine-tainted food are now eligible for a piece of a landmark $24 million settlement. But some pet owners say no amount of money can replace the loss of their best friend.
"She was my constant companion and quite a character," Vicki W. of Sedona, Arizona, said of her cat, which died last year after eating contaminated pet food. "My husband and I miss her greatly."
U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman on Tuesday gave final approval to the settlement, which resolves more than 100 class action lawsuits filed in U.S. and Canadian Courts in the wake of last year's massive pet food recall.
Hillman called the settlement "fair, reasonable and adequate," according to the Associated Press.
The $24 million dollar settlement is in addition to the $8 million in claims some companies involved in the litigation have already paid--bringing the total to $32 million.
Under the deal, pet owners can seek compensation for such expenses as veterinary bills, burial costs, time missed from work to take care of sick animals, and property damage caused by sick pets.
In some cases, the settlement allows consumers to recover up to 100% of "reasonable economic damages" if they can provide documentation for those losses. Even consumers who do not have any documentation can recover up to $900 per pet under the settlement.
Lawyers said more than 10,000 pet owners in the United States and Canada had filed claims as of September 30, 2008. The average cost of the claims analyzed so far is approximately $1,500, attorneys said.
More than 100 people kept their rights to sue the pet food companies and other parties separately.
And 28 people filed objections to the settlement, saying it didn't cover the pain and suffering they endured from losing their pets. They questioned how anyone could put a price tag on the loss of a beloved pet. They're pet owners like Vicki of Arizona.
"She can never be replaced because of her unique personality," Vicki said of her Abyssinian.
That healthy cat suddenly became sick in early 2007 months before Menu Foods of Canada recalled more than 60 million containers of melamine tainted food. "So I had the vet do blood work on her," Vicki said. "The vet said she had beginning kidney disease and if we changed her food she would be okay for a long time."
Her cat's condition, however, deteriorated.
"I took her back in a month and she had gotten much worse," Vicki said. "The vet was surprised at how fast she had gone down and recommended IV treatment. We gave her IV's at home every day for four months and she died anyway."
At that time, no one knew about the tainted pet food.
"I had an autopsy done on her because the vet was puzzled about why my cat went down hill so fast," Vicki said, adding her cat's medical bill totaled more than $1,000. "When we heard about the food problem, the vet said the autopsy made sense--she definitely was victim of (tainted) cat food."
Does Tuesday's settlement give Vicki any sense of justice? "Nine-hundred dollars is a small price for the vet bills and the months trying to save her," she told us. "The only consultation is that it hopefully won't happen again."
The settlement may also help other animals in need.
It stipulates that any money left after all the plaintiffs are paid--including the 55 law firms involved in the case-- will be donated to various animal charities. One attorney said the lead firms alone had done more than $5 million worth of work.
Consumers with questions about the settlement--or filing a claim--can find answers on the Pet Food Products Liability Settlement Web site.
As we've reported, this case started last March when Menu Foods recalled millions of containers of dog and cat food tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. That marked the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.
Thousands of dogs and cats across North America suffered kidney disease or died after eating the contaminated food.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) traced the source of that contamination to the wheat gluten imported from China.
Sherrie Savett, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case estimated more than 1,500 died in the U.S. died last year after eating the tainted food. ConsumerAffairs.Com tried to reach her on Tuesday to discuss the settlement, but she did not return calls.
But in May, Savett said the settlement was a win for pet owners.
"With this settlement, consumers will get as much or more than if they litigated the cases individually," she said. "The claims process allows people to recover as much as 100 percent of all their economic damages.
"What we did get out of this settlement for consumers is the possibility of complete recovery of all economic damages--even for lost carpets and time--in addition to their veterinary bills," she added. "Even in cases where people do not have documentation of their damages, the settlement allows in some cases up to $900 for each person."
Some pet owners, however, have criticized the settlement. Don Earl, whose cat Chuckles died after eating Menu Foods' Pet Pride food, has called the settlement "a slap in the face."
"Extrapolating from the best information available, over a quarter million pets were killed by the poisoned pet food epidemic," he said. "Take a third off the top for the attorneys, and divide by the number of pet owners harmed, they each will get $64."
Another pet owner, whose 13-year-old Sheltie suddenly died after eating some of the tainted pet food, agreed.
"I feel that the $24 million is less than a slap on the wrist," said Jerry L. of Goodyear, Arizona. "It's a sad state of affairs and just goes to prove that until pet owners who really care about their pets push their government for stronger laws, these companies will continue to hold our pets at little or no regard.
Canadian author Ann Martin, who has researched the pet food industry for years, has called on pet food makers and the government to ensure the food consumers' feed their animals is safe.
But she is not convinced that's happened.
"I really don't think the food on the shelves now is any safer than what we saw prior to the massive recall," Martin told us in May. "How many of these pet food companies are testing for contamination in the raw materials they are purchasing? It is my understanding that some are now testing for melamine in the grains, but this is just one toxin that might be in the raw material. Are they testing the vitamin/mineral premixes, many which are coming from China or other countries with questionable practices?"
The settlement requires pet food makers to continue testing ingredients imported from China. That, however, doesn't make Martin feel any safer about feeding her animals commercial pet food.
"I'll continue to feed my pets a homemade diet," she said. "At least I know what they are eating, which is more than you can say with many of the pet foods on the market."
Pet owners like Don Earl said some good has come from the massive recall.
"Many pet owners (including myself) have switched from the recycled garbage promoted as pet food to homemade," he said. "Their pets will live much longer and healthier lives."
Dozens of lawsuits
Pet owners in 19 states and Ontario, Canada filed dozens of lawsuits against Menu Foods in the weeks that followed the March 16, 2007, nationwide recall of dog and cat food. Those cases were consolidated in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey.
The lawsuits alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligence in failing to provide adequate quality control and breach of implied and express warranties.
Some consumers also claimed they suffered emotional trauma after their pets became sick or died. Pet owners sought compensation for their veterinary bills.
Companies named in the lawsuits -- besides Menu Foods -- included Del Monte Foods Inc. of San Francisco; Nestle of Stamford, Conn.; Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. in Pixian, China; and Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co. in Jiangsu, China.
Those defendants -- and Menu Foods' product liability insurance company -- will cover the costs of the settlement. Menu Foods estimated the recall cost the company $53.8 million.
Pet owners have until November 24, 2008 to file their claims. Those claims should be submitted to:
Claims Administrator P.O. Box 890 Philadelphia, PA 19105-0890 USA
Tests Find Bottled Water No Cleaner Than Tap Water
10 popular brands contain mixtures of bacteria, fertilizer, and chemicals10/15/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Tests Find Bottled Water No Cleaner Than Tap Water...
Looking for ways to cut back in these tough economic times? An environmental group suggests skipping the bottled water and drinking from the tap. It might even be healthier.
The Environmental Working Group says its tests how 10 popular U.S. bottled water brands contain mixtures of 38 different pollutants, including bacteria, fertilizer, Tylenol and industrial chemicals, some at levels no better than tap water.
Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice at several locations contained contaminants exceeding California's bottled water quality standards and safety levels for carcinogens under the state's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, according to the group's laboratory tests. Giant Foods' Acadia brand consistently retained the high levels of cancer-causing chlorination byproducts found in the suburban Washington DC tap water from which it is made.
Overall, the group says the test results strongly indicate that the purity of bottled water cannot be trusted.
"It's buyer beware with bottle water," said Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at EWG. "The bottled water industry promotes its products as pure and healthy, but our tests show that pollutants in some popular brands match the levels found in some of the nation's most polluted big city tap water systems. Consumers can't trust that what's in the bottle is anything more than processed, pricey tap water."
"For years the bottled water industry has marketed their product with the message that it is somehow safer or purer than tap water," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the non-profit consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "This new report provides even more evidence that the purity of bottled water is nothing more than a myth propagated to trick consumers into paying thousands times more for a product than what it is actually worth."
EWG said that laboratory tests it commissioned at one of the country's leading water quality laboratories found 38 contaminants in ten brands of bottled water purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in nine states and the District of Columbia.
The pollutants identified include common urban wastewater pollutants like caffeine and pharmaceuticals, an array of cancer-causing byproducts from municipal tap water chlorination, heavy metals and minerals including arsenic and radioactive isotopes, fertilizer residue and a broad range of industrial chemicals. Four brands were also contaminated with bacteria.
Unlike tap water, where consumers are provided with test results every year, the bottled water industry does not disclose the results of any contaminant testing that it conducts, EWG said.
Americans paid $12 billion to drink 9 billion gallons of bottled water last year alone, EWG said. Yet, the tests show several bottled waters bore the chemical signature of standard municipal water treatment--a cocktail of fluoride, chlorine and other disinfectants whose proportions vary only slightly from plant to plant. In other words, some bottled water was chemically almost indistinguishable from tap water.
The only striking difference, the group says, is the price tag. The typical cost of a gallon of bottled water is $3.79--1,900 times the cost of a gallon of public tap water.
Identity Theft: One Woman's Story, Eight Months Later
Many questions, few answers in wake of unsolved data breach10/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
Identity Theft: One Woman's Story, Eight Months Later...
With the economic crisis and the Presidential election dominating the news, identity theft is no longer the hot-button topic it once was. Yet for people who have been caught in data breaches, the possibility that their information could be used against them in any number of ways is still a very real, and very immediate concern.
Just ask Suzanne Finch. A year after she discovered that her personal information had been used to open up new credit card accounts in her name and make purchases without her permission, she is still searching for answers and running into a wall of silence everywhere she turns.
It was in June 2007 that Finch was notified that her Citibank MasterCard--originally a Sears store credit card that had been "flipped" into a true bank credit card without her permission--was used to make purchases at online jewelry store Stein Diamonds.
When ConsumerAffairs.Com interviewed Finch in March 2008, her investigation had traced the fraud back to a potential data breach inside Citibank by Russian hackers. The source of the breach was never determined.
Although Finch canceled all of her credit accounts with Citibank, her Social Security number and personal information were still "in the wild," available for use by the black-market "underground economy" to create new "synthetic identities" pieced together from components of existing personal data.
Since March 2008, according to Finch, further investigation confirmed that there was a breach of Citibank's servers, but the financial giant refuses to admit it.
"Citibank wants to protect its stock prices and shareholders over its customers," Finch told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Ironically, they have also ended up as my mortgage holder, again, through acquisition of accounts." Finch wants extended credit monitoring of her mortgage account in order to protect her personal information from any potential misuse, but Citibank has thus far refused to grant it.
"Not at liberty to talk"
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) is the leading organization dedicated to helping victims of identity theft get restitution, as well as assisting law enforcement in identifying potential data breaches and tracking the culprits. According to the ITRC's executive director Jay Foley, who has been working with Finch, she has a case--"up to a point."
"Something definitely happened," Foley told ConsumerAffairs.Com. "For Citibank to admit there was a breach on their part would be an implicit admisison of liability. They don't want to admit to anything one way or the other," he said. "No one's at liberty to talk."
Foley has been working with local authorities and the U.S. Secret Service to investigate the breach, but said there were "multiple potential sources of involvement. Credit card purchases go through multiple processing systems."
If there was concrete proof that Citibank was at fault for the breach, Foley said, then Finch's case for extended credit monitoring would be a lot stronger, but that the case would set precedent for other victims of identity theft to demand extended credit monitoring--which might actually be costly to banks.
The average credit card transaction is indeed not as simple as swiping your card at the register and having the purchase appear on your statement. The transaction is directed through processing networks before reaching the lender, and many of the networks are controlled by outside third-party companies. It was lax security in a processing network that enabled a ring of hackers to wirelessly access customer data from the TJX companies, leading to the biggest breach of personal data on record.
The ITRC reported in August that there had already been 449 separate security breaches of personal information in 2008, surpassing 2007's total of 447, but noted that the actual number of breaches may be greater due to underreporting, and the mixture of multiple reported events as a single event.
"Looking for a culprit"
Ted Manjoras is Citibank's senior field investigator for security on the West Coast. According to him, Citibank may not have been the source of the breach, or they may have been--but he can't say either way.
"I can't talk about the specifics of the case," Manjoras told ConsumerAffairs.Com. "We don't know all the facets of the situation, so I can't come up with a definitive answer."
In general terms, Manjoras said that Finch "needs to find a culprit," and is blaming Citibank even though there is "nothing concrete to go on."
"Banks eat the losses 99 percent of the time in cases of identity theft," Manjoras said. "Merchants have been compromised by international crime rings many times, and no one wins if the business and victim are punished in cases like these," Manjoras said.
Manjoras said he was sympathetic to Finch, given that his own daughter was recently a victim of identity theft, but said that Finch's attempts to "push it further" by blaming Citibank were counterproductive. He also reiterated that he could not definitively state if the bank was or wasn't responsible for the breach.
When asked for more clarification, Manjoras referred ConsumerAffairs.Com to Citibank's General Counsel and Media Relations departments.
Disclosure isn't enough
California, where Finch lives, has some of the strongest data breach disclosure laws in the nation. It was California's notification laws that forced ChoicePoint to admit it had been scammed into giving 145,000 personal information accounts to a ring of Nigerian criminals in 2005. The ChoicePoint incident triggered a cascade of new reporting on the dangers of data breaches, and the passage of many new laws on state and federal levels governing personal information.
But research has shown that data breach disclosure laws do little to actually prevent identity theft, and that without adopting both stronger security procedures and more accurate reporting of data breach incidents, any collected database of personal records is a potential breach waiting to happen.
The major credit card companies have adopted the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) as a set of governing principles for how cardholder data should be collected and transmitted. In recent months, the PCI has focused more attention on Web-based financial applications, such as online payments, in order to continually strengthen security procedures against any avenue of attack.
But critics say that the PCI's penalties for lax security procedures are weak and rarely come back to the financial institutions, which usually blame the card processors for gathering and maintaining too much data on a customer.
California's state legislature recently passed new measures for retailers to disclose more information about breaches and to adopt stronger security standards such as data encryption, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"As I stated in last year's veto of a similar bill, this bill attempts to legislate in an area where the marketplace has already assigned responsibilities and liabilities that provide for the protection of consumers," Schwarzenegger wrote.
Identity theft can be a crime that takes literally years to even recognize, as hackers are increasingly savvy when it comes to purloining data. Rather than using it immediately to commit fraud, they often wait months or years, selling and reselling the information in the black market.
And though it's relatively easy to cancel credit cards that have been compromised, changing a Social Security number is incredibly difficult, making it the primary target of any enterprising cybercriminal.
The typical response of a private business or government agency is to offer credit monitoring for a limited time to the affected--usually six months or one year. But not only does credit monitoring not detect many forms of identity theft, all the thieves have to do is wait until the monitoring expires before they reuse the stolen data.
All of this leaves Suzanne Finch and those like her wondering when the day will come that they'll be turned down for a loan or otherwise penalized simply because someone else has access to their identity.
Finch is relatively lucky in that she suffered no direct financial losses, but she says that the cost of compromising her identity is about more than money.
"Citibank acquired my most personal information - my identity - then either through their own actions or those of their partners, carelessly allowed my identity to be stolen," Finch said. "Now they want to refuse me the opportunity to protect myself from their carelessness by denying me access to continued monitoring of my credit report, which would cost them little or nothing."
FDA Slammed on Food Label Oversight
New report finds agency is failing to track accuracy of product claims10/14/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Slammed on Food Label Oversight...
The federal government's watchdog agency is giving the nation's food regulators failing marks when it comes to preventing false and misleading labeling.
The report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while the number of food firms and products has increased dramatically, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) oversight and enforcement efforts "have not kept pace."
The FDA is supposed to conduct label reviews when it inspects foreign food firms, but in 2007 it inspected just 95 firms overseas - there are tens of thousands - and in only 11 countries out of 150 that export food to the U.S.
According to the report, the FDA has not done random sampling to test the accuracy of Nutrition Facts labels since the 1990s -- and the agency has conducted very limited non-random nutrition testing on products whose labels were suspected of being inaccurate.
The most serious enforcement actions FDA can take -- seizures, injunctions, and import refusals -- are rare for labeling violations. The report further found that the FDA lacks a system for tracking the enforcement activities of its field offices.
"The findings of this latest GAO investigation that the FDA seems incapable of preventing companies from providing false or misleading information to consumers are very troubling," said representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of the FDA's budget. "These findings by the GAO seem to point to another example of how FDA mismanagement is failing consumers. As Congress moves next year toward reforming FDA's food safety responsibilities, this is another area that warrants close examination and potentially a major overhaul."
GAO called on the FDA to "better leverage" its resources and to develop "detailed information on how new legal authorities would help address the shortcomings identified in this report."
The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says recent deceptive claims include:
• Kraft's Crystal Light Immunity Berry Pomegranate drink falsely claimed that its vitamins A, C, and E will "help maintain a healthy immune system." The FDA said it would consider placing the issue on its work plan for next year.
• Mars Cocoa Via Brand Heart Healthy Snacks claimed that it "Promotes a healthy heart," and "reduce[s] bad cholesterol." The chocolate candy contains significant amounts of saturated fat, which can raise bad cholesterol. The company has ignored an FDA warning to halt the claim, and the agency has failed to follow-up its demands in court.
• Land O Lakes has claimed that "Omega-3 All Natural Eggs" are a "good source of heart healthy nutrition," despite the fact that the eggs contain too much heart-unhealthy cholesterol to make health claims under FDA rules. The FDA has failed to act on a CSPI complaint urging the agency to stop the claim.
• Nestle Crunch Ice Cream Bars have claimed "0g Trans Fat," but contain 11 grams of saturated fat, which also raises cholesterol levels. The FDA failed to act on a CSPI complaint over the issue.
• Capri Sun beverages were labeled as "All Natural" even though they were made with high-fructose corn syrup (when contacted by CSPI, the company said it was modifying the label). The FDA has failed to formally define the term.
• Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Fruit Juice Snacks depicted fruits on the label and suggested that the product is made from fruit. But the product's predominant ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. CSPI, but not the FDA, is challenging the claim in federal court.
• Thomas' Hearty Grains Double Fiber Honey Wheat Muffins label has boasted that the product is "made with whole grain," but the predominant ingredient is white flour. The FDA issued a weak policy pronouncement on the issue, but has taken no enforcement action.
The GAO report also called on the FDA to collaborate with other federal agencies and stakeholders to "evaluate labeling approaches and options for developing a simplified, empirically valid system that conveys overall nutritional quality to mitigate labels that are misleading consumers."
CSPI formally petitioned the FDA in 2006 to develop a universal front-of-label symbol that would communicate nutritional value and has advocated funding for an Institute of Medicine study to identify the best system of label symbols. The FDA held a public hearing on the issue in 2007, but has not taken any further action.
General Power, Poulan Pro Generators Recalled10/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
General Power, Poulan Pro Generators Recalled...
October 14, 2008
General Power Products is recalling about 13,000 portable generators. The generators fuel valve can be damaged by the cover plate during shipment and cause a fuel leak and fuel spillage during use, posing a fire hazard to consumers.
General Power Products has received 14 reports of damaged fuel valves. No injuries have been reported.
This recall includes the General Power Products 6000 Watt portable generator and the Poulan Pro 6000 Watt portable generator with serial numbers 060400483 through 060600725. The serial number is stamped on the engine block which is located on the front of the engine below the generators control panel. General Power Products and 6000 Generator are printed on the side of the General Power Products generator. Poulan Pro and 6000 watts are printed on the side of the Poulan Pro generator.
The generators were sold at hardware and home improvement stores primarily located in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas from June 2008 through September 2008 for between $600 and $800. They were made in China.
Consumers should immediately stop using the generators and contact General Power Products to determine if the generators fuel valve is damaged and, if it is, to receive a free repair kit and instructions.
For additional information, contact General Power Products toll-free at (877) 428-3769 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or visit the firms Web site at www.generalpowerproducts.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Jeep Cherokee Stalling Problem Persists
Complaints continue even after vehicle recall10/14/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Jeep Cherokee Stalling Problem Persists...
Jeep Cherokee owners continue to complain that the car is prone to stalling, creating potentially dangerous situations.
Earlier this year Chrysler recalled 1,338 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander SUVs to repair a stalling problem in the vehicles, but consumers say the problem has cropped up on older models too, that were not part of the recall.
"My 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4.0 liter stalls all the time," Michael, or Reno, Nevada, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It is hard to start and sometimes will not start and has to be towed but then self corrects. This care is practically useless because we don't know when it is going to stall on the freeway or an off ramp or in the middle of an intesection and not start again which puts our lives and those of other motorists in danger."
Michael says the car has been left at the dealer for days and weeks at a time and he's spent hundreds of dollars on tests and parts, only to be told this past week that it is the computer module.
"Now they want $800.00 to replace it," he said. "My wife has had some close calls but fortunately never an accident due to the unpredictable stalling."
Demetrius, of Rochester, New York, has had a similar experience with his Jeep Cherokee.
"My 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee stalls while driving," he said. " The transmission also slips, but the mechanic cannot find the problem. It happens unexpectedly in traffic."
Both Michael and Demetrius contacted ConsumerAffairs.com about the stalling problem on their older Jeeps within recent days. Jeep owners can contact Chrysler to tell the company about the stalling problems at 1-800-853-1401 or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).
ASPCA says mulch can be dangerous, but not fatal10/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
Internet Rumor Claims Cocoa Mulch Causes Dog Deaths...
Are Credit Cards The Next Credit Crunch?
As banks pull back, consumers may be pushed into default10/13/2008ConsumerAffairs
Are Credit Cards The Next Credit Crunch?...
By Mark Huffman
October 13, 2008
The government has taken extraordinary steps in the last 30 days to prop up the banking industry, in a desperate attempt to stem the credit crisis. But could there be another credit crisis lurking, not on Wall Street, but on Main Street?
Millions of consumers have run up huge balances on their credit cards, and with unemployment rising and economic assets losing value, some may find it harder and harder to make the minimum payments, much less pay down their balances.
U.S. credit card debt averaged $1,717 per account in the second quarter of 2008, according to TransUnion, one of the three U.S. credit-reporting agencies. That represents an increase of more than eight and a half percent over the previous year.
The Federal Reserve reports Americans have pushed their total credit card balances to an eye-popping $1 trillion.
Among the thousands of complaints ConsumerAffairs.com receives each year about credit cards are stories of consumers living close to the edge, where an unexpected service charge or late fee puts them even deeper in the hole. Others have found that credit card companies have cut credit limits and raised interest rates in recent weeks.
Karen, of Ontario, California, says the rate on her Advanta business credit card went from 7.99 percent last month to 25.08 percent.
"When I called I was told that they had notified their customers that there would be a rate change and all customers were given the opportunity to opt out but if the opt out was not exercised then it was too late," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I asked what criteria was used to determine this rate increase. I was told that the rate increase was a result of a review of my business and personal credit history and that I was now considered a high risk."
As rates go up, so do delinquencies. Nationwide, late credit card payments are up over 14 percent, with Nevada and Florida having the highest delinquency rates. Not surprisingly, both states are among the leaders in home foreclosures as well.
If consumers can't pay their mortgages, chances are they can't pay their credit card bills either.
Consumer credit crisis?
Innovest Strategic Value Advisors worries that banks' actions to clean up their balance sheets will eventually set off a consumer credit crisis.
Laura Nishikawa, an analyst with Innovest, says credit cards are at "the tipping point." She say issuers have been helping to drive up charge-off rates by taking steps like freezing balance transfers, reducing lines, and limiting access to other types of consumer credit, like home equity lines.
These typical risk management tactics are having an "unintended consequence," Nishikawa said.
"When they reduce credit availability, consumers won't have the ability to roll their debt over, and the issuers will essentially force customers into default," she said.
The Innovest report examines Bank of America, American Express, Discover, Citi, Capital One and JP Morgan Chase. The report benchmarks each bank by its product exposure to high risk consumers, identifies winning and losing strategies, and evaluates balance sheet and earnings sensitivity to credit card performance.
Innovest, which was early with its call on sub-prime mortgages, has determined that what Wall Street and the Federal government are diagnosing as a mortgage problem is, in fact, a symptom of a deeper crisis of deteriorated consumer financial health.
For nearly a decade Americans have been taking on more debt than they could afford.
And in perhaps a warning of things to come, Bank of America reported last week that its otherwise rosy third quarter earnings picture had one notable blemish a significant increase in delinquent credit card payments.
Shopping Mall Traffic Down Sharply
Presidential election, financial meltdown keep buyers at home10/10/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
While the consumer has remained fairly resilient during this time, two very recent events are dramatically impacting mall visits and consumer confidence....
Throughout 2008, the American shopper has endured record high gasoline prices, hurricanes and flooding, and a stalled housing market in their quest to shop. But evidence suggests they are no longer inclined to shop until they drop.
While the consumer has remained fairly resilient during this time, two very recent events are dramatically impacting mall visits and consumer confidence.
According to ShopperTrak RCT, a provider of retail intelligence information, the upcoming election and recent financial meltdown are keeping shoppers at home rather than their favorite malls -- a pattern retailers are hoping improves heading into the critical holiday season.
Still, while consumer confidence is shaken, ShopperTrak notes that declining mall traffic during an election year is somewhat expected.
An analysis of enclosed mall shopper traffic patterns during the last three national elections revels that shopping activity tends to lessen as Election Day approaches and shoppers focus on the election and its results.
In 2002 the country was in a recession, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P; 500 Index were both hovering near record lows during election season. According to ShopperTrak:
• Enclosed mall traffic averaged a 2.8 percent year-over-year decline each week in the month preceding the 2002 election.
• During election week, traffic declined 2.4 percent as compared with 2001.
• In the weeks following the 2002 election, enclosed mall traffic remained in the doldrums, averaging a 3.9 percent year-over-year decrease all the way through the holiday shopping season.
In the 2004 presidential election, as the country was in the midst of an economic recovery, traffic numbers fared slightly better, but still trended down during election week and showed just a moderate increase in the weeks following the election:
• Enclosed mall traffic averaged a 1.5 percent (per week) year-over-year gain in the month preceding the election.
• During election week, traffic declined 2.4 percent as compared to 2003.
• In the weeks following the election and throughout the holiday season, enclosed mall traffic averaged a 0.8 percent (per week) year-over-year increase.
Finally, when looking at our last national election in 2006 -- which preceded the most recent rise in energy prices and the uncertainty in the financial markets -- enclosed mall traffic fared quite similarly to 2004:
• Enclosed mall traffic averaged a 1.2 percent (per week) year-over-year gain in the month preceding the election.
• During election week, traffic declined 0.7 percent compared with 2005.
• In the weeks following the election and throughout the holiday season, enclosed mall traffic averaged a 0.4 percent (per week) year-over-year increase.
According to ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin, the 2008 presidential election season most resembles both the economic conditions and holiday calendar seen in 2002, which could indicate a steady traffic decline this year.
"We anticipate malls and stores will experience a noticeable decline in shopper traffic during the upcoming election season as shoppers focus on both the election and the poor state of the economy," said Martin. "In addition, without any positive economic news, we expect declines in traffic throughout the holiday season -- an event which drew over 9.66 billion shopper visits to retail stores and malls in the United States last year. So, based on this, even a 1 percent drop in traffic could mean 96.5 million fewer visits to stores and malls in 2008."
Move comes as competitor Campbell touts its MSG-free soups10/09/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
"Twenty-six Progresso soups are already free of added MSG," said Kyle Duea, marketing manager for Progresso, acknowledging and publicly confirming the stra...
Mini Cooper Recalls Some Models
Mini Cooper Recalls Some Models10/08/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
BMW's MINI Cooper division is recalling 2009 John Cooper Works and JCW Clubman models to resolve a brake system problem....
BMW's MINI Cooper division is recalling 2009 John Cooper Works and JCW Clubman models to resolve a brake system problem.
In its filing with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), Mini said that vehicles equipped with 16-inch diameter front brake discs rather than 17-inch discs, under conditions of intense brake usage, could experience reduced braking performance.
MINI dealers will inspect the front brake discs and pads of the cars, and, if necessary, replace them at no charge to owners, MINI said. The company said that no accidents or injuries related to the brake issue have been reported.
JCW owners should receive a recall notice in the mail this month. Owners can contact BMW at 1-866-275-6464, or by e-mail at email@example.com, if they would like to make inspection arrangements before the notice arrives.
World Kitchen & Pyrex Respond
Company claims "serious errors" in ConsumerAffairs.com's story10/08/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
World Kitchen's attorneys have submitted the following response to our August 20, 2008 story...
World Kitchen's attorneys have submitted the following response to our August 20, 2008 story.
Pyrex Maker Identifies Serious Flaws in ConsumerAffairs.coms Story
Consumers should have accurate information about Pyrex glass bakeware. Instead, ConsumerAffairs.coms (Consumer Affairs) August 20, 2008 posting by Joseph S. Enoch, entitled Three Years Later: Pyrex Dishes Still Go Boom, falsely claims that Pyrex glass bakeware is unsafe for use as directed. This is not the case. In fact, consumers have safely and reliably used hundreds of millions of pieces of Pyrex glassware in American kitchens for decades.
World Kitchen, LLC (the U.S. manufacturer of Pyrex glass bakeware) has identified serious errors in the Pyrex story and Consumer Affairs has agreed to post a response . . . from World Kitchen in a prominent place next to the original story. (September 29, 2008 Email from Consumer Affairs counsel, Cameron Stracher, to World Kitchens counsel, Kerrie L. Campbell). In order to ensure that consumers have access to truthful and accurate information, World Kitchen urges Consumer Affairs to post this response in a prominent place next to all postings that contain similar false and misleading criticisms of Pyrex.
1. Contrary to what Consumer Affairs Says, World Kitchen Did Not Change the Formulation of Pyrex Glass Bakeware; the Formulation is the Same as that used by Corning.
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex posting:
- The four glass experts ConsumerAffairs.com consulted for this story agreed that the most likely reason the dishes are exploding is that they are not made from the type of glass, known as borosilicate, that they said was originally used in Pyrex dishes.
- All the experts we consulted said they had not heard of this problem until just recently and doubted that the Pyrex manufactured by Corning before the 1998 licensing of its name to World Kitchen would be dangerous.
While it is true that Pyrex was originally made of borosilicate glass in 1915, Pyrex glass bakeware sold in the U.S. has been made consistently of soda lime glass that has been heat strengthened, through a thermal tempering process, at World Kitchens Charleroi, Pennsylvania plant for about 60 years, first by its predecessor Corning and then by World Kitchen, using rigorous quality control and manufacturing standards. Consumer Affairs knew this before publishing the posting.
Contrary to the unsupported and unsubstantiated speculation of the experts who contributed to the article, World Kitchens manufacturing process, including the thermal tempering process, and specifications for Pyrex glass bakeware are the same as those utilized by Corning for decades prior to World Kitchens purchase of the business in 1998. The claim that in 1998 World Kitchen changed the composition of Pyrex is false.
2. Contrary to what Consumer Affairs Says, Pyrex Glass Bakeware is Properly Tempered.
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex posting:
- The four glass experts ConsumerAffairs.com consulted for this story agreed that the most likely reason the dishes are exploding is that they are not made from the type of glass, known as borosilicate, that they said was originally used in Pyrex dishes.
- Glass experts consulted for this story say the glass used in todays Pyrex products may not be tempered properly, making it more likely to explode than products sold under the Pyrex label in the UK and some other European countries.
- Tempered soda lime is not designed to withstand extreme temperature changes the way borosilicate is. Statement attributed to Dr. Delbert Day.
- Borosilicate has a lower thermal expansion coefficient than soda lime. It is less likely to break during thermal shock. Statement attributed to Dr. Day.
These unsupported and unsubstantiated statements included in Consumer Affairs posting communicate the false and damaging message that Pyrexs soda lime glass that has been heat strengthened, through a thermal tempering process, is an inferior composition to that of borosilicate glass sold under the Pyrex brand in some European countries. That is simply not true. In fact, as Consumer Affairs and Mr. Enoch are well aware, as compared to borosilicate glass bakeware, heat strengthened, or tempered, soda lime glass such as that used to make Pyrex glass bakeware is significantly more resistant to impact breakage and comparably resistant to breakage caused by severe temperature differential (thermal downshock).
Pyrex glass bakeware sold in the U.S. is heat strengthened, through a thermal tempering process, to achieve an appropriate balance between increased mechanical strength (i.e., to withstand impact and thermal downshock) and energy expended upon breakage (i.e., to control the number of pieces and dynamism should breakage occur). Pyrexs exemplary safety record confirms that this balance has been appropriately struck. Unsubstantiated consumer reports of glass bakeware breakage from any cause, including incidents that involve misuse or another manufacturers brand, represent only a tiny fraction of a percent of the Pyrex glass bakeware in an estimated 80% of U.S. homes. Further, reports of glass bakeware breakage filed with the CPSC have markedly declined in recent years. Since 1998, World Kitchen has manufactured more than 390 million units of Pyrex glass products.
3. Consumer Affairs Ignores the Scientific Fact that Pyrex Glass Bakeware is Tempered Differently than Flat Glass.
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex posting:
- Dr. Richard Bradt, professor of engineering at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alabama, said Pyrex bakeware products he examined were not tempered at all. When they broke, they broke like untempered, or un-heat-strengthened glass, Bradt said.
- There were no fringes, indicating no tempering It's cutting out 50 percent of their manufacturing (cost). I don't want to say they don't temper any of it. (But) the ones I've seen three different sizes were not tempered. Statement attributed to Dr. Steve Frieman.
- [Hank Chamberlain] said that the dishes were tempered, but not evenly. There's quite a bit of inconsistency within the pieces, he said.
- It's absolutely certain that they have less core tension, and therefore less residual surface compression, than fully tempered glass. Statement attributed to Mr. Chamberlain.
The Pyrex posting misleads and alarms consumers by utilizing statements and quotes from experts improperly contrasting Pyrex glass bakeware to so-called fully-tempered glass (i.e., glass having a surface compression > 10,000 psi). These experts (e.g., Drs. Bradt and Frieman, and Mr. Chamberlain) appear to misunderstand (or intentionally fail to acknowledge) the critical difference between fully tempered flat glass applications, such as glass doors, and heat strengthened three-dimensional consumer kitchen products, such as glass bakeware. This misunderstanding (or omission) of facts regarding various types of glass and the degrees of heat strengthening appropriate for each appears to have resulted in these experts incorrectly expecting to witness the breaking into small cubes, or dicing, that would result when fully tempered flat glass breaks, as opposed to a situation where a three dimensional consumer glass bakeware product breaks. Because it is not fully tempered, heat strengthened soda lime glass bakeware does not dice.
Fully tempered glass is a unique kind of glass that is found in automobile side windows, glass doors and other flat glass applications. Fully tempered glass is not used in Pyrex glass bakeware or any other glass bakeware because when breakage of fully tempered glass occurs, it results in a far greater number of small, sharp pieces and splinters that would be thrown further and with more force than would result from glass that is appropriately heat strengthened for kitchen use. All glass can break. As a result, in designing glass bakeware, it is imperative to strike an appropriate balance between increased mechanical strength and the energy expended upon breakage.
Consistent with their confusion between flat glass applications and consumer glass bakeware applications, Consumer Affairs experts wrongly expect to find uniform heat strengthening across the ware. Given the three-dimensional nature of consumer glass bakeware, it is not possible to have the identical degree of heat strengthening at all points on a given dish.
4. Contrary to what Consumer Affairs Says, Pyrex Glass Bakeware is Durable and Impact Breakage is an Important Safety Consideration.
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex posting:
- Tempered soda lime is not necessarily more resistant to mechanical breakage. That toughness only exists in unchipped and unscratched tempered glass. In a kitchen environment, it should not be relied upon. Statement attributed to Mr. Hank Chamberlain.
- Both Chamberlain and Day said that even if the glass is tempered when purchased off of store shelves, its likely the glass would lose its temper when used in the oven.
- Impact resistance is not the valid issue . . . Were not having trouble with people dropping these things on the tile floor and cutting their toes. Were having trouble with people taking them out of the oven and having them blow up and put scalding food on them. Statement attributed to Mr. Chamberlain.
The Consumer Affairs experts falsely contend that the durability of Pyrex glass bakeware does not withstand exposure to kitchen oven heat and scratches accumulated through ordinary use and wear. These concerns are unwarranted. In fact, at temperatures below 900 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., a temperature that is far higher than that used in cooking), there is no risk that Pyrex glass bakeware loses the strength imparted by its thermal tempering process. Therefore, it is false and highly misleading to claim that violent explosions could result from a loss of heat strengthening that, in fact, only occurs at baking temperatures that are not reachable in American kitchens.
In addition, the Consumer Affairs posting misleads consumers into believing that scratches consistent with ordinary use and wear render Pyrex glass bakeware unreliable for kitchen use. In fact, the strength imparted to Pyrex glass bakeware by World Kitchens thermal tempering process extends into the body of the glass bakeware beyond the depth of scratches that are typical of everyday glass bakeware use. Pyrex glass bakeware typically is used repeatedly and safely over many years by consumers, as is reflected in our excellent safety record.
The Pyrex posting does readers a disservice by conveying the false impression that breakage due to thermal downshock is a more significant risk to users of glass bakeware than is breakage due to impact. Quite the contrary, the statement in Consumer Affairs posting that impact resistance is not the valid issue because [w]ere not having trouble with people dropping these things is disproved by the injury reports collected by the authoritative National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database. These data show consumers are more likely to be injured by dropping glass bakeware than by breakage apparently caused by thermal downshock (i.e., incidents that reference an unexplained shattering or explosion of glass bakeware). The NEISS database, used by product safety experts and analysts to assess the risk of injury associated with consumer products, shows that over the past five years there have been zero to three (0-3) unsubstantiated reports per year of glass bakeware (by any manufacturer) shattering or exploding. Glass bakeware is an extraordinarily safe product when used in accordance with safety and usage instructions.
As further evidence of Pyrexs durability and excellent performance in the kitchen, World Kitchen and Pyrex have recently received unsolicited endorsements and awards. For example, Cooks Illustrated has rated the Pyrex 13 x 9 baking dish as its Favorite Pan for two consecutive years (2007, 2008) and Cooking Pleasures of the Cooking Club of America, representing 500,000 cooks, tested the Pyrex baking dish and gave it a 98% approval rating and Seal of Approval in 2008.
5. Consumer Affairs Misrepresents the Differences between Soda Lime and Borosilicate Glass Manufacturing, and Ignores the Damaging Environmental Implications of Borosilicate Glass Manufacturing.
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex posting:
- Soda lime is less expensive to produce than a borosilicate glassIt can take a higher temperature to melt the [borosilicate] composition. Statement attributed to Dr. Day.
As noted above, soda lime glass that has been heat strengthened by a thermal tempering process is by no means an inferior composition for consumer glass bakeware relative to borosilicate glass. Yet, Mr. Enochs misleading characterization of the two compositions goes beyond even performance characteristics, by implying that because it costs more to manufacturer, borosilicate is better for kitchen use. In fact, the greater amount of energy needed to melt borosilicate, and the higher raw material cost of borosilicate, have nothing whatsoever to do with the performance and fitness of heat strengthened soda lime glass bakeware for its intended use in the kitchen. Put another way, the melting temperature necessary to manufacture Pyrex glass bakeware has no bearing on the bakewares ability to withstand temperatures consumers use in kitchens.
Consumer Affairs and Mr. Enoch also ignore the fact that, in comparison to the manufacture of borosilicate glass, the manufacture of tempered soda lime glass offers significant environmental benefits. Tempered soda lime glass requires less energy (lower temperature) to produce, results in fewer harmful emissions during production and is more recyclable than borosilicate glass. To our knowledge, all glass bakeware made for consumer use in the U.S. is made from soda lime glass.
6. Consumer Affairs Falsely Attributes Statements to World Kitchen that Were
According to Consumer Affairs August 20 Pyrex Posting, World Kitchens Vice President, Bryan Glancy, said:
Tempered glass has been cooled in a way that makes it shatter into small, relatively harmless cubes, rather than large, dangerous shards and thats one of the major arguments [World Kitchen Vice President Bryan] Glancy made, writing that when Borosilicate glass breaks, it yields large shards.
All World Kitchen communications with Consumer Affairs have been written and the record shows that neither Mr. Glancy nor anyone else at World Kitchen made those statements. Consumer Affairs is also wrong when it claims that World Kitchen blamed consumers in every known case of breakage reported to the company. World Kitchen recognizes that glass breaks and that broken glass of any size is sharp and could cause injury. That is precisely why World Kitchen provides comprehensive and effective safety and usage instructions with all the products it sells. These safety and usage instructions provide effective warnings against consumer misuse that could result in breakage and injury. World Kitchens safety and usage instructions are also available at its www.pyrexware.com website.
7. Contrary to its Name and Appearance, Consumer Affairs is neither a Government Agency nor a Non-Profit Organization.
In its own FAQ, Consumer Affairs acknowledges on its website that quite often viewers are confused about whether it is a government site or a non-profit. It is neither. The FAQ states that Consumer Affairs is a for-profit business that earns revenue solely by selling online advertising on its website. The FAQ further acknowledges that Consumer Affairs is hooked up with lawyers.
Consumer Affairs also states that viewers may regard the website as terribly unfair and one-sided because its role is to post mostly complaints. According to the FAQ, Consumer Affairs is not obligated to investigate the accuracy of the comments posted on the website.
These stated views of Consumer Affairs run counter to the accepted codes of ethics of journalism, which set fairness and accuracy as the standards for professional journalists. Examples of such ethical guidelines can be found at www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp and at http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?id=387.
Melamine Scandal Continues to Expand
More tainted food found in markets around the world10/08/2008ConsumerAffairs
Melamine Scandal Continues to Expand...
The tentacles of the melamine-tainted milk scandal--blamed for the deaths of four children in China and the illnesses of more than 53,000 others--continue to stretch around the world.
The latest products implicated in this scare are Blue Cat Flavor drinks sold in Asian markets in the United States and Oreo wafers, Snickers, and M&M;'s imported from China to Indonesia.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed it found melamine in Blue Cat Flavor Drinks. Based on those findings, the U.S. company that distributes the drinks has recalled all the 100 ml plastic bottles of the products.
Tristar Food of New Jersey distributed the drink --which is also called Lanmao-- to Asian grocery stores nationwide. The bottles have a logo of a blue cat on the back and words "blue cat" written in Chinese in on the front.
Four flavors are involved this recall--strawberry, sweet orange, pineapple, and peach.
In related news, Indonesia's Food and Drug Monitoring Agency said the snack treats Oreos, Snickers, and M&M;'s imported to their country from China have tested positive for melamine.
That agency, which also found melamine in dozens of other products, recalled the snacks.
Kraft Foods and Mars said they are surprised by the findings because the products tested negative for any melamine in other Asian countries.
"In the last two weeks, AQSIQ (the Chinese food safety watchdog) tested product samples of Mars China's milk powder suppliers and informed Mars China that all such samples were free of melamine," Mars said in a written statement. "Mars is extremely surprised about the recent announcement that tests conducted by the BPOM, the Indonesian regulatory authority, have shown that M&Ms; and Snickers products made in China contain melamine."
"Mars China does not source milk or any other ingredients for any of its products from any company which has been found to be selling melamine contaminated dairy products," the company added.
In a written statement, Kraft said, "There have been questions about the ingredients used in our Oreo products made in China. Oreo products do not contain Chinese milk ingredients, no matter where they are made or sold." That includes products in the United States, the company emphasized.
The Oreos sold in China look different than those in the United States. They are long, thin, four-layered cookies that are coated in chocolate.
Kraft and Mars said they will honor Indonesia's recall action, but will also investigate the possibility that the tainted products might be counterfeit.
Korean officials also said they recently found trace amounts of melamine in one sample of Snickers Peanut Bar Funsize snacks and one sample of M&M;'s Milk Chocolate Candies.
Officials discovered the melamine levels in the M&M;'s were 2.38 parts per million (ppm) and 1.78ppm in the Snickers bars. Those levels, they said, do not pose a health risk.
The FDA agrees. On Monday, the FDA said levels of melamine below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) in food are not risky to humans. The only exception is infant milk.
The FDA said it is "currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns. There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern."
"It is important to understand that this does not mean that any exposure to any detectable level of melamine and melaminerelated compounds in formula will result in harm to infants," the agency added.
These latest reports comes just weeks after Chinese officials discovered melamine in powered infant formula made it that country.
Officials learned some dairy plants may have intentionally added melamine to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.
Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers. Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.
It is blamed for the illnesses and deaths of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States last year.
In recent weeks, the melamine contamination has spread from infant formula to dozens of other food products sold around the world, including candy, coffee, and pretzels.
The FDA has beefed up its testing for melamine in products imported from China that contain milk or milk-ingredients.
Those products include candies, desserts, beverages, whole milk powder, non-fat milk powder, whey powder, lactose powder, and casein.
The FDA said it is not aware of any illnesses in the United States linked to any Chinese-made milk products.
FDA officials have also assured consumers the infant formula made in the United States is safe. Those companies are not importing formula or sourcing milk-based materials from China, the agency said.
But officials warn consumers not to buy any Chinese-made infant formula. These products are often sold in Asian markets across the country.
In recent weeks, FDA officials have inspected more than 1,800 Asian markets nationwide and not found any Chinese infant formula on store shelves.
Melamine, however, has surfaced in other Chinese-made products that contain milk or power-milk ingredients. Officials have discovered those tainted products in the United States and other countries around the world.
Meanwhile, the FDA said it will continue to screen imported products for melamine contamination.
"If products are adulterated because they contain melamine and/or a melamine-related compound, the agency will take appropriate actions to prevent the products from entering commerce," the FDA said in a written statement.
Bank Data Breach Threatens 248,000 in North Carolina
Mellon data breach affects 12 million consumers overall10/07/2008ConsumerAffairs
Bank Data Breach Threatens 248,000 in North Carolina...
Nearly a quarter of a million North Carolina consumers have been affected by a recent data breach by the Bank of New York Mellon. The breach could subject 248,000 North Carolinians to potential identity theft.
"During these uncertain times, it's especially important that people know if their personal information has been lost or stolen," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said. "Our state laws require that businesses and government let you know if you're the victim of a security breach so you can act quickly to protect yourself from identity theft."
A security breach happens when data or records containing personal information such as Social Security Numbers or bank account numbers are lost, stolen or displayed. The largest breach reported recently involves Bank of New York Mellon, a stock transfer company also known as BNY Mellon. The company reported this month that data from 248,000 North Carolinians was lost including their names, addresses, Social Security Numbers, and possibly their bank account information.
In May, BNY Mellon reported that it lost backup tapes containing personal information about 4 million consumers nationwide including 74,000 in North Carolina. The company has since discovered that the breach actually affected 12 million consumers.
Under North Carolina law, state and local government as well as businesses must notify consumers if a security breach may have compromised their personal information. They must also report breaches to the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division. A total of 260 breaches that involved information about 1.5 million North Carolina consumers have been reported since the laws took effect in 2005 and 2006.
BNY Mellon is currently notifying North Carolinians whose information was lost and offering them two free years of credit monitoring. Some consumers who are contacted may not be familiar with the company, which is hired by public companies as a stock transfer agent or to handle corporate transactions.
Kevin Trudeau Banned from Infomercials--Again
Must pay $5 million for falsely advertising his weight loss "cure"10/07/2008ConsumerAffairs
Kevin Trudeau Banned from Infomercials--Again...
A federal judge has banned Kevin Trudeau from infomercials in which he has an interest for three years and ordered him to pay more than $5 million in profits from his book, "The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You to Know About."
The ruling confirms an earlier contempt finding against Trudeau -- the second time he has been found in contempt of court in the past four years.
In August, Judge Robert W. Gettleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois stood by his conclusion in 2007 that Trudeau "clearly, and no doubt intentionally," violated a provision of a 2004 stipulated court order that prohibits Trudeau from misrepresenting the content of books in his infomercials.
The judge stated that "the Infomercial[s] falsely and intentionally led thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of consumers to believe that the Weight Loss Book would describe an 'easy,' 'simple' protocol that, once 'finished' would allow the consumer to 'eat anything' he or she wants."
Stating that Trudeau was "not a credible witness," the judge noted several "undeniably false" statements in his infomercials, finding that, contrary to Trudeau's claims:
• The diet protocol could not be done "easily" and "at home," because the protocol described in Trudeau's book requires colonics, which must be done at the office of a licensed practitioner, as well as injection of human growth hormone (HGH);
• Dieters could not "complete" or "finish" Trudeau's four-phase program, because Trudeau's book states that "Phase 4 is for the rest of your life";
• Dieters could not eat "anything" they want, because Trudeau's book prescribes that dieters following Phase 4 must eat "only 100% organic food," and no "brand name" food, "fast food," or "food served by regional or national chain restaurants"; and
• The diet protocol did not require "no exercise," because Trudeau's book states that three of the diet's four phases, including Phase 4, require walking one hour outside every day.
Given Trudeau's "history of deception and contemptuous violation of court orders" and his "willful efforts to deceive consumers" into believing that his weight-loss book contained material that it did not, the court confirmed its ruling that found Trudeau in contempt of the 2004 order.
The Federal Trade Commission filed its first lawsuit against Trudeau in 1998, charging him with making false and misleading claims in infomercials for products he claimed could cause significant weight loss and cure addictions to heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes, and enable users to achieve a photographic memory.
A stipulated court order resolving that case barred Trudeau from making false claims for products in the future, ordered him to pay $500,000 in consumer redress, and established a $500,000 performance bond to ensure compliance.
In 2003, the Commission charged Trudeau with violating the 1998 order by falsely claiming in infomercials that a product, Coral Calcium Supreme, could cure cancer. The court subsequently entered a preliminary injunction that ordered him not to make such claims.
When Trudeau continued to make cancer-cure claims about Coral Calcium, he was found in contempt of the injunction.
In 2004, Trudeau agreed to an order that resolved the Coral Calcium matter. The order directed him to pay $2 million in consumer redress and banned him from infomercials, except for infomercials for informational publications such as books, provided that he "must not misrepresent the content" of the books.
The most recent contempt action stems from Trudeau's misrepresentations of the contents of his weight-loss book in infomercials. In November 2007, Judge Gettleman found Trudeau in contempt, stating that he had misled thousands of consumers with false claims that were "in flagrant violation" of the court's order.
In his August ruling, the court banned Trudeau "or any person acting in concert with him, from participating in the production or publication of any infomercial for any product, including books, in which Mr. Trudeau or any related entity has an interest, for a period of three years from the date of this order." The court also imposed a judgment against Trudeau of more than $5 million dollars.
FDA's Melamine Decision Scares Consumers
But experts see it as a positive sign10/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
FDA's Melamine Decision Scares Consumers...
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recent announcement that some melamine in food products does not pose a health risk is frightening to consumers like Mary W. of Kansas. But the head of a global food testing company applauds the FDA's decision, saying it means the US is now checking for this contaminant.
On Friday, the FDA said that levels of melamine below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) in food does not pose a health risk to humans. The only exception is infant formula.
The FDA said it is "currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns. There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern."
The agency added, "It is important to understand that this does not mean that any exposure to any detectable level of melamine and melaminerelated compounds in formula will result in harm to infants."
The FDA released these findings--part of its safety and risk assessment of melamine and melamine-related companies in food--in response to the Chinese-milk scandal.
Earlier this month, Chinese officials discovered melamine in powered infant formula made it that country. That contamination is blamed for the recent deaths of four infants in China and the illnesses of 53,000 other children in that country.
Chinese officials learned some dairy plants may have intentionally added melamine to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.
The melamine contamination has since spread from infant formula to dozens of other food products sold around the world, including candy, coffee, and pretzels.
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. That's why Kansas consumer Mary W. is outraged by the FDA's decision to allow any levels of melamine in her food.
"I think they (the FDA) have opened a Pandora's Box," she told ConsumerAffairs.com today. "They have basically said they are going to allow the food supply to be contaminated.
"It seems to me that rather than finding a way to make our food supply safer by not allowing any toxin, the FDA has found a way to allow some to come in to the food supply," said Mary, who lives in Baldwin City, Kansas. "That just scares me."
Michael Prinster, chief operation officer of Romer Labs, said he understands Mary's concerns, but he has another view on the FDA's decision.
"I think it's a positive action because it means we (the FDA) are now going to start testing things for melamine. That is a good thing."
"My bigger concern," he added, "is that someone spiked the food products with a known contaminant--and with no regard for the consequences."
Prinster's company runs safety tests for the food, feed, and agriculture industry around the world. The Union, Missouri-based company now has a commercial kit that tests for melamine in milk and milk powder.
Prinster said his company recently tested 124 bags of Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy candy for that chemical.
"We didn't find anything," he said. "We've tested a lot of other foods---milk or milk-power based foods--off the store shelves and did not found any melamine in them."
But melamine has been found in Chinese-made products that contain milk or power-milk ingredients in the United States and other countries around the world, including the following cases:
Officials in California and Connecticut confirm they found melamine=-tainted White Rabbit Creamy Candy in their states. The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection said the tainted candy was primarily found in Asian markets;
Queensway Foods Company Inc. of California -- a U.S. distributor of White Rabbit Creamy Candy--recalled the products last week because of melamine contamination. The company distributed the candy in California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington;
Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority recalled the Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candy 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 New Zealand Food Safety Authority said it found high levels of melamine in Chinese-made White Rabbit Creamy Candy;
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently warn consumers not to eat, distribute, or sell White Rabbit candy because of possible melamine contamination;
Canadian officials also warned consumers not to eat a popular brand of Chinese pretzels, which tested positive for melamine. The tainted products are Kaiser Strawberry Dressing Pretzels and Kaiser Choco Dressing Pretzels. The distributor of the pretzels, Dai Jung, has recalled the products;
The British maker of the popular Cadbury candy has recalled 11 types of Chinese-made chocolates after the products tested positive for melamine. None of the Cadbury chocolates made in the US were involved in this action. The Hershey Company said it does not buy powered milk or other milk ingredients from China;
The Taiwanese company that makes Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea has recalled seven of its products because of possible melamine contamination.
The FDA said it is not aware of any illnesses in the United States linked to the Chinese-made milk products products. It also said infant formula made in the United States is safe. Those companies are not importing formula or sourcing milk-based materials from China, the agency said.
FDA officials, however, warned consumers not to buy any Chinese-made infant formula. These products are often sold in Asian markets across the country. Meanwhile, the FDA said it will continue to screen imported products for melamine contamination.
"If products are adulterated because they contain melamine and/or a melamine-related compound, the agency will take appropriate actions to prevent the products from entering commerce," the FDA said in a written statement.
But those words offer little comfort to worried consumers like Mary in Kansas.
"I don't trust the FDA," she said, adding she has shared her concerns with her elected officials. "And now I'm struggling day-to-day on what to feed my family. When you go to the grocery story, how do you figure out what to buy?"
Mary has stopped buying any processed food and only eats meat sold by local farmers. She said she will continue to take these precautions until she is sure the food supply is safe.
But the FDA, she fears, can't give her that assurance anytime soon. "The FDA is galloping down a slippery slope."
Auto Loan Delinquencies Rise
Nearly $25 billion in car loans are past due10/06/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Auto Loan Delinquencies Rise...
Add auto loans to the list of headaches. A new report finds that nearly $25 billion in auto loans are past due.
Experian Automotive's analysis of lending trends found that loans 30 days past due were up 9 percent year-over-year in the second quarter, while loans 60 days past due were up 11 percent.
Currently, 2.48 percent of all automotive loans are 30 days past due, compared with 2.28 percent in the second quarter of 2007. Automotive loans 60 days past due rose to 0.75 of a percent from 0.67 of a percent.
The economy continues to force lenders to tighten their loan criteria while consumers are faced with increased difficulty in repaying those loans on time, said Scott Waldron, president of Experian Automotive. Our data has shown a clear pattern of rising past-due loans in the auto industry, where even a slight increase in delinquent loans severely affects the industry by accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid debt.
The study was released in Las Vegas at the Automotive Finance Summit, where lenders, dealers and manufacturers are trying to find a road to survival during the credit crisis.
Consumer credit has worsened in the past two years, with the percentage of prime automotive loans (680 credit score and above) falling by 8 percent. In the second quarter of 2008, 56.5 percent of all open automotive loans were to people with prime credit, down from 61.1 percent in the second quarter of 2006.
It is important for financial organizations to track these trends to evaluate how current economic forces are specifically impacting their loan portfolios, said Melinda Zabritski, director of automotive credit for Experian Automotive. Using outside information and analysis can help lenders understand unique credit patterns in local markets and how these subtle nuances can impact financing in one city versus another.
In other findings:
• Market share for "captive" finance companies (those owned by auto manufacturers) has fallen from 31.1 percent of all loans opened in the second quarter of 2006 to 25.2 percent of all loans opened in the second quarter of 2008
• As auto sales have fallen, total loan originations have dropped by 14 percent
• Banks have become more cautious in their overall lending, dropping their percentage of below subprime loans from 15.7 percent in the second quarter of 2006 to 9.7 percent in the second quarter of 2008
• Finance companies specializing in automotive loans have picked up the below subprime market share from banks, growing their below subprime portfolios from 15 percent in the second quarter of 2006 to 24.6 percent in the second quarter of 2008
• Below subprime is the fastest-growing automotive loan segment, increasing from 9.4 percent in the second quarter of 2006 to 13.4 percent in the second quarter of 2008.
Countrywide Settles Predatory Lending Charges for $8.68 Billion
Landmark settlement reached with Attorneys General in eleven states10/06/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Countrywide Settles Predatory Lending Charges for $8.68 Billion...
A landmark, multi-state settlement has been reached with Countrywide Home Loans, Countrywide Financial Corporation and Full Spectrum Lending that is expected to provide up to $8.68 billion of home loan and foreclosure relief nationally.
"With this settlement, homeowners will receive direct relief from the catastrophic damage caused by Countrywide," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., a co-leader of the negotiations for the states. "Countrywide's lending practices turned the American dream into a nightmare for tens of thousands of families by putting them into loans they couldn't understand and ultimately couldn't afford."
The Countrywide settlement will likely become the largest predatory lending settlement in history, dwarfing the nationwide $484 million settlement with Household Finance Corporation in 2002.
The settlement marks a swift resolution of the lawsuit alleging that Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender prior to its July 2008 acquisition by Bank of America, deceived borrowers by misrepresenting loan terms, loan payment increases, and borrowers' ability to afford loans.
In a nutshell, this settlement will enable eligible subprime and pay-option mortgage borrowers to avoid foreclosure by obtaining a modified and affordable loan. The loans covered by the settlement are among the riskiest and highest defaulting loans at the center of America's foreclosure crisis.
The modification program covers subprime and pay-option adjustable-rate mortgage loans in which the borrower's first payment was due between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2007. The program will be available for loans in default that are secured by owner-occupied property and serviced by Countrywide Financial or one of its affiliates. In addition, the borrower's loan balance must be 75% or more of the current value of the home, and the borrower must be able to afford adjusted monthly payments under the terms of the modification.
The terms of the modification will vary based on the type of loan, including:
• "Pay-option ARM loans," in which loan balances increase each month if a borrower makes only a minimum payment. Borrowers may be eligible to have their principal reduced to 95% of their home's current value and may also qualify for an interest-rate reduction or conversion to an interest-only payment.
• Subprime adjustable-rate loans, such as 2/28 loans. Borrowers may have their interest rate reduced to the initial rate. If the borrower still cannot afford it, the borrower may be eligible for further interest-rate reductions to as low as 3.5%.
• Subprime fixed loans. Borrowers may be eligible for interest-rate reductions.
• "Hope for Homeowners Program." If they qualify, some borrowers may be placed in loans made through this federal program.
• Alt-A and prime loans. Borrowers who are in default, but have Alt-A and prime loans, may also be considered for modifications, depending on circumstances.
In addition to the settlement's direct relief to borrowers, Bank of America, who negotiated the settlement following its acquisition of Countrywide, has agreed that it will suspend offering, under its own name or through Countrywide, subprime loans or loans that can negatively amortize.
The bank has significantly restricted the circumstances under which it will make so-called "no doc" or low-documentation loans, in which borrowers do not fully document their ability to repay their mortgages.
The settlement involved AGs in 11 states, including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington. The Countrywide parties to the settlement include parent Countrywide Financial Corporation, Countrywide Home Loans and Full Spectrum Lending.
The settlement does not include Angelo Mozilo, the former Chairman and Chief Executive of Countrywide Financial Corporation or David Sambol, formerly the President of Countrywide Home Loans and the President and Chief Operating Officer of Countrywide Financial Corporation. The case against them will continue.
DeLauro Raps FDA On Melamine Risk Guidelines
Congresswoman says agency condones contamination of food10/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
DeLauro Raps FDA On Melamine Risk Guidelines...
October 6, 2008
After numerous recalls and months of concerns about Chinese-made food products and ingredients containing melamine, the Food and Drug Administration has addressed the issue of exactly how much melamine poses a risk. Very small amounts of the substance, the agency said, poses very little risk at all.
The FDA action brought a strong rebuke from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chairwoman of the Agriculture-- Food and Drug Administration subcommittee.
"While other countries throughout the world, including the European Union, are acting to ban melamine-contaminated products from China, the FDA has chosen to establish an acceptable level for melamine in food in an attempt to convince consumers that it is not harmful," she said. "Not only is this is an insult to consumers, but it would appear that the FDA is condoning the intentional contamination of foods."
By not insisting on a zero-tolerance policy with melamine, DeLauro said the FDA is failing to protect consumers, and is undercutting state officials in their efforts to keep melamine-tainted products out of stores.
"Once again, the FDA is failing to act to increase inspections and remove contaminated products from store shelves," DeLauro said. And once again, the FDA is demonstrating that the Congress has significant work ahead if it is to pass legislation that reforms the food safety system and changes the culture at an agency that is failing to protect the public from potential health risks."
The FDA set 2.5 parts per million as the maximum that can be safely consumed--but there is one rather strong caveat. The FDA says it has not been able to set a safe level for melamine in baby formula, and any amount should be considered too much. In the last few weeks at least 54,000 children in China have gotten sick from melamine-tainted milk or formula.
While Chinese-made infant formula has not been cleared for import into the U.S., other products made from tainted milk have shown up on U.S. store shelves. Chinese candy found last week in California reportedly had more than 500 parts per million of the chemical.
Late last week a company in New Jersey said it was recalling a beverage imported from China called Black Cat Flavor Drink because the FDA found melamine when it tested it.
What is melamine and why does it show up in Chinese food products? The chemical is designed to make food appear to have more protein and nutrition content than it actually does, when tested.
In other words, if added to a food on purpose, it could fool inspectors, or anyone testing the product, into thinking the food was of better quality than it actually is.
Melamine first became an issue for U.S. consumers last year, when the chemical was blamed for thousands of pet injuries and deaths after being discovered in a wide range of pet food brands.
Consumers vulnerable to scams growing out of Wall Street meltdown10/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
Wall Street meltdown has many consumers worrying about their fiscal health and may leave them vulnerable to opportunistic scam artists who try to capitaliz...
FDA Issues Report On Melamine and Food Safety
Assessment indicates that any trace of chemical is a health concern, but only in infant formula10/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
FDA Issues Report On Melamine and Food Safety...
The Food and Drug Administration has issued the results of its interim safety and risk assessment of melamine and melamine-related compounds in food -- including infant formula.
A safety/risk assessment is a scientifically based methodology used to estimate the risk to human health from exposure to specified compounds. It is based on available data and certain scientific assumptions in the absence of data.
The purpose of the FDA interim safety/risk assessment was to identify the level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in food that would not raise public health concerns. The interim safety/risk assessment evaluated the melamine exposure in infant formula and in other foods.
The safety/risk assessment, prompted by reports of melamine contamination of milk-derived ingredients and finished food products containing milk manufactured in China, was conducted by scientists from FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Center for Veterinary Medicine. The FDA reviewed scientific literature on melamine toxicity.
FDA said it is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns. In large part, this is because of gaps in scientific knowledge about the toxicity of melamine and its analogues in infants, including:
the consequences of the continuous use of infant formulas as the sole source of nutrition;
the uncertainties associated with the possible presence and co-ingestion of more than one melamine analogue; and
for premature infants with immature kidney function, the possibility that they may be fed these formulas as the sole source of nutrition and thus on a body weight basis experience greater levels of intake for a longer time than is experienced by term infants.
There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern. However, it is important to understand that this does not mean that any exposure to any detectable level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in formula will result in harm to infants.
Other Food Products
In food products other than infant formula, the FDA concludes that levels of melamine and melamine-related compounds below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) do not raise concerns. This conclusion assumes a worst-case exposure scenario in which 50% of the diet is contaminated at this level, and applies a 10-fold safety factor to the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) to account for any uncertainties.
The TDI is an estimate of the maximum amount of an agent to which an individual could be exposed on a daily basis over the course of a lifetime without an appreciable health risk.
FDA continues to screen products, collaborate with foreign governments and their regulatory agencies, and monitor reports of contamination from international sources to help ensure that potentially contaminated products from foreign sources are examined if imported into the United States.
The agency said it would take appropriate actions to prevent the products from entering commerce if they are adulterated because they contain melamine and/or a melamine-related compound.
Rescue plan gives Uncle Sam an equity stake in troubled mortgages10/05/2008ConsumerAffairs
'Hope for Homeowners' Program Offers Faster Relief than Wall Street Bailout...
Campaign Launched to Protect Tweens' Hearing
Promotes awareness on exposure to noise sources that harm youth10/03/2008ConsumerAffairs
Campaign Launched to Protect Tweens' Hearing...
October 3, 2008
Hearing loss is a fact of life in old age, cut there are growing concerns that people will begin losing their hearing at a young age. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has launched a new campaign to help parents teach their 8- to 12-year-olds how to avoid hearing loss from overexposure to loud noise.
The new campaign, called It's a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing, features a new Web site that offers advice to parents on the causes and prevention of noise-induced hearing loss, how to recognize when a child's hearing is at risk, and ways to reduce noise exposure.
The site contains games, posters, and interactive information about noise and hearing loss tailored specifically for tweens.
"Noise is everywhere, and children and adults alike are at risk for hearing loss from overexposure," said James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. "Our goal through this campaign is to increase awareness among parents and children so that it will become second nature to use protective hearing techniques when they're exposed to loud noise, just like it's become second nature for many people to wear sunscreen when they're at the beach or to snap on a helmet when they go biking."
Children often are exposed to noises that can reach harmful levels and durations. Doing yard work, such as using a power mower, playing a musical instrument, whether it's a violin or electric guitar, or attending a sports event in a large stadium can be the source of too much noise.
Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when too much noise damages small sensory cells in the inner ear, called hair cells. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot be repaired. Hair cells can be injured instantly by an intense blast of noise, such as the bang of a firecracker, or gradually from repeated exposure to excessive noise.
Overexposure to noise also may cause tinnitus, a ringing, roaring, or clicking sound in the ear. Research also suggests that genetics may play a role in increasing a person's vulnerability to noise-induced hearing loss.
The campaign targets tweens because they are at an age when they are no longer little children, and are beginning to develop a sense of who they are and what they like to do. Reaching them at this age, while they're forming attitudes and habits related to their health, will help them understand that healthy hearing habits will benefit them for a lifetime.
The Noisy Planet campaign advocates three ways to prevent NIHL:
Block the noise by wearing earplugs or protective earmuffs, like those used by airport or lawn service workers.
Avoid the noise by walking away or limiting time spent in noisy environments.
Turn down the sound on the growing number of tools, toys, and gadgets that add to the increasing noise level of daily life.
Melamine-Tainted Chinese Candy Shows Up in U.S.
Suspect White Rabbit Creamy Candy found in at least two states10/02/2008ConsumerAffairs
Melamine-Tainted Chinese Candy Shows Up in U.S....
Candy lovers beware. Melamine-tainted candy — imported from China — is now showing up on store shelves in the United States.
Officials in California and Connecticut confirm they have found White Rabbit Creamy Candy contaminated with melamine in their states.The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection said the tainted candy was primarily found in Asian markets. But officials warn the contaminated candy could be on store shelves nationwide.
Melamine is the chemical at the heart of the Chinese-milk scandal, which is blamed for the deaths of four babies and the illnesses of more than 53,000 other children in that country.
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. Authorities say some Chinese dairy plants added melamine to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.
Melamine is used to make plastic and fertilizers. The chemical became a feared household word last year after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered it in Chinese-imported wheat gluten to make pet food. Thousands of pets in the United States became sick or died after eating the melamine-tainted pet food. Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the Chinese-milk scandal continues to spread.
A U.S. distributor of White Rabbit Creamy Candy last Friday recalled the products because of melamine contamination. Queensway Foods Company Inc. said it distributed the candy in California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington.
The company said the candy is sold in 8 or 16 oz packages. All other flavors of White Rabbit Candy, including Assorted (Chocolate, Coconut, and Coffee), Red Bean, Coffee, Corn, Lychee, Mango and Strawberry are sold in 7 oz. packages. The packages have a logo of a white rabbit on the front with the words "White Rabbit".
U.S. officials aren't the only ones who have found melamine in White Rabbit Creamy Candy.
Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority last week recalled those after the products tested positive for melamine. It said other Chinese-made food also 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 New Zealand Food Safety Authority also found high levels of melamine in the White Rabbit candy.
And the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) warned consumers not to eat, distribute, or sell White Rabbit candy because of possible melamine contamination.
Earlier this week, another brand of candy tested positive for melamine. The British maker of the popular Cadbury candies recalled 11 types of Chinese-made chocolates because of melamine contamination.
Those products were exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, the Pacific island of Nauru and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
But 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 recalled Cadbury chocolates are:
- 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.
Cadbury said it is implementing new food safety and quality checks at its Beijing plant.
In related news, the Taiwanese company that makes Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea recalled seven of its products last week because of possible melamine contamination. The recalled products are:
- 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)
Some animals have even become sick after drinking tainted Chinese milk products. Two gorillas in China that drank the melamine-tainted milk powder now show 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.
Congress Passes Broadband Data Improvement Act
Bill would improve data collection on high-speed Internet in U.S.10/02/2008ConsumerAffairs
The FCC in June announced major revisions to its data collection system, including setting its minimum standard for broadband from 200 kbps to 768 kbps....
Amidst the battles over the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, both houses of Congress passed legislation that would improve the collection of data on broadband availability in the United States, as well as new funding for groups that support increasing high-speed Internet access.
On September 27, the Senate passed the "Broadband Data Improvement Act," introduced last year by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI). The House of Representatives passed companion legislation on Monday, and sent the bill to President Bush's desk for signature into law.
Inouye hailed the bill's passage as a stepping-stone to providing broadband access to the nation.
"The federal government has a responsibility to ensure the continued rollout of broadband access, as well as the successful deployment of the next generation of broadband technology," Inouye said. "But as I have said before, we cannot manage what we do not measure. This bill will give us the baseline statistics we need in order to eventually achieve the successful deployment of broadband access and services to all Americans."
The legislation would make several changes to how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other agencies handle their collection of data on broadband Internet, including:
• A mandate for the FCC to report to Congress annually on the state of broadband adoption in America, rather than periodically. The FCC report would have to list what kind of technologies citizens use to access the Internet, the cost per month of the services, what applications or devices they use in conjunction with their service, and how fast the connection speeds really are.
• Adding a question to the Census Bureau survey asking if the respondent uses dial-up or broadband for their Internet access.
• Tasking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to create tools to help consumers evaluate the speed and availability of broadband Internet, as well as how the United States' Internet availability compares with other countries.
• Establishing grants for nonprofit, public-private enterprises to study barriers to broadband adoption across the country.
The House and Senate bills had several differences, but were eventually whittled down, with the only remaining change being that the House version required reports to be sent to the House Commerce Committee as well as the Senate.
Media watchdog group Free Press said the legislation represented "a crucial step toward a national broadband policy."
"Our current broadband data collection system has had serious problems for years," said Free Press' policy director Ben Scott. "The absence of accurate information about the price, speed and availability of high-speed broadband has crippled our government's ability to advance innovative technology policies."
The FCC has been heavily criticized in recent years for using poor data-gathering techniques that did not accurately measure what parts of the country actually had access to broadband. Under the old system, if a single subscriber in a ZIP code had broadband Internet access, the entire region was considered covered.
The FCC in June announced major revisions to its data collection system, including setting its minimum standard for broadband from 200 kbps to 768 kbps, the average speed of a slow DSL connection.
But the agency simultaneously released a report claiming that broadband availability was on the rise for all Americans--using the old statistics.
Study Finds Medical Research News Lacking
Reports often omit mention of funding by pharmaceutical companies10/02/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Study Finds Medical Research News Lacking: Consumers often fail to get the complete picture from news media reports about medical research....
Consumers often fail to get the complete picture from news media reports about medical research. An analysis of coverage of medical studies indicates that reports often fail to report pharmaceutical company funding and frequently refer to medications by their brand names -- both potential sources of bias.
News articles represent an important source of medical information for many patients, and even some physicians.
"An increasingly recognized source of commercial bias in medical research is the funding of studies by companies with a financial interest in the results," the authors write study in the October 1 issue of JAMA.
Little is known about how frequently news articles report the funding sources of the medical research they report on, or how frequently news articles use brand medication names instead of generic names, which could create commercial bias.
Researchers at the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Mass., reviewed U.S. news articles from newspaper and online sources about pharmaceutical-funded medication studies to determine how frequently and prominently they indicate the funding source and how often they refer to medications by their brand vs. generic names.
The studies were published in five major general medical journals - JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Archives of Internal Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine. The researchers also surveyed editors at the 100 most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. about their publications' practices on the reporting of company funding and the use of generic medication names.
The authors identified 306 news articles, of which 175 were from newspapers and 131 were from online sources. Among the 306 news articles about company-funded medication studies, the funding source for the studies was not reported in 42 percent of the articles. There was no significant difference in non-reporting rates between articles obtained from newspaper and online sources.
Of the 306 news articles, 277 concerned medications with both generic and brand names. Among these 277 articles, 38 percent used only brand names and 67 percent used brand names in at least half of the medication references.
The survey of newspaper editors found that 88 percent indicated that their publications often or always reported company funding in articles about medical research, and that 77 percent reported that they often or always referred to medications by the generic names in articles about medical research.
Three percent of editors indicated that their publication had a written policy stating that company funding should be reported in articles about medical research, while the editor at two percent of newspapers responded that their publications had a written policy stating that medications should be referred to predominantly by their generic names.
However, the editors' perceptions diverged from their publications' actual performances. A total of 104 newspaper articles were analyzed from publications for which editors reported always identifying company funding. Of these articles, 45 percent failed to cite company funding.
Additionally, a total of 75 newspaper articles were analyzed from publications for which the editors reported always using generic names. Of these articles, 76 percent used brand names in at least half of the medication references.
"Our findings raise several concerns. For patients and physicians to evaluate new research findings, it is important that they know how the research was funded so they can assess whether commercial biases may have affected the results," the authors write.
"Additionally, the use of generic medication names by the news media is preferable so that physicians and patients learn to refer to medications by their generic names, a practice that is likely to reduce medication errors and may decrease unnecessary health care costs," they conclude.
Experts Tackle Hot Laptop Problem
Researchers explore innovative theories to create cooler, faster notebooks10/02/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Experts Tackle Hot Laptop Problem...
If you've balanced a laptop computer on your lap lately, you probably noticed a burning sensation. That's because ever-increasing processing speeds are creating more and more heat, which has to go somewhere--in this case, into your lap.
Two researchers at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science aim to lay the scientific groundwork that will solve the problem using nanoelectronics, considered the essential science for powering the next generation of computers.
"Laptops are very hot now, so hot that they are not 'lap' tops anymore," said Avik Ghosh, an assistant professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "The prediction is that if we continue at our current pace of miniaturization, these devices will be as hot as the sun in 10 to 20 years."
To head off this problem, Ghosh and Mircea Stan, also a professor in the department, are re-examining nothing less than the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law states that, left to itself, heat will transfer from a hotter unit to a cooler one--in this case between electrical computer components--until both have roughly the same temperature, a state called "thermal equilibrium."
The possibility of breaking the law will require Ghosh and Stan to solve a scientifically controversial--and theoretical--conundrum known as "Maxwell's Demon."
Introduced by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1871, the concept theorizes that the energy flow from hot to cold could be disrupted if there were a way to control the transfer of energy between two units. Maxwell's Demon would allow one component to take the heat while the other worked at a lower temperature.
This could be accomplished only if the degree of natural disorder, or entropy, were reduced. And that's the "demon" in Maxwell's Demon. "Device engineering is typically based on operating near thermal equilibrium," Ghosh said.
But, he added, nature has examples of biological cells that operate outside thermal equilibrium.
"Chlorophyll, for example, can convert photons into energy in highly efficient ways that seem to violate traditional thermodynamic expectations," he said.
A closely related concept, Brownian "ratchets," will also be explored. This concept proposes that devices could be engineered to convert non-equilibrium electrical activity into directed motion, allowing energy to be harvested from a heat source.
If computers could be made with components that operate outside thermal equilibrium, it could mean better computer performance. Basically, your laptop wouldn't burst into flames as it processes larger amounts of information at faster speeds. Also, because it would operate at extremely low power levels and would have the ability to harness, or scavenge, power dissipated by other functions, battery life would increase.
Combining Ghosh's command of physics with Stan's expertise in electrical engineering, the two hope to bridge the concept of tackling Maxwell's Demon and Brownian ratchets from theoretical physics to engineered technologies.
"These theories have been looked at from a physics perspective for years, but not from the perspective of electrical engineering," Stan said. "So that's where we are trying to break some ground."
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California First State to Pass Menu Labeling Law
Chain restaurant menus must include calorie counts10/01/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
California First State to Pass Menu Labeling Law...
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed landmark legislation that will put calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards.
Though enacted in New York City, Seattle, and several other jurisdictions, California is the first state in the country to pass such a measure.
"Ten years from now, it will probably seem strange that once upon a time, chain restaurants didn't list calories on menus and menu boards for everyone to see," said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has been spearheading the menu labeling movement nationwide. "We hope that what California legislators and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have done is replicated in many other state capitols, and that it eventually goes nationwide."
The California menu labeling bill applies to fast-food and other chain restaurants having 20 or more outlets in California and only to standardized menu items, not daily specials or customized orders.
The bill goes into full effect in 2011, though between now and then restaurant chains will be required to make brochures with nutrition information available in their restaurants.
The bill preempts cities and counties from enacting competing menu labeling provisions, as San Francisco and Santa Clara County have, though the bill's advocates consider that a price worth paying given how many more people will now have access to calorie information.
"Restaurant diners in California will no longer have to guess when it comes to selecting meals for themselves and their children," Wootan said. "And California chain restaurants will have an incentive to add a wider range of healthy choices to their menus. It's great news for consumers."