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    Researchers Raise Ear Bud Safety Concerns

    The popular earphones may be a safety hazard, researchers warn

    In the 1960s, young people walked around with a transistor radio next to their ear. In the 1970s it was a boom-box on their shoulder. In the 80s, it was a Walkman on their belt with featherweight earphones.

    While any prolonged, loud sounds in close proximity to your ears can be harmful, today's “ear buds,” the mini-earphones that connect media players and smartphones directly to your ear canals, are a growing cause of concern.

    According to a Vanderbilt University-led study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss is now affecting 20 percent of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 19, which is a five percent increase over the past 15 years. Are ear buds to blame?

    A separate study by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that teenagers typically listen to devices at a louder volume than adults, and that these same teenagers already have symptoms of hearing loss.

    Kristina Rigsby, Au.D., a pediatric audiologist at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, says listening to devices with levels over 80 dB for extended periods of time may be dangerous.

    The danger

    Prolonged exposure to high volume exhausts the auditory system, she explains. Over time, the hair cells in the ear start to degenerate because they aren’t receiving proper blood flow and oxygen.

    “When you are listening to these devices at high levels and for long periods of time, you are putting yourself at risk for hearing loss,” Rigsby said. “Hearing loss is permanent, so once you’ve done the damage, there’s no getting it back.”

    How loud is too loud? If parents can hear sound coming from their child’s headphones while they are wearing them, it’s too loud, Rigsby said. A good rule of thumb is the “60/60 rule,” which means using only 60 percent of the device’s volume level for no more than 60 minutes at a time. After 60 minutes, give your ears a break for at least an hour, she said.

    Courts have heard enough

    Those who ignore the warnings and wind up damaging their hearing shouldn't expect too much sympathy from the legal system. A federal appeals court in 2010 unanimously tossed a class action alleging that Apple failed to warn consumers that using iPod earbud-style headphones at full volume can lead to hearing loss. The 3-0 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court's 2008 decision to dismiss the case.

    The suit, filed by lead plaintiffs Joseph Birdsong and Bruce Waggoner in 2006, alleged that iPods' maximum volume of 115 decibels, equivalent to a helicopter taking off, puts users in danger of permanent hearing loss. Further, the plaintiffs said that Apple's signature earbuds the white-and-silver headphones that fit snugly inside users' ears provide less protection against hearing loss than traditional headphones.

    In June 2008, Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California dismissed the suit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they had suffered any actual harm as a result of the headphones' alleged defect. The Ninth Circuit upheld his ruling, with judge David Thompson writing that the suit suggest[s] only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the headphones were inherently defective.

    While Apple does alert consumers that continually playing music at a high volume can lead to hearing problems, the plaintiffs contended that this warning was too vague. They said that Apple had a responsibility to tell consumers the maximum safe decibel level, and to sell iPods with a device telling users how loud their music is at any given moment.

    What to do

    Rather than using ear buds, consider investing in high-quality, “noise cancelling” headphones that cover the entire ear. Ear buds allow more background noise to seep in, so users often turn up the volume to compensate.

    But before you go for a stroll with your new noise-cancelling headphones, it might pay to listen to warnings from researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who say distracted walking is becoming as dangerous as distracted driving.

    With the proliferation of iPods and smartphones than can access music services, pedestrians often walk listening to loud music, and therefore can't hear trains, buses, trucks and cars around them.

    Serious injuries to pedestrians listening to headphones have more than tripled in six years, according to their research. In many cases, the cars or trains are sounding horns that the pedestrians cannot hear, leading to fatalities in nearly three-quarters of cases.

    “Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears,” said lead author Richard Lichenstein, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”

    The researchers looked at 116 accident cases from 2004 to 2011 in which injured pedestrians were found to be using headphones. Seventy percent of the 116 accidents resulted in death to the pedestrian.

    Researchers Raise Ear Bud Safety Concerns...
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    Dodge Presents New 2012 Challenger Model

    New 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye adds more style and presence to an already popular lineup

    Dodge, an auto maker that likes to think it's known for sporty, extravagant designs, unveiled yet another version of a new-wave muscle car at the recent Spring Festival of LXs in Irvine, California. The 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye, which is due to hit stores later this spring, retails for under $30,000 and offers its own unique style and engineering for a specific kind of driver who values both performance and curb appeal.

    Red striping on the outside and 20-inch pitch black wheels help make the 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye look sharp, and a two-tiered contour design with a small rear spoiler helps to accent the kind of style that drives modern buyers to cars like the Dodge Charger and Challenger – new photos from InsideLine show more of the model’s interior and exterior style, like an ultramodern metal Mopar shifter (as well as die-cast zinc paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel) and bar style brake lighting on the back of the car where the red stripe ends.

    As for performance, Dodge endowed the 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye with a 305 hp Pentastar V6 engine with VVT. This car also gets a performance-tuned suspension with innovative shocks, and sway bar design that helps with cornering, as well as top-of-the-line high-performance disc brakes with dual-piston front calipers and, of course, vented rotors.

    Dodge jammed a lot of technology into this model; the Challenger Rallye Redeye model gets all of the conventional gear inside other Challenger models, including hands-free technology, premium auto, keyless entry and other conveniences along with serious ask them satellite radio and a wealth of drive technology.

    The opportunity to gaze on this new Dodge Chrysler offer inspires a broader review of what our readers have to say about a line of cars that, if nothing else, will look terrific in your driveway. When it comes to consumer reviews of Dodge products like the new Charger and Challenger models, ConsumerAffairs has received some diverse complaints, many of them related to issues like VIN number and mileage exclusions for recalls of many Dodge models in years past. There’s also a single report of spontaneous combustion, and some complaints about local dealerships. As for the recalls, ConsumerAffairs covered some recall activity last year, and we also took a look at a new Dodge Dart model meant to garner some attention in the small car segment.

    Since recent reports don’t indicate a lack of demand for these kinds of Dodge products, it’s likely that the new Challenger Rallye Redeye is one more step in the auto maker’s continuing strategy of supplying the gearheads of North America with products that, while they may sport direct injection systems instead of old-fashioned carburators, still look a little like the road-pounding machines of times past. When test driving these high-powered cars at your local dealer’s lot, be sure to ask about all current incentives and rebates, as well as insurance ratings for these flashy models.

    By rolling out products like the 2012 Challenger Rallye Redeye, Dodge caters to its fast-car customer base...
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      FDA Issues New Rules on Disclosing Harmful Substances in Tobacco

      Agency's goal is to prevent misleading marketing about the risk of smoking

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) is releasing what it says is previously unknown information about the chemicals in tobacco products, intended to help prevent misleading marketing about the risks associated with tobacco products. 

      The first document released today provides guidance on how companies will comply with the requirement to report on the quantities of potentially harmful chemicals in tobacco products. The second provides guidance to companies that seek to advertise or market a tobacco product as less harmful or associated with reducing the risk of tobacco-related disease. 

      "Today’s actions represent critical steps forward on providing Americans with the facts about the dangers of tobacco use and to stop children from smoking," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "We will continue to do everything we can to help smokers quit and prevent kids from starting this deadly addiction."

      The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act requires tobacco product manufacturers and importers to report quantities of harmful and potentially harmful constituents (HPHCs) found in tobacco products or tobacco smoke by brand and sub-brand. These  are chemicals or chemical compounds in a tobacco product or tobacco smoke that cause, or could cause, harm to smokers or non-smokers. All of the chemicals included on the list cause or may cause serious health problems including cancer, lung disease, and addiction to tobacco products.

      While there are more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco and tobacco smoke, FDA has today established a list of 93 specific chemicals that tobacco companies will be required to report for every regulated tobacco product sold in the United States.

      Time line

      The FDA said it recognizes that industry may be unable to meet the deadline due to current testing limitations. In recognition of this, the draft guidance released today identifies 20 chemicals that are representative of the full list and for which testing methods are well established and widely available.

      FDA intends to focus reporting enforcement on these 20 substances during 2012.

      Modified risk

      FDA also issued draft guidance today on submitting applications to sell modified risk tobacco products (MRTPs) -- tobacco products that are sold, distributed, or marketed with a claim to reduce harm or the risk of tobacco-related disease.

      The Tobacco Control Act establishes rigorous scientific criteria an applicant’s tobacco product must meet before FDA can allow the applicant to sell that product with a claim to reduce harm. The draft guidance describes scientific studies and analyses an applicant should submit to demonstrate its product will, or is expected to, significantly reduce harm or exposure to individuals, and benefit the health of the population as a whole.

      "We are  forging new territory to ensure that tobacco companies provide accurate information and do not mislead American consumers," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D. "We are committed to stopping such practices that may cause people to start or continue using tobacco products that could lead to preventable disease and death."

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) is releasing what it says is previously unknown information about the chemicals in tobacco products, intend...
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      South Florida Produce Recalls Jalapeno Peppers

      May be contaminated with Salmonella

      South Florida Produce, LLC is recalling Jalapeno Peppers, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. 

      Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.  In rare circumstances, infection withSalmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis. 

      The recalled Jalapeno Peppers were distributed to Distributors in Oxford, NC, Lake Worth, FL, Washington, DC, Pompano Beach, FL, Fair Lawn, NJ, Toronto, Ontario, Canada via customer truck between March 5 through March 7, 2012.

      The product comes in bulk 1 1/9 bushel cartons marked with the lot #’s J000010995, J000010996, J000010997, J000010998, J000010999, J000011000, J000020135, J000020136, J000020137, J000020138, J000020139 and J000030053.  These lots #’s appear on the pallet labels located on the front and back of each pallet. 

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.  

      The potential for contamination was noted during a routine testing by a retail store which revealed the possible presence of Salmonella in packs of 2, 10 and 40 count packages.

      Customers that have inventory with the above lot numbers are urged to destroy the  product and contact Leslie DiStefano, Director of Sales & Food Safety at 954-459-0106 to verify receipt of this recall and destruction of the product.

      Please refer customer or consumer questions or concerns that you might have in regard to this recall to the company's Director of Sales and Food Safety, Leslie DiStefano at (954) 459-0106 during the hours of 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday. 

      South Florida Produce, LLC is recalling Jalapeno Peppers, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which c...
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      Debt Collection Complaints Rose In 2011

      Congress gets report on Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

      Debt collection is a growing industry and a growing source of complaints from consumers. Lately there has been a flood of complaints from former Hollywood Video customers who say they are being contacted about fees they say they do not owe.

      There are also complaints from consumers who say they are being contacted about debts other people owe.

      "I was awakened at 7 am by a person looking for a way to contact my brother about a private business matter," Virginia, of Peoria, Ariz., wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. "I have not spoken to my brother in at least eight months and didn't know of any other way to reach him. I looked up the caller's company and found it to be a debt collector. I called them back and ordered them to remove my phone number from their files. He told me he couldn't guarantee that my number would be removed."

      As long as Virginia is not a party to her brother's debt, she is within her rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in demanding that she not be contacted further.

      Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Takes Over

      Responsibility for enforcing this important law has shifted from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In its first report to Congress on the subject of the FDCPA, the new agency promised to step up efforts to end abusive behavior.

      "Debt collection is a large, multi-billion dollar industry that directly affects many consumers," the CFPB said in its report. "In 2011, approximately 30 million individuals, or 14 percent of American adults, had debt that was subject to the collections process, averaging approximately $1,400."

      The report notes there have been many changes in the debt collection industry since the FDCPA was passed in 1977. The FDCPA created parameters on debt collection activities such as the time and place collection calls could be made, restrictions on how and to whom debts are communicated, and prohibitions on deceptive, threatening, and abusive collection tactics.

      Third-party debt collectors

      The FDCPA’s prohibition of deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices applies to third-party debt collectors. For the most part, creditors are exempt when they are collecting their own debts.

      "In 2011, consumer complaints to the FTC about third-party debt collectors (“FDCPA complaints”) increased in absolute terms and as a percentage of all complaints that consumers filed directly with the FTC," the report notes. "The FTC received 117,374 FDCPA complaints in 2011, representing 22.3% of all complaints it received directly from consumers. By comparison, in 2010, the FTC received 109,254 FDCPA complaints, representing 21.1% of the complaints it received directly from consumers.

      Industry responds

      The debt collection industry quickly fired back, saying an increasing number of consumer complaints does not necessarily indicate bad behavior.

      "While the FTC simply tallies consumer complaints the agency admittedly does so without investigation into whether the complaint is actually illegal or a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals said in a statement. "It therefore cannot be assumed that all complaints equate to actual bad behavior."

      For its part, CFPB acknowledged third-party debt collectors play a legitimate role in the economy.

      "Consumer debt collection is critical to the functioning of the consumer credit market," it said in its report. "By collecting delinquent debt, collectors reduce creditors’ losses from non-repayment and thereby help to keep consumer credit available and potentially more affordable to consumers."

      That said, the new cop on the beat made clear that it will be diligently watching for abusive behavior.

      Debt Collection Complaints Rose In 2011...
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      Feds Seek to Close California's Blue Ocean Smokehouse

      Risk of botulism, other hazards is unacceptably high, FDA charges

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, is seeking to stop the processing and distribution of fish products at a California company because of a risk of botulism and other food hazards.

      If granted, the permanent injunction against Fujino Enterprises Inc., doing business as Blue Ocean Smokehouse, of Half Moon Bay, Calif., would stop the company from processing and distributing fish and fish products. Blue Ocean’s president Erika Fujino also is named in the government’s complaint.

      Blue Ocean processes fresh and smoked fish and fish products including salmon, cod, halibut, Wild King Salmon Candy (a honey-glazed, cold-smoked salmon), hot-smoked tuna, sturgeon and hot-smoked fish cream cheese spreads. Blue Ocean receives fish for processing from outside California, including salmon from Washington state and sturgeon from Oregon. 

      “This company has ignored warnings by FDA and the California Department of Public Health by continuing to sell seafood that puts consumers’ health at risk,” said Dara A. Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “We are taking this action, in part, as a result of collaborative enforcement actions with our state partner and as part of our joint efforts to protect the public health.”

      The complaint alleges that the company’s fish and fish products are adulterated, because they are processed under conditions that do not comply with the agency’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations. HACCP is a science-based system of preventive controls for food safety that is used by commercial seafood processors to identify potential food safety hazards and take steps to keep them from occurring. 

      The complaint also alleges that Blue Ocean’s fish are adulterated because the conditions under which they are prepared, packed, and held fail to conform to the Current Good Manufacturing Practice requirements for food established to ensure that food is processed in a safe and sanitary manner.

      An FDA inspection in October 2011 found poor employee sanitation practices and showed that the company’s facility was not maintained in a manner that protected against food contamination.

      Blue Ocean’s vacuum-packaged hot and cold smoked fish products may pose a risk for the development of Clostridium botulinum toxin that can cause botulism, a rare but serious illness that may result in paralysis, inhibited respiration, and death. This toxin cannot be removed by cooking or freezing.

      Listeria

      Investigators also found Listeria monocytogenes (L. mono) on food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces in the food processing areas of the company’s facility. Listeriosis, the illness caused by L. mono, can cause fatal infections in young children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems. Pregnant women may suffer miscarriages or stillbirths as a result of the infection.

      In addition, Blue Ocean’s tuna products may pose a risk for the development of scombrotoxin (histamine), a toxin that also cannot be removed by cooking or freezing, and that can cause an illness known as scombrotoxin poisoning.

      The company’s violations led to its voluntary destruction of almost 1,500 pounds of hot- and cold-smoked fish in October 2011, under the supervision of the FDA and the California Department of Public Health.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, is seeking to stop the processing and distribution of fish produc...
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      Bogus BBB Email Contains a Dangerous Virus

      Scam artists can get access to your bank account

      Bogus e-mails claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau are notifying companies of supposed customer grievances. The e-mail recipient is asked to review the attached “complaint,” which actually contains a virus.

      One business lost nearly $100,000 when fraudsters electronically stole money from the company’s bank account after the virus enabled them to capture passwords and other important banking information.

      This scam is among five featured in the latest report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The IC3 is a partnership between the FBI and the National White-Collar Crime Center and gives victims of cybercrime a convenient reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations.

      Bogus e-mails claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau are notifying companies of supposed customer grievances. The e-mail recipient is asked to revi...
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      Florida Sues 'Christian' Debt Management Service

      Suit charges company took consumers' money but did little else

      Christian Crossroads, a so-called debt management service, lured customers with promises of a Bible-based "spiritual and lifestyle education," took money in advance and kept taking it, but failed to perform the most basic services, the Florida Attorney General claims in a lawsuit.

      The suit, filed in Palm Beach County Court, alleges that Christian Crossroads and its manager, Lillian Morton, used Internet advertising to lure religious consumers who were looking for help with debt reduction services.

      Consumers were told that they would receive services including "comprehensive spiritual and lifestyle education and coaching services, including but not limited to a thorough assessment of the member's current lifestyle goals and spiritual practices."

      The company supposedly promised that its debt reduction program was "based upon Biblical principles."

      Consumers who signed up were required to make monthly payments, which supposedly would be forwarded to the consumers' creditors. But, the suit charges, once Morton received the initial and monthly fees, they often failed to even contact the consumers' creditors to make arrangements for debt reduction.

      Christian Crossroads also failed to pay refunds who asked that their services be canceled, the suit charges.

      The state's lawsuit seeks injunctions and monetary relief, alleging that the comapny violated the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. 

      Christian Crossroads, a so-called debt management service, lured customers with promises of a Bible-based "spiritual and lifestyle education," took money i...
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      Best Buy Will Close Some Stores, Shrink Others

      Profits dip as Amazon, other online retailers take big bites out of Best Buy

      Best Buy is hoping it can slim down its stores and tone up its finances, as Amazon and other online retailers continue cutting into its profit margins.

      The company says it will close 50 of its big box stores this year while trying out branches that are 20% smaller.  Called "Connected Stores," the smaller outlets will concentrate on e-readers, tablet computers, cellphones and service plans.

      Best Buy said it expects to open another 100 U.S. Best Buy Mobile small format stores in fiscal 2013 and continues to expect to have a total of 600 to 800 such stores by fiscal 2016 (from 305 today). 

      In its quarterly report, Best Buy also said it will expand the benefits under its Reward Zone Silver loyalty program, whose members account for a significant percentage of the company's profit.

      Reward Zone Silver customers will receive enhancements including free expedited shipping, premier access to many of the most popular products and major sales events, a free house call from the Geek Squad, and 60-day no hassle returns and price-match policy.

      The company also said it is working on a new "labor model" that will be implemented in its big box stores before the 2012 holiday season. The idea is to provide better training and improved compensation for employees who hit specific goals.

      The changes come after a bruising three months. The company today reported a net loss of ($1.7) billion for its fourth quarter ended March 3, 2012 compared to net income of $651 million for the prior-year period.

      Best Buy is hoping it can slim down its stores and tone up its finances, as Amazon and other online retailers continue cutting into its profit margins.Th...
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      Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card

      Are more consumer safeguards needed?

      As banks levy more fees on their customers, prepaid debit cards are beginning to look like a more viable alternative.

      Prepaid cards are reloadable cards that can be used to make payments similar to debit cards and are becoming the foundation of a second-tier banking system.  Prepaid cards look like other plastic payment cards and bear the network logos of Visa, MasterCard or Discover along with the word "debit" on the front of the card.

      The problem, of course, is that these cards carry a lot of fees of their own, which is what has made them less desirable in the past. But increasingly, competition within the industry has led to cards with fewer, and lower fees. The problem for consumers is to be able to more easily spot the cards that are most consumer-friendly.

      Relying more on prepaid cards

      "Now that so many households are relying on prepaid cards to manage their finances, it's time for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to take action to protect consumers," said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "We need new rules that require fees to be disclosed in a simple format so consumers know the costs before they purchase a card.

      "Prepaid cards should get the same strong protections as debit cards so consumers have the peace of mind that their money is safe if their card is lost or stolen," Jun said.

      Consumers can typically only find information about a few of the fees charged by card issuers before they purchase a card at a store. While some prepaid card issuers are providing direct links to fee schedules on their web sites, others make finding this information more difficult.

      While most cards charge a fee to activate an account, that's not the fee consumers should worry about, since it's a on-time charge. Instead, focus on the monthly fee and the transaction fees. Some monthly fees are as low as $3, making them competitive with most bank accounts.

      Fees quickly add up

      But what will it cost you to use the card? This is where fees can quickly add up. Selecting "credit" instead of "debit" when making a purchase will often result in no fee. When you need cash, select "debit" and get cash back. The debit fee will, in most cases, be lower than the fee for using an ATM.

      The Federal Reserve has found that prepaid cards are the fastest growing non-cash method of payment.  That growth is expected to continue as the prepaid card industry works to attract the business of the estimated 60 million adults with limited or no access to bank accounts.

      Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card...
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      Did Social Media Smear 'Pink Slime?'

      Scientists, consumer organizations say the product is safe and low in fat

      The maker of “pink slime” has suspended operations at all but one plant where the beef ingredient is made, but says social media criticism of the company's product is badly mistaken -- and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) agrees.

      The product is known in the industry as "lean, finely textured beef" (LFTB) and is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

      While this may not sound very appealing, it actually contributes to food safety.

      "Their use of ammonia, while considered 'icky' by some consumers, was used to reduce the risk of pathogenic E. coli in their product. The levels used in the product did not pose a health risk to consumers," said Chris Waldrop, CFA's food safety director.

      E. coli and other bacteria, on the other hand, do pose a safety risk and have been implicated in numerous outbreaks that have killed and sickened many over the years.

      Industry leaders

      Waldrop said Beef Products Inc. (BPI) and its founder, Eldon Roth, are "recognized as industry leaders in food safety." Waldrop said CFA is concerned that manufacturers of hamburger patties may replace LFTB with something that has not been processed to assure the same level of safety.

      "We are also concerned about the potential chilling effect this recent controversy may have on companies who seek to apply innovative solutions
      and new technologies to enhance food safety," Waldrop said.

      Government officials are also defending the product.

      "There's a firestorm with people misunderstanding the situation," said Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy USDA Secretary. "We are 100 percent behind the safety of this product. No question about it," she said in an interview at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, according to AZFamily.com"We would not be providing this product to schools if we thought it was unsafe, clearly." Merrigan said it's a lean product that helps lower the fat content of ground beef.

      Substantial hit

      Craig Letch, BPI's director of food quality and assurance for Beef Products Inc., said the business has taken a “substantial” hit since social media exploded with worry over the ammonia-treated filler and an online petition seeking its ouster from schools drew hundreds of thousands of supporters.

      BPI said it will suspend operations at plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa, Letch said. The company’s plant at its Dakota Dunes, S.D., headquarters will continue operations.

      Letch said the company will be working on a strategy to rebuild its business and address what he said are misconceptions about the company's product. It has launched a new website -- http://beefisbeef.com -- that it hopes will help dispel myths about pink slime.

      “We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality then our business will come back,” he said. “It’s 100 percent beef.”

      “At a time when so many Americans struggle to put a healthy, nutritious meal on their family’s dinner table, the unfounded mischaracterization of Lean Finely Textured Beef as ‘pink slime’ is unconscionable,” Barry Carpenter, chief executive officer of the National Meat Association, said in a statement. “I am sure the public is not aware of how widespread and potentially devastating the consequences of allowing public misperception to trump sound nutritional science are.”

      The maker of “pink slime” has suspended operations at all but one plant where the beef ingredient is made, but says the social media uproar abo...
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      Rising Gas Prices Alter Vacation Plans

      Consumers may stay close to home this summer, survey shows

      Despite the rise in gasoline prices, consumer confidence remains higher than it has been in several months.

      But confidence is one thing, economic reality is another. And when it comes to making vacation plans, consumers are scaling it back, according to the U.S. Travel Association. And there's one main reason for it.

      "If travelers are spending more on gas, they are spending less on hotels, attractions, shopping and restaurants, which could have a negative impact on our overall economy," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "We need to find solutions that reduce the burden which rising gas prices are placing on everyday travelers."

      For vacationers planning to travel by car this summer, more than half - 54 percent - said that an increase in gas prices would affect their summer leisure travel plans.

      Even business travelers cutting back

      And if gas prices keep going up, let's say by $0.26 to $1.25 a gallon, 57 percent of consumers questioned in the survey said they would alter travel plans. Even 26 percent of business travelers said they would cut back.

      Almost half of vacationers traveling by car said that an increase in gas prices would cause them to take fewer trips this summer. Almost one-fifth of business travelers using a car would take fewer trips.

      Air travel also impacted

      High gasoline prices aren't affecting just highway travel. Forty-three percent of leisure travelers planning to fly this summer said that an increase in airfare due to higher oil prices would affect their summer plans, with one-quarter of business travelers planning to fly saying the same. This week a number of airlines announced what may be the first of a series of fuel-related fare hikes.

      "It's important to remember that, along with the housing crisis, a surge in gasoline prices was one of the leading factors that pushed the economy into recession in 2008," said David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at U.S. Travel. "There is a very real probability that if gas prices continue to climb, Americans will change and reduce their travel plans, which would work against the positive economic momentum that had been building in recent quarters."

      Rising Gas Prices Alter Vacation Plans...
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      Feds Put Robocallers Out of Business

      Defendants allegedly made billions of calls pushing car warranties, interest rate reduction

      If you got any of the billions of annoying robocalls about your auto warranty supposedly expiring or you credit card interest rate going up, it may have been SBN Peripherals calling.

      Well, SBN won't be calling anymore. Under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), SBN Peripherals, also known as Asia Pacific Telecom Inc., has agreed not to make any more telemarketing calls.

      The FTC's complaint alleged that the defendants delivered illegal prerecorded phone calls falsely claiming the caller had urgent information about the consumer's auto warranty or credit card interest rate.

      Consumers who pressed "1" for more information were transferred to telemarketers who used fraudulent practices to sell inferior extended auto service contracts or worthless debt-reduction services.

      According to court papers filed by the court-appointed receiver, from January 2008 through August 2009, the defendants completed approximately 2.6 billion outbound robocalls that were answered by approximately 1.6 billion consumers, approximately 12.8 million of whom were connected to a sales agent.

      As alleged in the complaint, the defendants violated the law by using robocalls to contact consumers without their written permission and called telephones listed on the National Do Not Call Registry.

      To make it difficult for consumers to identify the seller, the FTC also alleged that the defendants' robocalls often transmitted caller ID information vaguely identifying the caller as "SALES DEPT" and displaying telephone numbers registered to an offshore company it controlled called Asia Pacific Telecom.

      Under the proposed settlement order, the company and its principals are banned from telemarketing. The order also prohibits them from misrepresenting any good or service, and from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and requires them to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days.

      The order imposes a $5.3 million judgment that will be suspended, based on their inability to pay, when they have surrendered assets valued at approximately $3 million, including more than $1 million obtained from a bank account in Hong Kong, a $375,000 lien on a home, a 50 percent interest in an office building in Saipan, the defendants' interest in seven parcels of undeveloped land, as well as three cars and a recreational vehicle. The full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

      If you got any of the billions of annoying robocalls about your auto warranty supposedly expiring or you credit card interest rate going up, it may have be...
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      Popcorn: Great Source of Antioxidants

      Properly prepared, popcorn can be a health food

      Turn up your nose at broccoli but still want to load up on healthy antioxidants? Try some popcorn instead.

      Known mostly as a snack, popcorn turns out to contain more of the healthful antioxidant substances called "polyphenols" than most fruits and vegetables. Scientists who made this discovery delivered their findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

      Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a pioneer in analyzing healthful components in chocolate, nuts and other common foods, explained that the polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn, which averages only about 4 percent water, while polyphenols are diluted in the 90 percent water that makes up many fruits and vegetables.

      In another surprising finding, the researchers discovered that the hull of the popcorn –– the part that everyone hates for its tendency to get caught in the teeth –– actually has the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

      Respect the hulls

      “Those hulls deserve more respect,” said Vinson, a professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “They are nutritional gold nuggets.”

      Need another reason to pop a bowl? How's this? Popcorn is the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. All other grains are processed and diluted with other ingredients, and although cereals are called “whole grain,” this simply means that over 51 percent of the weight of the product is whole grain.

      One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way, Vinson says.

      It's all in the preparation

      The downside of popcorn, of course, is how some people prepare it. Cook it in a potful of oil, slather on butter or the fake butter used in many movie theaters, pour on the salt and you've got a nutritional nightmare loaded with fat and calories.

      Vinson said the most healthy way to prepare popcorn is to air pop it. That has the lowest number of calories per serving. The next healthiest method is to microwave it. But that has about twice the calories of air popped corn.

      Vinson pointed out that popcorn cannot and should not replace fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and other nutrients that are critical for good health, but are missing from popcorn.

      But he says an occasional serving of popcorn, prepared with a minimum of oil, butter and salt, is a pleasant way to get some extra polyphenols in your body.

      Researcher says popcorn is a good source of antioxidants...
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      Hell Hath No Fury Like a Consumer Scorned

      When consumers feel wronged, they often take it personally

      Kristin Christian

      Where do consumer advocates come from? They tend to be ordinary consumers who one day run into what they perceive as gross injustice at the hands of a business. Then, look out!

      Last fall it was Kristin Christian, a Los Angeles businesswoman, who got so fed up with her bank's fees that she set in motion what became “National Bank Transfer Day,” when hundreds of thousands of consumers left their big national banks and opened accounts at smaller banks and credit unions.

      Invalid charge

      One sees budding consumer advocates daily in the pages of ConsumerAffairs. In a recent post, Vernon, of Houston, Tex., tells of receiving an invoice, marked as a “late notice,” from Progressive Business Publications. It was for an HR book and priced at $299.

      “Of course nobody at my company ordered this book, plus it was never received,” Vernon wrote.

      After some searching, Vernon said he tracked down a phone number for the company and called, speaking with a customer service rep.

      “She tried to say someone ordered this book, and we owed this money,” Vernon said. “I decided to call my brother, who just happens to work for the Texas Attorney General's office. Guess what? This company has so many complaints and there is an ongoing investigation!”

      Vernon said he called back and, when he pressed the issue, was assured he would receive no more bills.

      Now, it's personal

      “But that's not good enough,” Vernon writes. “I have a new goal in life now. They messed with the wrong guy.”

      Vernon wants to spread the word that, when businesses receive invoices for something no one seems to know anything about, they should not be paid without further investigation.

      Business employees should also be careful about taking telephone calls from unknown vendors who say they are taking a survey. The answers can be misconstrued and misrepresented to constitute a sale.

      As for Progressive Business Publications, ConsumerAffairs has received a number of complaints that closely match Vernon's. The Better Business Bureau reports it has closed 1,797 complaints against the company in last 3 years, with 943 closed in last 12 months.

      A bad experience can turn someone into a consumer crusader...
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      Feds Ready to Dump Ally Financial

      Treasury Department fears Ally will never be able to pay back its $17.2 billion

      We've all seen the ads for Ally Financial, the "new" bank that wants to be our friend.  It is, of course, none other than the former GMAC operating under a new name -- and doing so with $17.2 billion of taxpayers' money.

      Now the U.S. Treasury would like to break up Ally and sell off its bits and pieces in hopes of getting its money back, according to Bloomberg News.

      The big infusion of taxpayer money was part of the TARP bail-out and the hope was that, besides propping up the economy, Ally and the other banks rescued by taxpayers would become big, healthy businesses that would eventually pay back the loans, either from their profits or from a sale or initial public offering (IPO).

      That's a good theory but the Treasury Department says it no longer thinks an Ally IPO would succeed and it would like to see General Motors take back at least parts of the business, according to sources quoted by Bloomberg. And unfortunately, consumers aren't feeling much better about Ally than the Treasury Department.  A sentiment analysis of about 14,000 consumer comments on social media over the last year finds Ally veering wildly from one ditch to another, winding up with a dismal 87% negative sentiment by March.

      A big part of the problem is that Ally is a bank without any branches. Traditionally, banks without branches have a hard time raising capital for the simple reason that it's not easy for consumers to drop in and leave their money behind. 

      Ally is also saddled with a troubled mortgage unit and, according to Bloomberg, didn't exactly pass the recent stress tests with flying colors, indicating it may be too lightly capitalized to survive.

      Bloomberg says Treasury would like to see Ally split into at least two pieces. One would handle auto finance, its traditional strong suit, and the other would operate as an online bank.

      Consumers not thrilled

      What would consumers say about this? Linda of Columbia, Tenn., probably wouldn't agree that Ally is very swift at operating an online bank. She posted on ConsumerAffairs about the trouble she had collecting her money when a CD matured.

      "We have been on the phone every day since January 20, 2012, and we started requesting the funds to be transferred via wire transfer to our TD Ameritrade account on January 17 from our financial advisor's office," she said. "It is now January 30 in the evening, and both of our CD account funds are in limbo land somewhere in computer heaven?"

      "We have also asked for interest due us, but now, they want to charge us $20.00 per account to do a wire transfer or to send us a check to us personally. Ally is the biggest joke. They might be open 24/7, but you can't get a decent or correct response," Linda fumed.

      Linda is not alone. Other consumers have reported similar problems.

      "Using the Ally internet banking for CDS has been a frustrating process," said a Holmdel, N.J., consumer. "After CDS matured, there were numerous delays transferring our money."

      Ally's auto-finance customers also have a long litany of complaints.

      "My husband and I purchased a car and financed through Ally a month ago. The first payment is due in 15 days, and we have not received a statement," said Kimberly of White Oak, Pa. "I decided to use their online payment option for fear that mailing a check will make the payment late. The website would not allow me to process the payment unless I agreed to give Ally access to process any payment in any amount in the future from my bank account. I am leery of giving such open access to my bank account to any company."

      Jeff of Tomball, Texas, also complained of problems making payments to Ally.

      "I was not allowed access, to be able for me to pay my monthly car payment account through the online feature offered by Ally Financial Inc.," Jeff said. "Ally did not offer any other ways or solutions to make my monthly car payment. Ally Customer Service stated that they did not control that access, so they were unable to assist me. The consequences is that this caused my payments to be late, and Ally charged extra penalty fees."

      It is, perhaps, experiences like these that cause large numbers of consumers to reject the notion of befriending Ally.

      The biggest thorn in Ally's side, however, is its mortgage unit, now called Residential Capital.  It is expected to slide into bankruptcy in the next few months, according to Bloomberg.

      Meanwhile, with Ally's problems mounting and its IPO looking unlikely, key executives are beginning to head for the exits, making it that much harder for the company to turn itself around, observers said.

      ---

      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase


      We've all seen the ads for Ally Financial, the "new" bank that wants to be our friend.  It is, of course, none other than the former GMAC operating un...
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      FTC: RockYou Game Site Exposed 32 Million Emails & Passwords

      Site agrees to upgrade its security and pay $250,000 penalty

      A social game site has agreed to settle charges that, while touting its security features, it failed to protect the privacy of its users, allowing hackers to access the personal information of 32 million users.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also alleged in its complaint against RockYou that the company violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule) in collecting information from approximately 179,000 children.

      The proposed FTC settlement order with the company bars future deceptive claims by the company regarding privacy and data security, requires it to implement and maintain a data security program, bars future violations of the COPPA Rule, and requires it to pay a $250,000 civil penalty to settle the COPPA charges.

      According to the FTC complaint, RockYou operated a website that allowed consumers to play games and use other applications. Many consumers used the site to assemble slide shows from their photos, using a caption capability and music supplied by the site. To save their slide shows, consumers had to enter their email address and email password.

      COPPA Rule

      The FTC's COPPA Rule requires that website operators notify parents and obtain their consent before they collect, use, or disclose personal information from children under 13. The Rule also requires that website operators post a privacy policy that is clear, understandable, and complete.

      The FTC alleged that RockYou knowingly collected approximately 179,000 children's email addresses and associated passwords during registration – without their parents' consent – and enabled children to create personal profiles and post personal information on slide shows that could be shared online.

      The company asked for kids' date of birth, and so accepted registrations from kids under 13. In addition, the company's security failures put users' including children's personal information at risk, according to the FTC. The FTC charged that RockYou violated the COPPA Rule by:

      • not spelling out its collection, use and disclosure policy for children's information;
      • not obtaining verifiable parental consent before collecting children's personal information; and
      • not maintaining reasonable procedures, such as encryption to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from children.

      The FTC has a new publication, Living Life Online, to help tweens and teens navigate the internet safely.

      A social game site has agreed to settle charges that, while touting its security features, it failed to protect the privacy of its users, allowing hackers ...
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      Another Study Finds Too Much Sitting Down is Dangerous

      Higher mortality rate among those who spend the most time sitting

      Are you still sitting down on the job?  Might be time to get up and move around, or even to get a stand-up desk.

      Another study has found that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity. Researchers at the Sydney School of Public Health in Sydney, Australia, linked questionnaire data from more than 222,000 individuals 45 years of age and older. The models examined all-cause mortality in relation to sitting time, adjusting for sex, age, education, urban/rural residence, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, self-rated health, and disability.

      Writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, they reported finding 5,405 deaths among the group being studied, with higher death rates for those who spent more time sitting. The researchers said the higher mortality rate appeared consistent across the sexes, age groups, body mass index categories, and physical activity levels and across healthy participants compared with participants with preexisting cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus.

      The conclusion? Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity, and the researchers said that public health programs should focus on reducing sitting time in addition to increasing physical activity levels.

      The findings are similar to those released last November by a group of Canadian researchers, who said a lack of physical activity -- especially sitting for long periods -- can lead to cancer. Presenting at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) annual conference, the researchers said as many as 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer occurring in the U.S. every year are linked to a lack of physical activity.

      "Taken together, this research suggests that every day, we're each given numerous opportunities to be active and protect ourselves from cancer, not one," said AICR spokesperson Alice Bender, MS RD. "We need to start thinking in terms of make time and break time."

      According to the study, led by Christine Friedenreich, PhD, of Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care, getting a vigorous workout every day – while part of a healthy lifestyle – won't lessen what she sees as the cancer risk from prolonged sitting.

      Her advice? Make time for physical activity and break every hour of sitting with one to two minutes of activity. These breaks can be as simple as walking to a colleague's office instead of sending an email or going to the kitchen to get a glass of water.


      Are you still sitting down on the job?  Might be time to get up and move around, or even to get a standing desk.Another study has found that prolong...
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      Eat More Chocolate, Lose More Weight?

      It's not quite that simple but the answer may be "maybe"

      Eat chocolate and lose weight? Maybe, but it's not quite that simple. 

      According to a research letter in the March 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, frequently eating chocolate was linked to lower body mass index (BMI), As other studies have suggested, the latest study finds that eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some favorable metabolic associations with blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and cholesterol level. However, because chocolate can be a calorie-laden sweet there are concerns about eating it.

      In February 2011, Japanese scientists followed up on earlier studies that have shown cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, appears to reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, and decreasing levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol

      In the latest study, Beatrice A. Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues with the University of California, San Diego, studied 1,018 men and woman without known cardiovascular disease, diabetes or extremes of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels who were screened for participation in a clinical study examining noncardiac effects of statins. To measure chocolate consumption, 1,017 of the participants answered a question about how many times per week they ate chocolate. BMI was calculated for 972 of them. Of the participants, 975 completed a food frequency questionnaire. 

      “Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often,” the authors note.

      Participants had a mean (average) age of 57 years, 68 percent were men and the mean BMI was 28. They ate chocolate a mean (average) of two times a week and exercised 3.6 times a week.

      “In conclusion, our findings – that more frequent chocolate intake is linked to lower BMI – are intriguing,” the authors conclude. “A randomized trial of chocolate for metabolic benefits in humans may be merited.”

      The study was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.

      Japanese study

      In their study, the Japanese researchers said that credit for those heart-healthy effects goes to a cadre of antioxidant compounds in cocoa called polyphenols, which are particularly abundant in dark chocolate.

      The scientists analyzed the effects of cocoa polyphenols on cholesterol using cultures of human liver and intestinal cells. They focused on the production of apolipoprotein A1 (ApoA1), a protein that is the major component of "good" cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B (ApoB), the main component of "bad" cholesterol.

      What they discovered was cocoa polyphenols increased ApoA1 levels and decreased ApoB levels in both the liver and intestine.

      Additionally, the scientists discovered the polyphenols seem to work by enhancing the activity of so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs).

      SREBPs attach to the genetic material DNA and activate genes that boost ApoA1 levels, increasing "good" cholesterol. The scientists also found polyphenols appear to increase the activity of LDL receptors, proteins that help lower "bad" cholesterol levels.

      Eat chocolate and lose weight? Maybe, but it's not quite that simple. According to a research letter in the March 26 issue of Archives of Inter...
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