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    Are digital coupons the new way to shop for discounts?

    More consumers use paper coupons but the gap is narrowing

    The onset of the Great Recession happened to coincide with the emergence of the smartphone. Consumers needing to save money suddenly had an easier way to do it, with online coupons and deals. Being able to access the deals on the go suddenly made online coupons more than a novelty – they became a new and significant force in commerce.

    The economy is recovering but digital coupons' use continues to grow. The trade publication eMarketer estimates more than 92.5 million people in the U.S. redeemed a digital coupon in 2012. By 2014, the company predicts U.S. adult digital coupon users will surpass 100 million.

    According to the estimates, growth will come in at 4.6% this year and will remain steady through 2014. The number of users who access coupons using desktop computers is nearing maturity, but mobile coupon users — especially those who redeem via smartphones — are helping to boost overall growth.

    Deals on the go

    Besides being mobile, smartphones allow users to receive deals that are relevant to where they happen to be. A number of sites have used this ability to collect and distribute coupons and deals that are targeted and local.

    Groupon and Living Social made big splashes at the beginning of the trend but have since found it tough sledding as bigger competitors, like eBay and Amazon, jumped in, suggesting the daily deals aspect of digital discounts might not have legs.

    Taking a different track is 8coupons, which presents users with offers gleaned from other coupon and deal sites. Founder and CEO Landy Ung says users will find savings on a wide variety of products and services, everything from Halloween costumes to travel, all geared to where they happen to be.

    “Right now I'm eyeing a deal from Living Social for New Years Eve 2014 in Dubai,” Ung said. “And I just recently purchased a Groupon offer of a trip to Turkey over the Thanksgiving holidays. So I'll be in Turkey during turkey day.”

    Getting hundreds to thousands of dollars off international travel tends to draw a whole new breed of consumer to coupons. While paper coupons were once mostly used by consumers just trying to stretch their food budgets a bit, online coupons – particularly mobile ones – tend to draw younger and more affluent consumers.

    Affluent consumers like to save too

    Even as early as 2010 Nielsen found that 38% of “super heavy” users and 41% of “enthusiasts” came from households with incomes greater than $70,000. Households with income of $100,000 and up were the primary drivers of coupon growth in 2009, the company found. The enthusiast category also attracts a disproportionate number of households with incomes between $50,000 and $69,900. 

    Some speculate part of the digital coupon appeal – especially mobile coupons – is the delivery system and the way they can be integrated into an urban lifestyle. That may be true but Ung says the deals are pretty good too.

    “Most of the deals are, on average 40% to 50%, maybe even 60% off,” she said. “Currently we don't have any small, 50-cents-off kinds of discounts you might kind in a newspaper coupon. It's really a very comprehensive discovery and shopping comparison engine for deals.”

    Shortcut to bargains

    And while you might not find a coupon for a new car, Ung said 8coupons users had access to a deal for thousands off on a wedding, which she notes is usually more expensive than a car. While there are many deal sites out there – and more being launched all the time – Ung said 8coupons can be a shortcut for consumers to find the best bargains.

    “Instead of working with the merchants themselves we work with partners like Living Social, Groupon, Restaurant.com, Amazon and eBay to deliver to our users the best deals.”

    Finally, demographics may be driving online coupon growth. Digital coupon website RetailMeNot issued a report in early September showing the 18-34 age group is much more likely to use digital coupons than consumers over 35. And 18-34 year olds are three times more likely to use a mobile coupon.

    The survey also suggests consumers don't demand huge savings in order to consider an offer to be a “good deal.” Nearly half of those surveyed ranked offers of 25% off – and even less – to be “good deals.”

    The onset of the Great Recession happened to coincide with the emergence of the smartphone. Consumers needing to save money suddenly had an easier way to d...
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    Senators want energy drink makers to stop marketing to kids

    The companies say they abide by industry guidelines but critics are skeptical

    Energy drink manufacturers are going to need a megadose of their own products to stand up to the latest assault from the Senate Commerce Committe, which wants them to stop marketing to children.

    “Unfortunately, American youth have been barraged by aggressive marketing messages from energy drink industry leaders," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chair, as he released a statement asking the companies "to put the health and safety of our children and teens first by voluntarily committing to common sense limitations on marketing.”

    Rockefeller and his allies want the companies to agree not to promote rapid or excessive consumption of energy drinks, and to discourage mixing energy drinks and alcohol.

    Letters were sent to 5-Hour Energy, AMP Energy, Arizona Energy, Celsius, Clif Shots, Crunk Energy, Full Throttle, Jamba Energy, Monster Energy, NOS Energy, Red Bull, Rockstar Energy, Sambazon Energy, Street King Energy, Target/Archer Farms Energy Drinks, Venom Energy, and Xenergy.  

    Latest shot

    It's the latest shot in an effort to get the drinkmakers to abide by existing industry guidelines. Critics say the companies pay lip service to the guidelines while continuing to promote their products through social media and other channels aimed at young consumers.

    “Energy drink makers have been urging customers to consume too much of their products too fast and too young,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “We need all major energy drink companies to be good corporate actors and agree to these steps to address appropriate marketing and consumption of their products. We need to ensure that kids and parents are protected from the negative health impacts of these products and are not subject to deceptive marketing practices.”  

    At a recent hearing, the drinkmakers said they abided by the industry guidelines, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the claims are hollow.

    “Across the board, makers of energy drinks say they do not market their products to children,” Durbin said. “But we know that energy drinks are promoted through social media, and that samples are often distributed at places where teens hang out – like sports events, concerts, local parks, and SAT prep courses.

    "The truth is that contrary to industry claims, energy drink companies are using highly effective tools to reach young people and it is working. It’s time for these companies to heed the advice of public health experts across the country and stop telling children and adolescents to ‘pound down’ their products,” Durbin said.

    Numerous deaths

    Energy drinks have been blamed for numerous deaths involving young people and various cities, states and agencies have imposed or threatened to impose new restrictions.

    San Francisco District Attorney Dennis Herrera sued Monster Beverage in May, trying to require it to curb its advertising and serving sizes.

    "Monster Energy is unique among energy drink makers for the extent to which it targets children and youth in its marketing, despite the known risks its products pose to young people's health and safety," he said. "Consumption of highly caffeinated energy drinks by children has been widely condemned by pediatricians and scientists, and the NCAA has banned its member institutions from providing these products even to college athletes because of the grave safety risks."

    In March, a study found that energy drinks drinks may increase blood pressure and disturb your heart's natural rhythm. Researchers said changes they observed in heavy users of energy drinks could be associated with life-threatening arrhythmias, possibly leadingt to sudden cardiac death.

    In June, a California woman sued Monster, claiming her son died of a heart attack brought on by ingesting a "toxic amount of caffeine and other stimulants."

    Paula Morris says her son, Alex, 19, was having sex with his girlfriend when he went into cardiac arrest and died. He had earlier downed two Monster Energy drinks, the suit alleges.

    In November 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that 5-Hour energy drinks may have caused 13 deaths and led 33 people to seek hospital care. 

    Energy drink manufacturers are going to need a megadose of their own products to stand up to the latest assault from the Senate Commerce Committe, which wa...
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    Agency overseeing reverse mortgages needs bailout

    Losses on the popular reverse mortgages are taking their toll on the FHA

    The Federal Housing Administration, which oversees the popular FHA home loan program and other home financing products, is tapping extra money from the U.S. Treasury to meet a projected shortfall in its insurance fund, caused in large part by losses on reverse mortgages.

    The agency has been under pressure since the housing crisis. It has made a number of changes that will impact future borrowers across a wide spectrum of home loan programs. FHA Commissioner Carol Galante says the changes will allow the agency to better manage risk and further strengthen the health of the Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) Fund, which covers loans when a borrower defaults.

    Essential and appropriate

    “These are essential and appropriate measures to manage and protect FHA’s single-family insurance programs” said Galante. “In addition to protecting the MMI Fund, these changes will encourage the return of private capital to the housing market, and make sure FHA remains a vital source of affordable and sustainable mortgage financing for future generations of American home buyers.”

    One of the changes is a consolidation of the Standard Fixed-Rate Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) – otherwise known as a reverse mortgage -- with the Saver Fixed Rate HECM pricing options. FHA says it's reverse mortgages that are putting the most strain on the insurance fund.

    With a reverse mortgage a homeowner who is at least 62 years old may take the equity in their home while still living there. They either receive the money in a lump sum or in payments.

    Over the last decade there has been a rush among seniors to take advantage of this program, taking their equity in a lump sum. During the recession many ran into financial difficulty and could not keep up the tax and insurance payments on their home, resulting in foreclosure and creating a huge drain on FHA's mortgage insurance fund.

    Reverse mortgage limits

    To prevent this from happening again seniors wanting a reverse mortgage will be limited to the HECM Fixed Rate Saver product. The net result, experts say, will be a reduction in the size of lump sum payouts that are available to home owners.

    There are other changes that will affect younger borrowers. FHA says it will increase its annual mortgage insurance premium (MIP) for most new mortgages by 0.10%. Premiums on jumbo mortgages – $625,500 or larger – will go up 0.05%.

    Perhaps having more impact, FHA will also require most FHA borrowers to continue paying annual premiums for as long as the loan is active. For the past 12 years FHA cancelled required MIP on loans when the outstanding principal balance reached 78% of the original principal balance. FHA estimates that has cost the insurance fund billions of dollars in revenue.

    One of the appeals of the FHA loan program is the low down payment requirement. Instead of 10 to 20% down, borrowers are only required to put up 3.5% of the purchase price, making it more affordable for first-time home owners to buy a home.

    In a slight change, FHA is requiring borrowers on jumbo loans – those over $625,000 – to put up at least five percent as a down payment.

    Critics and defenders

    FHA has a number of critics among Republicans in Congress, who were quick to criticize FHA's need for a bailout.

    “This is incredibly disappointing,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX),Chairman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance. “From testimony and reports to our committee, we knew the FHA was beyond broke. Now we know it’s even beyond its own estimation of bailout broke.”

    But defenders of the agency threw some of the criticism back on Congress.

    “The proposed draw from the U.S. Treasury Department would not have been needed if Congress had not prevented FHA from clamping down on fraudulent seller-funded down payment loans, as it tried to do,” the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) said in a statement. “It is also the first time in 79-year history that supplemental funding has ever been needed.

    The Federal House Administration, which oversees the popular FHA home loan program and other home financing products, is tapping extra money from the U.S....
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      Study finds French wines loaded with pesticides

      Even organic wines had pesticide traces, the study found

      That Bordeaux may have a fine nose but you may also be getting a snoutful of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, according to tests performed by a French consumer group.

      The group UFC-Que Choisir tested 92 wines and found trace amounts of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides in nearly every one, according to Bloomberg News.

      “By drinking a glass of wine, you have every chance of unknowingly swallowing a few micrograms of these pesticide residues,” UFC-Que Choisir wrote in an article for the October issue of its magazine. “No wine today escapes the pollution by plant-protection products applied to the vines.”

      The group noted that wine producers use only 3.7% of the farmland in France but pile on 20% of the pesticides used in the country.

      The highest pesticide count was found in a bottle of 2010 Bordeaux, with 14 chemicals detected, followed by 2012 Bordeaux with traces of 13 products, the group reported.

      But the lead author of a similar report issued earlier this year said the primary danger isn't to consumers but to vineyard and winery workers. 

      "You'll consume much more pesticide residue eating apples and strawberries than drinking wine," said Pascal Chatonnet, Ph.D., owner of Excell laboratory, in a report in Wine Spectator. "Your liver will be completely destroyed long before you'll have toxicity from pesticide residue in wine."

      In one test, vineyard workers' hair samples contained 11 times the level of pesticide residues of people living a distance from the vineyards, and close neighbors had five times the levels.

      That Bordeaux may have a fine nose but you may also be getting a snoutful of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, according to tests performed by a Fre...
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      IKEA offers the ultimate flat-pack item: solar panels

      The fast-greening retail giant is building its second geothermal-powered store

      Why didn't IKEA think of this sooner? The global master of flat-pack packaging has been selling desks, tables, beds, chairs and just about everything else in rectangular boxes for years. Now it's getting into something that just naturally lends itself to a nice, neat flat package -- solar panels.

      IKEA is starting its entry into the home power business in Britain but says it has plans to market renewable energy options worldwide. The system for an average-sized British home will sell for about US$9,200, including installation and maintenance. 

      “In the past few years the prices on solar panels have dropped, so it’s a really good price now,” IKEA Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard said. “It’s the right time to go for the consumers.”

      IKEA is also going green in the design of its stores. It recently announced plans to incorporate geothermal technology into the heating and cooling system of its future Kansas City-area store now under construction in Merriam, Kansas. The system – which will be the largest such project in Kansas or Missouri – is expected to be operational when IKEA Merriam opens in the fall of 2014. A Denver-area IKEA opened with geothermal in 2011. 

      Consumers rate IKEA

      “Using geothermal in our Kansas City-area store reflects our commitment to sustainable building practices whenever feasible,” said Mike Ward, IKEA U.S. president.

      “Fortunately, this location provides an opportunity to maximize IKEA Merriam’s renewable energy potential.”

      This closed-loop ground source heat pump system involves drilling 180 boreholes – six inches in diameter and 600 feet deep – into the earth across part of the 19-acre IKEA parcel. Pipes placed into these boreholes will form an underground network of loops for circulating 36,000 gallons of heat-transferring liquid (a water-based, anti-freeze solution) connected to 64 forced-air heat pumps to cool and heat the store.

      The system also includes five hot-water heatpumps to provide potable hot water needed for the store’s lavatory and restaurant operations.

      What's next? Maybe IKEA will sell do-it-yourself home geothermal systems. All you need is a big drill and a couple of free weekends.

      Why didn't IKEA think of this sooner? The global master of flat-pack packaging has been selling desks, tables, beds, chairs and just about everything else ...
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      Tick-tock: Tax-filing and payment extensions are about to expire

      It’s also a good time to check your eligibility for overlooked tax benefits

      Many of the more than 12 million taxpayers who requested an automatic six-month extension this year have yet to file -- and the deadline is approaching:  October 15 for most people.

      Others though, including members of the military and others serving in Afghanistan or other combat zone localities, typically have until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to both file returns and pay any taxes due.

      People with extensions in parts of  Colorado affected by severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides also have more time  -- until Dec. 2, 2013, to file and pay.

      Check out tax benefits

      Before filing, the IRS encourages taxpayers to take a moment to see if they qualify for these and other often-overlooked credits and deductions:

      • Benefits for low-and moderate-income workers and families, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit. The special EITC Assistant can help taxpayers see if they’re eligible.

      • Savers credit, claimed on Form 8880, for low-and moderate-income workers who contributed to a retirement plan, such as an IRA or 401(k).

      • American Opportunity Tax Credit, claimed on Form 8863, and other education tax benefits for parents and college students.

      • Same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages, are now treated as married, regardless of where they live. This applies to any return, including 2012 returns, filed on or after Sept. 16, 2013. This means that they generally must file their returns using either the married filing jointly or married filing separately filing status. Further details are on IRS.gov.

      E-filing: fast, easy and sometimes free

      The IRS urges taxpayers to choose the speed and convenience of electronic filing. IRS e-file is fast, accurate and secure, making it an ideal option for those rushing to meet the Oct. 15 deadline. The tax agency verifies receipt of an e-filed return, and people who file electronically make fewer mistakes too.

      Everyone can use Free File, either the brand-name software, offered by IRS’ commercial partners to individuals and families with incomes of $57,000 or less, or online fillable forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms available to taxpayers at all income levels.

      Taxpayers who buy their own software can also choose e-file, and most paid tax preparers are now required to file their clients’ returns electronically.

      Anyone expecting a refund can get it sooner by choosing direct deposit. Taxpayers can choose to have their refunds deposited into as many as three accounts. See Form 8888 for details.

      Payment options

      Taxpayers can e-pay what they owe, either online or by phone, through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), by electronic funds withdrawal or with a credit or debit card.

      There is no IRS fee for any of these services, but for debit and credit card payments only, the private-sector card processors do charge a convenience fee. For those who itemize their deductions, these fees can be claimed on next year’s Schedule A Line 23. Those who choose to pay by check or money order should make the payment out to the “United States Treasury”.

      Taxpayers with extensions should file their returns by Oct. 15, even if they can’t pay the full amount due. Doing so will avoid the late-filing penalty, normally five percent per month, that would otherwise apply to any unpaid balance after Oct. 15. However, interest, currently at the rate of 3 percent per year compounded daily, and late-payment penalties, normally 0.5 percent per month, will continue to accrue.

      Many of the more than 12 million taxpayers who requested an automatic six-month extension this year have yet to file -- and the deadline is approaching: O...
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      Nissan recalls Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles

      The accelerator pedal sensor signal may deteriorate

      Nissan North America, Inc. is recalling 98,307 model year 2006-2010 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles manufactured April 4, 2004, through October 5, 2010.

      Over time, the accelerator pedal sensor signal may deteriorate resulting in the output of an incorrect signal causing the engine to go into fail-safe (limp home) mode. In this mode, throttle valve deposits may cause the engine to stall when the vehicle is coming to a stop or at idle, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the accelerator pedal assembly and reprogram the engine control module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early November 2013.

      Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

      Nissan North America, Inc. is recalling 98,307 model year 2006-2010 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles manufactured April 4, 2004, through October 5, 2010. Over...
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      Toyota recalls Siennas

      The shift lever could be moved out of Park position without depressing the brake pedal

      Toyota is recalling 614,722 model year 2004-2005 Sienna vehicles manufactured January 10, 2003, through August 10, 2005; and model year 2007-2009 Sienna vehicles manufactured February 20, 2007, through December 12, 2008.

      Due to a problem within the shift lock solenoid, there is a possibility that the shift lever could be moved out of Park position without depressing the brake pedal. Should that occur, the transmission will either engage a drive gear or Neutral, increasing the risk of a backover or roll-away crash.

      Toyota will mail interim notifications to owners beginning in late October 2013. When parts are available, owners will be sent a second notice and dealers will replace the shift lock solenoid, free of charge.

      Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota is recalling 614,722  model year 2004-2005 Sienna vehicles manufactured January 10, 2003, through August 10, 2005; and model year 2007-2009 Sienna v...
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      FDA coloring regulations finally apply to pet food

      Labels don't list all the ingredients, making it hard to track down problems

      If you’re a pet owner, being a responsible, informed consumer is arguably more difficult for you than it is for other Americans, because the labeling requirements for pet food are downright lax compared to the requirements applied to food for human consumption.

      For example: not until 2011 did the FDA rule that color additives should be listed on the labels of pet food and animal feed, and even then, companies aren’t expected to be in full compliance until this November. On Sept. 26 the FDA released some guidelines intended to help business owners comply with these new regulations.

      On another note, we often hear from readers who say that various brands of pet food made their animals sick — with almost every brand on the market generating its share of complaints. It's hard not to wonder if at least some of these animals’ health problems might be due to allergic reactions — after all, even if you know your pet is allergic to a particular additive, that won’t help you or your pet if you don’t know which foods contain those additives. And, of course, it’s a lot harder to diagnose a food allergy when you don’t know exactly what you (or your pet) have been eating.

      Change of ingredients

      Consumers rate Pedigree Pet Foods

      Jeff G. from Franklin., North Carolina, wondered if a change of ingredients might explain why his dogs suddenly developed an inability to handle Pedigree-brand foods. As he told us, “We have 8 dogs. Various sizes and breeds…all fed Pedigree Healthy Digestion canned food for years. Two weeks ago our longhair Dachshund threw up a lot, and then the diarrhea started. Same time frame, our 13-year-old basset hound became unable to control her diarrhea and became disoriented …  When we took them to the vet for examination they of course don't feed Pedigree, so they switched brands for the time they were staying. … Since then we have thrown away the Pedigree foods and have started using the same brand food as the vet. No issues. All is quiet again.

      “Now here's the weird thing. My daughter in another state told me that tonight her boxer has thrown up and had been dealing with diarrhea earlier this week. She was feeding the same Pedigree Healthy Digestion food! I asked her to contact our vet to get on the right track.

      “Did something change? I know pet food companies alter formulas all the time but all of this coupled with the sheer number of very recent complaints are enough to steer me clear of Pedigree products forever.”

      Amy R. of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, also wondered if an ingredient change might be to blame for her pet’s sudden digestive problems—although in her case, it was Hills Science Diet food, not Pedigree.

      “My two cats have been eating the Science Diet Adult Indoor Cat dry food formula for over 4 years (and ate the Kitten formula before that). Both starting throwing up from the ‘new and improved formula’ ... They're both almost 5 and I can count on one hand the number of times she has ever been sick. The other one throws up some monster hairballs, but usually every few months at the most. Now, he has been throwing up for a week. On Sunday, he threw up five times; twice with food in it and three times just liquid. After a few good days, I came home tonight, fed them their dinner, and within 20 minutes, he threw it all up. That's been the pattern: within 30 minutes of eating this stuff, he throws it up.” 

      Different brands, similar pattern

      Amanda J. of Burleson, Texas, told a similar story about Blue Buffalo pet food: “Our family friend's vet recently went to a vet conference and she said there were many vets bringing up concerns about this brand. They said they had seen animals with pancreatitis, severe intestinal problems, and hair falling out. ... I switched my cats and dog over as soon as I heard this. The cats were losing lots of hair and my terrier was constantly gassy and bloated and her hair was so brittle, it was coming out in handfuls. After one week off BB, every animal was back to normal. ... All I know is something needs to be done about this. We need to be educated consumers when it comes to pet food.”

      Mark S. of Bordentown, New Jersey told us another story: “We have been feeding our 3-year-old cat Blue Buffalo cat food since we adopted him three years ago. Over the past week our cat has started experiencing difficulty urinating and stopped eating. When he began to leave clear spots on the floor, we realized something was terribly wrong. We rushed him to our local vet and described to her our experiences. The first question she asked was if we were feeding him Blue Buffalo cat food. We said yes, we have been since we adopted him. She informed us that our cat is the second she saw this week with urinary and kidney damage due to Blue Buffalo cat food.”

      Consumers rate Blue Buffalo Pet Foods

      So Jeff’s veterinarian warns patients away from Pedigree food, Amanda and Mark both know vets who avoid Blue Buffalo, Amy and other pet owners who wrote us swear never to use Science Diet again — it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that whatever brand of pet food you can name, we’ve got a file full of complaints from readers who insist it sickened their pets: Iams, Purina, Beneful, Nutro, 9 Lives and more.

      Maybe those readers all were unlucky enough to buy a bad batch, maybe their pets ate something else that made them sick — or maybe the pets are allergic to an ingredient their owners don’t even know they’re eating. We have no pat, easy answer for how to solve this problem, or even to figure out exactly what the problem is — but letting pet owners know exactly what they’re feeding their animals is bound to be a good start.

      You can't avoid allergens if you don't know they're there...
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      McDonald's strips sodas from Happy Meals

      New healthy-food ad campaign promises to be interesting

      Pre-emptive disclaimer: It’s very very important to eat a healthy, balanced diet containing all necessary vitamins, minerals, simple and complex proteins, sufficient levels of dietary fiber, and other nutritional stuff. Our own personal kitchen is chock-full of healthy ingredients used to cook healthy meals eaten in accordance with a healthy lifestyle. There’s also a big bag of jellybeans, and we’re eating some even as we type this.

      Flavored sugar is all they are, with nary a vitamin or mineral to be found in them, and if we tried subsisting on an all-jellybean diet we’d surely develop horrible health problems before too long. But we’re not going to do that; we eat a generally healthy diet, and know that “eating healthy” doesn’t mean “everything you eat has to be Healthy with a capital H.”  So in general, we eat balanced, nutritious meals consisting of capital-H Healthy stuff — and sometimes we indulge on jellybeans, ice cream or greasy, salty fast food.

      Meanwhile, McDonald’s is trying to add more capital-H foods to its menu while reducing the number of indulgence products it offers. That’s why it publicly announced its new intention to stop listing soda as a beverage offering on its Happy Meal menu.

      Instead, store menus will offer water, milk and juice, and Happy Meals and other foods will feature “packaging innovations and designs to generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/reduced-fat dairy, or water options for kids.”

      Humans in general — and children in particular — evolved to crave fat and sugar when we were still hunter-gatherers roaming the prehistoric African savannas. Fatty, sugary foods are extremely rare in the wild, and craving these rare, high-energy, high-calorie foodstuffs (along with our ability to turn excess calories into body fat), helped our ancient ancestors survive the epochs when food shortages were a constant threat.

      Blame industrial farming

      Only in the modern era of industrial-scale farming and food production has the average person needed to worry that their diet might contain too much fat or sugar, or too many calories; for most of our time on Earth, humanity’s main dietary problem was getting too littleof these things.

      So, anyway, if McDonald’s thinks a marketing campaign can undo five billion years of evolutionary development and make kids crave water and vegetables in lieu of fatty, sugary yum-yums when they’re in the mood for a treat, we wish McDonald’s the very best of luck.

      When AdAge wrote about the new McDonald’s soda-downplaying initiative, it quoted a spokeswoman from the Center for Science in the Public Interest who said “Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy's, and other chains. Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.”

      Perhaps. Or perhaps one day it will seem crazy that a grown adult makes no distinction between “drinking soda” and “drinking nothing but soda.” It’s just like jellybeans: neither is a capital-H Healthy food, but both can certainly exist in a healthy diet.

      Of course, the CSPI has been opposed to McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets for a long time. In 2010, it tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the company and force it to stop handing out toys along with its Happy Meals.  CSPI spokesman Michael Berman insisted that putting toys in a Happy Meal (or doing anything else which might convince a child to eat something that isn’t Healthy with a capital H), is “as inappropriate and anachronistic as lead paint, child labor and asbestos.”

      See? If it’s not Healthy with a capital H, it may as well be outright poison, and thus according to the CSPI, the next time your kid asks you for a Happy Meal so she can have the cool toy inside, it is not inappropriate to feed her lead paint instead. They’re practically the same thing.

      Pre-emptive disclaimer: It is very very important to eat a healthy, balanced diet containing all necessary vitamins, minerals, simple and complex prot...
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      Judge rejects Google's defense, privacy lawsuit moves forward

      Plaintiffs say Google's scanning of Gmail messages amounts to wiretapping

      A federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic monitoring of its subscribers' Gmail.

      Lead plaintiffs Brad Scott and Todd Harrington claim that the web-based service scans emails for words and content, and intentionally intercepts messages between Gmail subscribers and non-subscribers.

      Google has said that emails are only read by computers and that, therefore, there is no invasion of users' privacy. But U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh rejected Google's claims that wiretapping laws do not apply to its Gmail business and that consumers who email Gmailers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. 

      The decision finds that reading emails is not a necessary part of Google's business operations and that California's Invasion of Privacy Laws apply to opening and reading online communications without consent.

      "Very big consumer victory"

      "Google’s alleged interceptions are neither instrumental to the provision of email services, nor are they an incidental effect of providing these services," Judge Koh ruled. "The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the interceptions fall outside Google’s ordinary course of business."

      Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit, called Koh's ruling "a very big consumer victory for the right to use the Internet without having to give up one's privacy."

      “This is a historic step for holding Internet communications subject to the same privacy laws that exist in the rest of society. The court rightly rejected Google's tortured logic that you have to accept intrusions of privacy if you want to send email,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “The ruling means federal and state wiretap laws apply to the Internet.  It's a tremendous victory for online privacy. Companies like Google can't simply do whatever they want with our data and emails.”

      Koh explicity rejected Google's argument that because the monitoring was done by machines, it didn't count.

      "The statute explicitly limits the use of service observing or random monitoring by electronic communication service providers to mechanical and service quality control checks," Koh wrote. "Accordingly, the statutory scheme suggests that Congress did not intend to allow electronic communication service providers unlimited leeway to engage in any interception that would benefit their business models, as Google contends. In fact, this statutory provision would be superfluous if the ordinary course of business exception were as broad as Google suggests."

      A federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic...
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      Royal Mail goes private; US mail remains in trouble

      What can we learn from the UK? Maybe less than you think

      They say misery loves company, so with all the financial (and service-related) problems the US Postal Service has been having lately, it might relieve Americans to know ours isn’t the only postal system in flux. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United Kingdom is privatizing its 360-year-old Royal Mail service; during next month’s public stock offering, the total value of shares in the company is expected to reach as high as $5.3 billion.

      If the newly privatized Royal Mail is successful — in the sense of delivering every Briton’s mail and making a profit off the service — this will certainly be cited as precedent by Americans urging the privatization of the USPS.

      But this might not be a useful comparison to make. For starters, the United Kingdom – Great Britain and Northern Ireland combined – encompasses 94,058 square miles. That’s 3,000 square miles smaller than Oregon, which is only the tenth-largest US state. It’s 20,000 square miles smaller than Arizona, where US postmen riding on muleback to the bottom of the Grand Canyon deliver mail to members of the Havasupai Indian tribe.

      Apples and oranges

      And the UK is barely one-sixth the size of Alaska, where some people live in remote wilderness outposts hundreds of miles from the nearest significant population center, outposts accessible only by snowmobile — which US postmen ride to deliver the mail.

      Americans living in such remote, barely accessible places pay the same flat rate for mail delivery as do the residents of San Francisco, New York City and other super-densely populated areas — money collected in the high-population zones helps underwrite costs for the low-population zones, in other words.

      So even someone who agrees with the suggestion, “Maybe the US should privatize its mail delivery” needs to consider that private companies can’t be expected to run operations at a loss, though the USPS is, arguably, often legally required to do just that.

      Pension problems

      Defenders of the USPS often say that it wouldn’t be in such dire financial straits if not for the allegedly unfair requirement that the post office pre-fund its employee pension obligations. Critics counter that blaming post office financial problems on the pension requirement is a red herring, since the USPS hasn’t paid into the pension fund for two years anyway.

      There’s also the fact that cities all across America, ranging from Detroit, Michigan to tiny Prichard, Alabama, have been declaring bankruptcy and blaming their massive financial problems on unfunded pension obligations.

      This strongly suggests that unfunded pension plans leads to financial disaster—yet if the post office defenders are correct, funding pension plans is just as damaging.

      And there’s one more major difference to consider, when comparing the costs of running the Royal Mail versus the USPS: the UK has a National Health Service, which means that, for better or worse, the cost of healthcare for a given company’s employees or retirees is collectively borne by all British taxpayers. In the United States, large employers are expected to cover these costs for employees, retirees and their dependents — which is why the US Postmaster General this week asked Congress for permission to overhaul the USPS' employee health benefits system.

      The Royal Mail and USPS have very different expectations...
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      DC-area university answers the need for more and better writers

      The country suffers a professional writing gap, George Mason University posits

      We hear constantly that the world needs more scientists and technicians, and no doubt this is true. But it also needs people who can explain complex concepts in simple, easy-to-understand language -- writers, in other words.

      For that matter, it needs people who can explain simple concepts clearly and succinctly. 

      As one who has made a sometimes-very-comfortable living as an over-employed English major for 50 or so years, I can attest that there is no shortage of organizations, corporations and institutions bumbling around, losing their way and failing to hit funding goals or win elections because they can't explain themselves to others, or even to themselves. Anyone who can help these lost causes express themselves has a good shot at carving out a secure niche and maybe even a corner office.

      Just shout louder

      Nowhere is this more evident than in the Washington, D.C., area, where shouting over each other has become the accepted means of communicating. Leaping into this breach is George Mason University, a large state university in Fairfax, Va., a D.C. suburb.

      GMU's English Department has launched a PhD program in writing and rhetoric. It's already fully enrolled for fall but students can apply now for the spring semester.

      “There is a severe underproduction of experts in professional writing,” says Mason English professor Doug Eyman, director of the new degree program. “The demand is very high.”

      The PhD program will prepare students to run writing centers and writing programs and do writing consulting and research in industry and in academia.

      “Writing happens programmatically; it happens within organizations and institutions. It’s not just a question of education. And so, all the core courses, composition rhetoric and theory, professional writing, and public rhetoric are all wrapped up in this idea that writing happens in all different places. To think about writing as an organizationally and institutionally specific occurrence . . . is different from other programs, which tend to focus on teaching rhetoric,” Eyman says.

      Place of expertise

      The English Department currently offers a BA in English with a concentration in writing and rhetoric, a master’s degree in professional writing and rhetoric, and a graduate certificate in writing and rhetoric. So, why a PhD?

      “Mason has been known as a place of expertise in composition and rhetoric for some time,” Eyman says. “The way I see it, we have a series of great writing programs, from undergraduate to the master’s degree. Adding the PhD program strengthens those programs and helps draw those programs into a coherent whole.”

      The new degree program plays to the strengths of Mason’s already established writing curriculum, such as the flexibility of the program, emphasis on real-world applications, and students driving how the program will be shaped.

      “We want to allow students to have a fairly high degree of flexibility in approaching their education. We have areas of expertise that we want them to work in, but we want them to be able to pull from different strands. We also want them to take courses outside of the department, which adds interdisciplinarity and builds on strengths that connect to their research projects directly,” says Eyman.

      We hear constantly that the world needs more scientists and technicians, and no doubt this is true. But it also needs people who can explain complex concep...
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      Walking: the overlooked, under-utilized exercise

      Some health experts suggest it does as much good as a more strenuous workout

      There are plenty of ways to get exercise. People play sports like tennis, they go jogging, swimming or join a gym. But walking, it turns out, can be an effective and healthy exercise as well, putting less strain on joints – an important point for an aging population.

      Because it isn't as strenuous as a lot of other exercises, walking needs to be done regularly. Fortunately, most of us walk as part of our normal daily lives. If we can work in about 30 minutes of brisk walking a day, the American Heart Association says, we can produce a number of healthy benefits.

      For example, the Heart Association cites research showing a half-hour of walking each day can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, improve both blood pressure and blood sugar levels, maintain body weight and reduce obesity risks and even improve your mental state. 

      Walk this way

      When you walk, there's a right way to do it. You may have learned to walk before you were two but chances are you aren't doing it the way that provides the most benefit. 

      Health experts at the Mayo Clinic say you should maintain good posture while walking. Your head should be up, not looking at the ground. Your neck and shoulders should be relaxed. Your arms should swing freely with a slight bend in your elbows. Walk at a smooth pace, rolling your foot from heel to toe.

      According to Harvard Health, walking is a health indicator as you age. After age 65, for example, how fast you walk may predict how long you will live. Walking at an active pace has long been recognized as a proxy for overall health and has been measured in many studies, the Harvard doctors say. Researchers have found a consistent association between faster walking speed and longer life.

      How much do you walk?

      If walking is an easy way to get exercise then why don't more of us do it? A study by the World Heart Federation suggests most of us are unaware of how much – or how little – walking we do in a normal day. In a global survey 25% of those answering had no idea.

      "Awareness is the first step to a healthy heart,” said Dr. Kathryn Taubert, Chief Science Officer, World Heart Federation. “Paying attention to how much we walk should be as simple as watching what we eat. By reaching the recommended guideline of minimum 30 minutes of moderate exercise, which includes brisk walking at least five days a week, many premature deaths can be prevented."

      It's actually pretty easy to track your “mileage” while walking. There are cheap digital pedometers that you can carry in your pocket that measure your steps and convert that into miles. In addition, smartphones have apps that will help you track how many miles you've covered. There has been some research suggesting that people who wear pedometers on a regular basis increase their physical activity by almost 27 per cent.

      Just as good as running

      There's also research backing claims that walking provides as much benefit as more strenuous exercise. A study commissioned by the American Heart Association and conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that, if walkers and runners burned the same number of calories during exercise, they experienced similar reductions in a range of conditions, from high blood pressure and high cholesterol to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

      When you make walking a major part of your exercise plan you should almost treat it like a sport. The experts at the Mayo Clinic says first and foremost is the issue of footwear. If you are going to be covering a lot of miles than make sure you have sturdy, comfortable shows.

      Also, if walking outdoors choose a course with a smooth path or surface, avoiding cracked sidewalks and potholes. Just like any other physical exercise, warm up and stretch your muscles before setting off at a brisk pace. At the end of the walk, slow your pace for several minutes to cool down.

      Find walking boring? Move to New York City. You'll be so busy trying to keep up with everyone else while watching for cabs and bikes that it will be downright exciting. And while you're at it, notice how thin most New Yorkers are. Just might be a correlation.

      There are plenty of ways to get exercise. People play sports like tennis, they go jogging, swimming or join a gym. But walking, it turns out, can be an eff...
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      Seven midsize vehicles earn top marks for front crash prevention

      The ratings are based on forward collision warning and automatic braking systems

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded its top marks for front crash prevention to seven vehicles: Cadillac ATS sedan and SRX SUV, Mercedes-Benz C Class sedan, Subaru Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, Volvo S60 sedan and XC60 SUV.

      The rating system is based on research by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) indicating that forward collision warning and automatic braking systems are helping drivers avoid front-to-rear crashes.

      Rating the vehicles

      Models with optional or standard front crash prevention systems are rated as superior, advanced or basic depending on whether they offer autonomous braking, or autobrake, and -- if so -- how effective it is in tests at 12 and 25 mph.

      Vehicles rated superior have autobrake and can avoid a crash or substantially reduce speeds in both tests. For an advanced rating a vehicle must have autobrake and avoid a crash or reduce speeds by at least 5 mph in 1 of 2 tests. To earn a basic rating, a vehicle must have a forward collision warning system that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performance criteria.

      For a NHTSA endorsement, a system must issue a warning before a specified time in 5 of 7 test trials under three scenarios.

      Dozens tested

      Moderately priced and luxury midsize cars and SUVs are the first to be evaluated in the new IIHS test program. These include 74 vehicles, all 2013-14 models. Seven earn the highest rating of superior when equipped with optional autobrake and forward collision warning systems.

      In addition to the seven models that were deemed “superior,” six models earn an advanced rating when equipped with autobrake and forward collision warning. These include the 2014 Acura MDX SUV, Audi A4 sedan and Q5 SUV, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Lexus ES sedan and the 2014 Mazda 6 sedan.

      In addition, the Volvo S60 and XC60 earn an advanced rating when they aren't equipped with an option called Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake and Pedestrian Detection. The S60 and XC60 are the only models in the new test program with standard autobrake. Called City Safety, the system brakes to avoid a front-to-rear crash in certainlow-speed conditions without warning the driver before it takes action.

      Twenty-five other vehicles earn a basic rating. Three models available with forward collision warning earn higher ratings when equipped with autobrake. They are the 2014 Acura MDX and the Cadillac ATS and SRX. Thirty-six models either don’t offer a front crash prevention system, or they have a system that doesn't meet NHTSA or IIHS criteria.

      “Front crash prevention systems can add a thousand dollars or more to the cost of a new car. Our new ratings let consumers know which systems offer the most promise for the extra expense,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer.

      The front crash prevention ratings complement the IIHS’s long-standing crash test program telling consumers how well passenger vehicles protect people in a range of crash configurations.

      In its crashworthiness program, the Institute rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations.

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded its top marks for front crash prevention to seven vehicles: Cadillac ATS sedan and SRX SUV, M...
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      What you should know about food poisoning

      And the things you think you know could be wrong

      Every year millions of Americans get food poisoning. Why isn't that a major news story? Because for the vast majority, the “illness” only amounts to a slight discomfort. Often we aren't even aware we've eaten something that wasn't quite right.

      Some cases of food poisoning – also known as foodborne illness – can be very serious, even deadly. In 2007 contaminated peanuts got into the food supply, resulting in a number of hospitalizations. While no deaths were officially linked to the salmonella poisoning, there were dozens of claims that tainted food caused or contributed to deaths of family members.

      Besides salmonella, listeria is another common bacteria in the environment but it rarely causes infections in people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1,600 people in the U.S. get sick from listeria each year. However, in 2011 cantaloupes contaminated with listeria caused one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in the U.S. As recently as August a produce company recalled 5,400 cantaloupes because they might have been tainted with listeria. 

      Who's at risk

      The people at most risk of suffering severe effects of food poisoning are the very young and very old, as well as pregnant women. That's because they often have weaker immune systems and when they eat contaminated food, they have a greater chance of becoming severely sick with problems like miscarriage or kidney failure.

      One way to avoid food poisoning is to be armed with information about it. Unfortunately, says Christine Bruhn, Director of the Center for Consumer Research at University of California-Davis, there's a lot of misinformation on the subject.

      Bruhn has outlined what she says are four myths about food poisoning, starting with the belief that contaminated food will taste bad. Not true, she says. Foods that are contaminated with lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, etc., can all taste great.

      Another widespread belief is that once food has been cooked, it's okay to leave it sitting out, unrefrigerated, for lengthy periods of time. False again.

      Put it in the fridge

      If you've cooked something and have leftovers, you've got two hours to get those leftovers in the refrigerator and get them cold in order to prevent the spread of bacteria, Bruhn says. Thin-walled metal, glass or plastic containers that are shallow – no more than two inches deep -- are ideal for storage. She says bags, foil and plastic wrap also work well, especially if you have a piece of food that is large or oddly shaped.

      Sometimes people get sick from eating undercooked food. Heat kills bacteria but, if the food isn't heated enough, for long enough, the bacteria lives on.

      Think you can tell if food is adequately cooked, just by looking at it? Chances are, you can't. That's why Bruhn says you need to use a food thermometer.

      She cites recent research from Kansas State University showing that a quarter of the burgers turned brown before they reached the recommended 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

      Delayed reactions

      A fourth myth is that, if you eat some tainted food, you'll know right away. Not really, Bruhn says. The most common bacteria, such as staphylococcus or clostridium, make their presence known within a few minutes to a few hours, and you can feel really awful for a day or so. The more serious bugs, such as salmonella or certain strains of E. coli, will take longer for illness to appear. Sometimes it can be days. Illness from listeria can take two months before symptoms appear, and you get really sick.

      Keeping things in your kitchen clean – including your hands – is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of food poisoning. In a study where people were videotaped in their own kitchen, Bruhn says only half of them washed their hands before starting to prepare food.

      Besides your hands, Bruhn says you should clean the cooking and preparation areas, knives and cutting boards. And don't forget the refrigerator. Bacteria can even grow there if you allow food residue to build up.

      Every years millions of Americans get food poisoning. Why isn't that a major news story? Because for the vast majority, the “illness” only amou...
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      Cantaloupe growers arrested in listeria outbreak

      Jensen Farms cantaloupes blamed in 33 deaths, hundreds of illnesses

      It's been two years since an outbreak of listeria swept the country, sickening hundreds and killing at least 33. The outbreak was eventually traced to cantaloupes grown on a southeastern Colorado farm owned by the Jensen family. 

      Yesterday, Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, turned themselves in to federal marshals and pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into the food supply.

      It is highly unusual for criminal charges to be filed in a contaminated food case but a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Denver said the Jensen case stood out because of "the magnitude of the number of people who were hospitalized and who died, and it involved 28 of the 50 states."

      The federal charges carry penalties of up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. A trial date was set for Dec. 2.

      Jensen Farms was identified as the source of the outbreak when inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined half-eaten cantaloupe taken from the homes of consumers who had fallen ill. 

      Although the CDC has officially confirmed 33 deaths and a miscarriage in the case, at least another 10 people have died, the Denver Post reported.

      The Jensen brothers' attorney said the two did not know that the contamination had occurred.

      "As they were from the first day of this tragedy, the Jensens remain shocked, saddened, and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families," the attorney said in a prepared statement.

      The Jensens also face numerous civil lawsuits filed by victims of the outbreak and their families. 

      It's been two years since an outbreak of listeria swept the country, sickening hundreds and killing at least 33. The outbreak was eventually traced to cant...
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      Incomes and spending on the rise in August

      In addition, people even put away a little for a rainy day

      Consumers saw their incomes rise in August -- and ran right out and spent most of it.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal incomes rose by 0.4% last month to $57.2 billion. At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased 0.3% to $34.5 billion.

      Incomes

      The incomes increase came as private wages and salaries rose $28.5 billion, with goods-producing industries' payrolls up $7.9 billion, highlighted by an jump of $6.4 billion in manufacturing payrolls. Services-producing industries' payrolls increased $20.5 billion, while government wages and salaries were up $2.0 billion in August. Government wages would have been $7.3 billion higher were it not for the impact of furloughs that affected several federal agencies.

      Spending

      Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, increased $38.4 billion in August, compared with an increase of $22.2 billion in July. PCE made up the bulk of that, totaling $34.5 billion, compared with an increase of $18.3 billion the previous month.

      Even with the increase in spending, consumers managed to sock a little away. Personal saving -- disposable personal income less personal outlays -- was $580.7 billion in August, compared with $562.8 billion in July. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 4.6% in August, up 0.1% from July.

      The full incomes and spending report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Consumers saw their incomes rise in August -- and ran right out and spent most of it. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal incomes rose ...
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      Toys R Us recalls Journey Girl travel trunks

      The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp

      Toys R Us Inc., of Wayne, N.J. is recalling about 12,650 Journey Girl Travel trunks.

      The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp posing a laceration hazard to the user.

      This recall involves the Journey Girl Travel Trunks used to carry 18-inch-tall toy dolls. The 21-inch tall curved top trunks are purple with a blue pattern and a blue metal handle. The trunks were sold with three clothes hangers and two pull out drawers for storage.  Travel trunks included in the recall have UPC # 48970277965070 and model number 5F5F79E. The model number is printed on the bottom of the travel trunk next to the UPC code.

      The company has received six reports of incidents involving the handle on the trunk, including one report of a consumer who received stitches as a result of a laceration.

      This recall involves the Journey Girl Travel Trunks used to carry 18-inch-tall toy dolls. The 21-inch tall curved top trunks are purple with a blue pattern and a blue metal handle. The trunks were sold with three clothes hangers and two pull out drawers for storage.  Travel trunks included in the recall have UPC # 48970277965070 and model number 5F5F79E. The model number is printed on the bottom of the travel trunk next to the UPC code.

      The trunks, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores nationwide and online at www.toysrus.com from October 2012 through February 2013 for about $30.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the travel trunk, put it out of reach of children and return it to a Toys R Us store for a full refund or store credit.

      Consumers may contact Toys R Us at (800) 869-7787 from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET on Sunday.

      Toys R Us Inc., of Wayne, N.J. is recalling about 12,650 Journey Girl travel trunks. The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp posing a laceration ha...
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