Friday, January 7, 2011

1 in 3 NYC supermarkets will rip you off.

Ridiculous (but not surprising). From NY Post. Thanks Jen K!

Supermarkets socked with $380,000 in fines five months ago for violating city regulations haven't learned their lesson: A new blitz by Department of Consumer Affairs inspectors found the compliance rate actually went down from 48 to 33 percent after the penalties were issued, officials said yesterday.

More shockingly, Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz said that based on the experience of its inspectors, New Yorkers can expect to get ripped off one of out every three times they pass through the supermarket check-out counter.

"The industry is really thumbing its nose at New York City consumers," declared a furious Mintz.

In a sweep over the last four months, inspectors visited 408 supermarkets -- 83 of them twice -- and issued almost 750 new violations totaling $310,000 for infractions that included inaccurate checkout scanners, no prices on individual items, taxing merchandise that's not taxable and not having produce scales available to customers.

Inspectors have now issued $690,000 in fines since August.

But, as Mintz put it, "The real story is the overcharging."

He said his inspectors would typically pick 25 or 50 items off supermarket shelves -- about 20 percent on sale -- and run them through the register.

In nearly a third of the cases, Mintz said, inspectors were overbilled for at least one item -- a rate he described as "appalling."

Overall, only 33 percent of city supermarkets are in compliance with all city regulations.

During a previous sweep in August, the compliance rate was 48 percent -- a record low at the time.

Asked if supermarkets were deliberately cheating their customers, Mintz said: "I can't answer that. In all my interactions with the heads of supermarkets and the heads of the supermarket industry, the one thing I never heard from any of them is acknowledgement they have a problem and are working to fix it. I think that speaks volumes."

Industry officials questioned the city's methodology, claiming Consumer Affairs has refused to share the raw numbers.

"All we want to do is see the information," said John Rogers, president of the Food Industry Alliance representing 800 markets here.

"We have no reason to believe -- and we believe it's an overstatement -- to say one out of three customers are being overcharged. We believe that's not the case at all."

Pat Brodhagen, the group's vice president, said that if an inspector bought 25 items at three locations and was overcharged for only one item, that one-in-75 instance would meet the national industry standard of a 98 percent accuracy rate.

"It's still a violation and needs to be corrected," Brodhagen said. "It's hard to achieve 100 percent. Most stores give the item away for free if the price is wrong."

Mintz attacked that reasoning as a "diversionary tactic," pointing out that his agency encountered the rip-offs by sampling just 25 to 50 items from shelves usually lined with 30,000 to 40,000 products.

Mintz argued that, if anything, the latest findings understate the extent of the overcharging problem.

Mintz also said industry representatives don't have to look far for the data they're demanding since the violations are in the hands of their members.

Coffee spill causes terror panic, diverts flights.

From CNN:

A United Airlines flight from Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany, was diverted to Toronto this week after the pilot dumped a cup of coffee on the plane's communication's equipment. The unwanted liquid triggered a series of emergency codes, including one for a hijacking, according to Transport Canada, the agency that regulates transportation in Canada.

"With the help of their company dispatch staff, the flight crew was confirmed the problem to be a NAV(navigation)/communication issue and not a valid code 7500 (for a hijacking or unlawful interference)," Transport Canada said on its website.

Flight 940 initially was going to return to Chicago, but then diverted to Pearson International Airport in Toronto where it landed without incident around 10 p.m. Monday.

United had little to say about the coffee spill that led to the diversion, and did not acknowledge that the caffeinated beverage had anything to do with it.

"Our review of the communications issue encountered on flight 940 continues, so it's too soon to comment on any particulars that led to the captain's decision to divert," United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said late Tuesday. "But important to note the crew did maintain contact with controllers, and the decision to divert to Toronto was the captain's."

The Boeing 777 had 255 passengers and crew aboard. United retrieved them from Toronto and took them back to Chicago where they were put on another plane to Frankfurt Tuesday afternoon.

Tourists in Rome to face new tax.

From CNN:

A new tax on tourists to the Eternal City is causing controversy, with hotels expressing fears it could hurt their business and scare tourists away.

As of January 1, nonresidents of Rome must pay the extra charge when staying at a hotel or visiting any tourist site, such as a museum, that charges admission.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno introduced the tax law last year after the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi cut funding to Italian cities, including Rome, as part of austerity measures.

The new tax will cost 3 euros ($4) per person per night for four- and five-star hotels and 2 euros ($2.70) for lower categories. Small children are exempt.

The tax will also see an extra 1 euro ($1.35) charged at the city's museums and other tourist attractions.

The new law applies not only to foreign tourists, but also to Italian tourists and business travelers who are not Rome residents.

Rome had a similar tourist tax law in the past but it abolished it 20 years ago.

The city of Rome says the tax will generate around 200,000 euros (nearly $268,000) a day, for a rough total of 80 million euros ($107.2 million) a year. It has said it hopes to invest the money in improving its cultural heritage and other city infrastructure without taxing its citizens.

Rome gets about 30 million tourists per year.

Meat products to get nutritional info.

From WebMD:

Important nutritional facts aimed at helping consumers know more about what they’re eating will be required on labels of 40 of the most popular cuts of meat and poultry under a new rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The rule, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2012, requires nutritional labels on the meat and poultry packages to list the number of calories, grams of total fat, and saturated fat.

In addition, says a news release from the USDA, products will be required to list a lean percentage statement on labels, such as “76% lean,” and also the cut’s fat percentage, making it easier for consumers to understand the amounts of lean protein and fat in the packages they are considering buying.

The USDA says food panels will give consumers the information they need to determine the nutrient content of the cuts of meat and poultry they see in stores, helping them develop a healthy diet to meet individual or family needs.

“More and more, busy American families want nutrition information that they can quickly and easily understand,” Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack says in a news release. “We need to do all we can to provide nutrition labels that will help consumers make informed choices.”

He says the USDA will “work hard to provide the dietary guidelines for Americans every five years,” and that the new rule will give consumers informational guides.

Major cuts of raw, single-ingredient meat and poultry products include whole or boneless chicken breasts and other pieces of chicken, and beef whole cuts such as tenderloin steak or brisket, according to the USDA. Examples of chopped meat and poultry products include ground turkey and hamburger.

Ground Zero workers win Mega Millions.

From the NY Daily News:
Hardworking Ground Zero hardhats struck gold on Christmas Eve, hitting a $250,000 lottery jackpot.

The 18 workers on the transit hub at the World Trade Center site were winners of the Mega Millions drawing that night by picking five of six numbers.

"It's a great way to start off the new year," said foreman Patrick Hickey, 44, of Westbury, L.I. "We are all ecstatic."

The guys - who work for a number of different trade unions - have been running a workplace pool for a year-and-a-half, each tossing $5 into a pot once a week.

Until Dec. 24, they hadn't won a dime, but that night, they almost walked off with a $168 million bonanza.

Using the automatic Quick Pick option, they correctly had the numbers 15, 16, 27, 40 and 52, but 18 for the Mega Ball - which was two digits off from the winning number 16.

"I can't even think about that," said carpenter John Kennedy, 47, of Richmond Hill, Queens, who purchased the $90 block of tickets at a newsstand in the shadow of the fast-rising Freedom Tower.

"This was still pretty amazing," he said. "It's a great little Christmas present."

The pool later swelled to $380 million, the second-largest jackpot in U.S. history. It was won by two people in Tuesday's drawing - one in Washington State and the other in Idaho.

University of Texas accused of mutilating animals.

Disturbing if true. From here.

GALVESTON — Dogs, monkeys, sheep and mice were neglected and denied veterinary care and pain relief after being burned, cut open and mutilated in medical experiments at the University of Texas Medical Branch, an unnamed whistle-blower alleges, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Based on the whistle-blower’s statements, Norfolk, Va.-based PETA filed a complaint alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is charged with enforcing that law.

Medical branch officials declined Wednesday to address specific allegations, but issued this statement:

“As a leading research institution committed to advancing the treatment and prevention of illness and injury, UTMB strives to adhere to the highest ethical standards and to follow all federal, state and campus regulations in every aspect of its research enterprise,” according to the statement.

“Our animal facilities are regularly inspected and approved by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the institution’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.”

Citing fear of retaliation, PETA officials declined to divulge the identity of the whistle-blower, who presumably is or was a medical branch employee.

Among other things, the group said a researcher subjected sheep, pigs and mice to third-degree burns on up to 40 percent of their bodies using a Bunsen burner or a scorching-hot metal rod and forced animals to inhale smoke.

Several sheep and a pig in one laboratory suffered “serious injuries — including a broken leg and an unknown trauma that caused a sheep’s intestines to penetrate her chest cavity and required euthanasia — because husbandry staff forced the animals to jump over gates instead of using ramps to remove them from enclosures,” according to the complaint the animal rights organization filed with federal regulators.

The whistle-blower also contends that medical branch faculty members cut open dogs and surgically implanted tubes into their colons for research on irritable bowel syndrome. The whistle-blower asserts that the researchers did not provide anesthesia to the animals, PETA said.

One dog died during surgery; another suffered in pain following surgery when staff didn’t provide painkillers, PETA said, citing the whistle-blower.

Federal animal welfare regulations require that research facilities establish and maintain programs for adequate veterinary care.

“Being burned and cut open in experiments is upsetting enough, but if animals are also being denied basic care and pain relief, UTMB must answer to the law,” Kathy Guillermo, PETA vice president, said.

The organization is calling for the Department of Agriculture to investigate and hold the medical branch accountable if allegations of animal abuse are borne out, Guillermo said.

Medical branch researchers long have experimented with animals. Of them, 97 percent are rodents, primarily rats, 3 percent are sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs and dogs, medical branch officials told The Daily News in 2005.

In 2009, the medical branch faced criticism by The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for using dogs in trauma training courses. The group, which claims 7,000 medical doctor members, has for years tried to persuade the medical branch and other university medical schools and programs to replace live animals with lifelike human models.

In an interview about the trauma training courses, medical branch spokesman Raul Reyes said the island campus attempted to use as few animals as possible: “All surgery is performed under general anesthesia administered by a certified veterinary anesthesiologist, so they feel no pain.”

Vaccine-Autism study called "an elaborate fraud."

Thanks to this study and stupid parents, we now have outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases. From WebMD:

The medical journal BMJ has declared the 1998 Lancet study that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and autism “an elaborate fraud.”

Fiona Godlee, MD, BMJ's editor in chief, says in a news release, “The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” and that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.”

MMR-Autism Study In 1998, the Lancet published a research paper by Andrew Wakefield, MD, and colleagues suggesting a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and bowel disease and autism. It received worldwide media coverage and led many people, especially parents, to question the safety of the vaccine.

In 2004, 10 of the 13 authors of the research paper retracted their interpretation of their findings.

In January 2010, the UK's General Medical Council (GMC) ruled that Wakefield had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.”

The Lancet retracted the paper in February 2010, accepting that the claims made in it were false.

In May 2010, Wakefield was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the GMC and was struck off the medical register.

In a series of three articles, the BMJ reveals what it says is the true extent of the scam behind the scare. The series is based on interviews, documents, and data collected during seven years of inquiries by award-winning investigative journalist Brian Deer.

Thanks to the recent publication of the General Medical Council’s hearings transcript, the BMJ was able to peer-review and check Deer’s findings and confirm extensive falsification in the Lancet paper.

Seven years after he first looked into the MMR scare, Deer shows how Wakefield was able to manufacture the appearance of a medical syndrome, while not only in receipt of large sums of money, but also scheming businesses that promised him more.

The first of the BMJ articles says Wakefield’s fraud “unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention, and outbreaks of infectious disease.”