Category: Consumer advocacy

Kroger to Stop Using Pink Slime in Meat

After weeks of silence, the Kroger Company — America’s biggest supermarket purveyor —  announced in a short press release March 22 that it will no longer use “pink slime,” the ground beef filler that has caused an uproar among consumers. Critics of pink slime, including former USDA scientists, publicly contend that the ammonia-treated meat filler, made from low quality meat scraps previously used only in cooking oil and dog food, is less nutritious than pure ground beef, and a riskier product due to its higher potential for bacterial contamination. Kroger’s announcement followed similar announcements from smaller grocery chains like Safeway and Food Lion, which moved more quickly to address consumer concerns about the filler. Other grocery chains, like Whole Foods and Costco, told ABC News immediately that their products have never contained the additive. Kroger operates Ralph’s, Fred Meyer, Dillons, Food 4 Less and other stores, and King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado. Consumers were unaware that 70 percent of ground meat contained pink slime because USDA doesn’t require labeling to make consumers aware the additive is in their ground meat.

Main source: The Kroger Co., March 22, 2012

Pink Slime Manufacturer Starts New Website, “PinkSlimeIsAMyth.com”; USDA Backs off Pushing Pink Slime in Schools

Pink Slime (photo by Beef Products, Inc.)

Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the manufacturer of pink slime, has started a new website, PinkSlimeIsAMyth.com, to battle the growing tide of anti-slime public sentiment. One of the pages of Beef Products’ new website attempts to discredit Kit Foshee, who formerly worked as Manager of BPI’s Quality Assurance Group. Foshee, who questioned the byproduct’s safety, has become an outspoken critic of pink slime — a position the company characterizes as “revenge.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is sticking to its story that “Lean Finely Textured Beef” (pink slime) is safe, but on March 15 the agency bowed to public pressure and issued a press release saying it will now “adjust procurement specifications” to give schools “additional options in procuring ground beef products.” Translation? USDA will now offer schools a choice whether or not to feed their students ground beef that contains pink slime. The change assumes that USDA will now distinguish beef containing the additive from beef that  does not. Ground beef is currently not labeled as to whether it contains the additive or not since USDA considers the additive “beef.” Pink slime is a cheap meat filler made of rejected meat scraps that are heated, mixed, and treated with ammoniated gas to kill pathogenic bacteria like E Coli and salmonella.

The Lap Band Trap

One of the ubiquitous L.A. billboards advertising lap band surgery.

Billboards showing up across the U.S. encourage people to shed extra pounds by undergoing lap band surgery. The ads leverage people’s insecurities about their weight to drive them to an expensive and risky surgical solution. A particularly aggressive lap-band billboard campaign has plagued image-conscious southern California for months. Huge ads along L.A. freeways screamed, “Lose weight with the lap-band! Safe, 1-hour, FDA-approved. 1-800-GET THIN”. The ads made lap-band surgery sound fast and easy. They were also practically inescapable. One L.A. freeway had 25 lap-band billboards in just a four-mile stretch, and the boards were up for months alongside most of southern California’s freeways. They bore no information about the qualifications needed for the surgery, or the risks it poses — not even in fine print. People who dialed 1-800-GET THIN heard an automated greeting from a “celebrity physician” assuring them the lap band is approved by the FDA and is “extremely effective” at helping people lose weight. But just like the billboards, the telephone recording didn’t mention any risks, contraindications or qualifications to get the surgery. In addition to the ubiquitous billboards, 1-800-GET THIN ads also appeared in newspapers, on bus placards, on TV and the Internet, featuring people who claimed to have shed huge amounts of weight and regained control over their lives through lap-band surgery.

Dangerous Ads, Bad Doctors

Many people who called 1-800-GET THIN found they got more than they bargained for — way more, and not in a good way.  Laura Faitro was one of those people.

Ms. Faitro underwent the lap band surgery after calling 1-800 GET THIN. The procedure was performed in a day-surgery suite of an office building, and her insurance covered just $3,000 of the $12,200 cost. During the procedure, her doctor lacerated her liver and called other doctors in to assist him. He discharged Ms. Faitro shortly after her surgery, even though she complained of severe abdominal pain. Soon after the doctor sent her home, she had to go to the emergency room for her  abdominal pain. Five days later, Ms. Faitro was dead from “multi-organ failure due to shock secondary to bleeding and sepsis” in her abdominal cavity. Her husband, John Faitro, recently filed a class action against the surgery centers that advertised the procedure. But why a class action if this was an isolated case?

Because it’s not an isolated case.

Laura Faitro is one of at least five southern California patients who lost their lives after responding to the 1-800-GET THIN ads and having lap-band surgery done at one of the clinics affiliated with the ad campaign. The clinics were operated by two doctors, Michael and Julian Omidi, brothers affiliated with a Beverly Hills medical business called TopSurgeons. Investigation later revealed that Julian Omidi’s medical license had been revoked after the California Medical Board found he had lied on his license application. He omitted information from his application that would have led the Board to discover that, while attending the University of California at Irvine from 1986-1990, he had been expelled over his involvement in the burglary of exam papers. The California Medical Board also sanctioned Julian’s brother, Michael, with three years’ probation for gross negligence in his treatment of liposuction patients in 2005. Michael Omidi had improperly administered anesthetics, and allowed unlicensed staff to suture up patients and even perform liposuction.

In December, 2011, FDA took action against 1-800-GET THIN-affiliated clinics and their misleading ad campaign. That same month, FDA issued a warning to consumers about the fraudulent lap band surgery ads, and the risks and side effects of such surgery.  FDA has also issued warning letters to advertisers about misleading lap band surgery ads. In February, 2012, Allergan, manufacturer of the lap-band, announced that it would  stop selling the device to surgery centers affiliated with the 1-800-GET THIN ads. On February 8, 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on a whistleblower lawsuit by two former surgery center employees who allege that clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET THIN ads operated unsanitary surgical facilities and padded their bills with extra charges for medically unnecessary procedures and surgeries they never actually performed.

Widespread, Uncritical Promotion of Lap Band Surgery

Lap band billboard in Grand Junction, Colorado

Despite the lap-band surgery debacle unfolding in California, the multiple deaths associated with the lap-band and FDA’s growing number of warnings about lap-band ads and about the procedure itself, direct-to-consumer advertising for lap-bands is now spreading throughout the country. Messages pushing the surgery are targeting weight-conscious consumers across a range of media. On January 26, 2012, for example, an NBC TV affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado, ran a completely uncritical local TV news story about lap-band surgery. The report focused on a single patient who so far has suffered no ill effects from the surgery. Like the ads that flooded L.A., the NBC story failed to mention any potential side effects, risks, qualifications or contraindications for the surgery, or FDA’s ongoing sanctions against advertisers for misleading ads that make the procedure sound quick and simple. Nor did the report mention lap-band patients’ deaths. Coincidentally, the NBC news report appeared at the same time billboards started showing up in Grand Junction promoting lap-band surgery. While the ads are less aggressive than California’s, they still lack any warnings about the risks or side effects of the procedure, as required by FDA. A call to the reporter at the Grand Junction NBC affiliate who did the lap band story said she was unaware that billboards promoting the procedure had gone up at the time she did the news report, and insisted the idea for the story was entirely her own.

Typical lap-band ad graphic

FDA continues to post consumer updates on the serious risks and side effects of gastric bands. They also post information about serious patient complaints about lap-bands, like this one, where a lap band slipped and left “three quarters” of the patient’s stomach “in a necrotic state.” The patient complained of throwing up for days, got dehydrated, and developed a rapid heart beat. It wasn’t until emergency surgery was done that doctors discovered her lap-band had slipped.

So far, advertisers have ignored FDA requirements that they make people aware of the dangers and side effects of bariatric surgery. That could be intentional. If they perform this type of operation purely as an elective surgery on people who don’t fit the medical qualifications, the surgery must be paid for out of pocket, without the involvement of insurance companies. That makes the procedure a cash cow for surgical centers and doctors who perform it, which explains the ubiquity of the ads promoting it.

Granted, lap band surgery has the potential to greatly benefit some people who are medically qualified for the procedure and who work with reputable doctors to have the surgery done properly, with appropriate follow-up care. But common sense dictates that the right way to decide to undergo a risky surgical procedure is not from reading roadside billboards put up by ruthless doctors who care more about money than patient care. Every surgical procedure has risks. Before considering gastric surgery, people need to do a lot of homework, ask a lot of questions, and thoroughly weigh the pros and cons. Lap-band surgery should draw even more scrutiny because of the insidious and dangerous way it is being marketed to large numbers of clueless people — many of whom, like so many of us, are undoubtedly insecure about their weight, and lack  a medical education.

 

Know Your Slime

Photo of beef pink slime, provided by its manufacturer, Beef Products, Inc.

Mechanically-separated chicken

A photo that has been published recently alongside articles on “pink slime” — the highly-processed, barely-beef byproduct ABC News revealed last week is commonly added to hamburger — is not actually “pink slime,” but another scary byproduct called “mechanically separated chicken,” reportedly used to make chicken nuggets. A March 5 article on Common Dreams titled “What’s on the School Cafeteria Menu? ‘Pink Slime,’ ” for example, mistakenly showed a photo of mechanically-separated chicken pink slime while discussing beef-based pink slime. Mind you, it’s an easy mistake to make. Mechanically-separated chicken more closely resembles a pink slime than even beef pink slime. In the oft-circulated photo of mechanically-separated chicken, a ribbon of bright pink, gelatinous mixture oozes out of a huge spigot looking like a giant, curling stream of strawberry flavor self-serve yogurt.

Yuck.

But it isn’t beef-based pink stuff, it’s chicken-based pink stuff.

People need to get their slime photos straight, so readers are clear on which super-gross food byproduct big agribusiness is attempting to feed us.

What’s in Your Burger? Former USDA Scientists Say “Pink Slime”

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Former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist-turned whistleblower Gerald Zirnstein revealed a dirty little secret of the meat industry to ABC News: 70 percent of  hamburger meat sold in grocery stores contains “pink slime,” a cheap and dangerous filler made of rejected beef trimmings that at one time were only used to make dog food and cooking oil. Pink slime is made from the least-desirable beef scraps, like connective tissue, tendons, and gristle. The scraps are ground up and simmered at low heat, then put in a centrifuge and spun to separate the fat from the meat. The resulting mixture is then sprayed with ammonia gas — ostensibly to to kill bacteria — then shaped into bricks, flash-frozen and shipped to grocers and meat packing companies where it is combined with ground beef. Understandably, the meat industry doesn’t like the name “pink slime.” It prefers to call the additive “lean, finely-textured ground beef.” Thanks to Joann Smith, USDA undersecretary under George W. Bush, pink slime doesn’t have to be labeled as a byproduct, either, and grocers don’t have to let consumers know it is in their meat. Smith made the decision to label the stuff “meat” against the urging of Zirnstein and another USDA scientist, Carl Custer, who call pink slime a “high risk product,” since the trimmings come from the most contaminated parts of many cows. In making her decision, Smith reportedly said that the mixture “is pink, therefore it’s meat.” While at USDA, Smith had ties to the beef industry. She was president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Association. ABC News found out that after Smith left the USDA in 1993, the manufacturers of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., appointed her to its board of directors, where she has since made around $1.2 million over 17 years. After their report on pink slime, ABC News was inundated with questions from viewers about how to avoid the substance at grocery stores. The answer? Look for meat stamped “USDA Organic.” It is pure meat that contains no fillers. Everything else could contain pink slime since the law doesn’t require it to be revealed on the label.

“Dr. Evil” Attacks the Humane Society — Again

Rick Berman, a.k.a. "Dr. Evil"

A strange ad was broadcast during the Academy Awards that tried to stir up anger and mistrust against the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) by claiming HSUS spends only a paltry amount of its donors’ money to support local animal shelters. What the ad didn’t say is that the national office of the Humane Society by design doesn’t operate or fund animal shelters. Its mission is to lobby for laws that reduce animal abuse, especially in big commercial animal-abuse industries like puppy mills, confinement cattle operations and chicken houses. HSUS also pushes for enforcement of existing laws that protect animals from abuse. Local Humane Societies, which do operate shelters, do their own fundraising, often without involvement from the national HSUS. The ad took advantage of peoples’ ignorance about how the Humane Society is organized nationally to attack the Humane Society.

HSUS is very effective at what it does. It successfully pushed to end tail docking of dairy cows in California, to end commercial farmers’ cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates, and worked to end the use of chimpanzees in biomedical testing, among other significant accomplishments in recent years. The HSUS’s remarkable effectiveness is why this misleading TV ad exists. The deceptive ad was paid for by HumaneWatch.org, a website created by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a front group backed by big food companies and national restaurant chains. The man behind CCF is Rick Berman, the notorious Washington lobbyist who has made a lucrative career from creating misleading ads and websites that attack consumer safety, animal welfare and environmental protection groups. Berman has created groups to advocate for minimum wage jobs; in response to the creation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, he formed a group called “Beverage Retailers Against Drunk Driving” (BRADD) to advocate for greater tolerance of drinking. He operates a website, FishScam.com, which tells people to ignore warnings about mercury in seafood. He operates the “Center for Union Facts,” a front group for individuals and businesses that oppose unions. Berman gets paid well by businesses whose interests he protects. In recognition of his creepy reputation, in 2007 CBS’ 60 Minutes profiled Rick Berman in segment aptly titled,  “Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. ‘Dr. Evil.'”

Few people know about “Dr. Evil” and his activities, which is why he can freely continue to engaging in them, and why we see ads like the one we saw on the Academy Awards. Big businesses love Berman because they can attack consumer interest groups while hiding behind him. This way, current and potential customers won’t see their dark side and their brands will remain untarnished. But people are starting to fight back against Berman. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington created a website, BermanExposed.org, that outs Rick Berman, his activities and fake groups. CREW also asked the IRS to investigate Berman’s misuse of the so-called “charitable” nonprofit groups he has created.

Consumer interest groups that are really effective at what they do, like the Humane Society of the U.S., become targets of big business, just like the front-runners in elections become targets for the candidates who are running behind. Berman  facilitates big industries’ dirty attack business, and he won’t stop attacking public interest groups until people work to stop him from doing it.

To read more about Rick Berman and his activities, click here.

The Current High Gas Price Scam

Sixty four percent of all contracts written for bulk oil purchases in the U.S. are made by companies that will never take delivery of even one drop of oil. They are made by speculators positioning themselves to make money off the scare over recent events involving Iran. Recently and American warship was targeted with gunfire in the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports attributed the attack to Iran, but it turned out to have been made by smugglers — a correction that was buried in the media. Iran also announced it would stop selling oil to Britain and France, but those countries had already stopped buying oil from Iran anyway — a fact less reported than Iran’s announcement.  Decades ago, financial speculators made up only about 30 percent of oil trading markets and refiners and end-users made up about 70 percent. Today those numbers are reversed; now only about 36 percent of all oil contracts are made by producers and end users, while increasing demand for oil in the U.S. is a myth. Demand for oil and gas in the U.S. is down while production of American oil has increased so much that the U.S. has actually started exporting oil to Europe, Asia and Latin America. In fact, now America’s major supplier of oil is Canada, not the middle east. So high gas prices now simply cannot be explained by any shortage or increase in demand, since neither exist. But they can be explained by speculators and their effect on the market, and we are all paying a heavy price for their activity.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers, Febuary 21, 2012

Switch to a Good-Faith Insurer

Everyone who buys insurance should visit the website Fight Bad-Faith Insurance Companies (FBIC), at BadFaithInsurance.org. FBIC lists insurers who chronically screw consumers by discounting, lowballing, fudging and delaying payment of legitimate claims. FBIC  examines formal complaints lodged against insurers and reviews documents obtained through litigation against insurers to sort out good insurers from bad. FBIC finds that many well known insurers frequently act unethically and illegally. Consumers have virtually no recourse against these companies either, because government agencies that regulate the insurance industry are not only toothless and underfunded, but they are also often staffed by former insurance people.

Even worse, bad-faith insurers dominate the market. FBIC’s list of the top 50 bad-faith insurers contains many of the same insurers that advertise constantly on television. The worst company, State Farm (which FBIC rates  “DO NOT BUY” in big, red letters), is followed closely by The Hartford and Allstate, which now owns E-surance. FBIC rates all three with a big, red “DO NOT BUY.” Liberty Mutual, Progressive, Geico, Mercury, UnitedHealth, WellPoint and Blue Cross Blue Shield are close behind. Fortunately, FBIC also lists the top 50 good-faith insurers — a shrinking list of companies that, for the most part, act ethically and responsibly toward customers and conduct business in accordance with the law. The list of good-faith insurers is topped by companies you’ve probably never heard of: Amica, Allianz and Chubb. Maybe these companies don’t carpet-bomb us with ads because their reputations are good enough to provide them with all the business they need.

After reading FBIC’s website, my husband and I switched our homeowner and vehicle insurance from Farmers to Chubb. We were surprised to find Chubb offered much higher quality insurance for about the same money. For example, in the event that you total your car, Chubb pays enough to go out buy a brand new car exactly like the one you had, instead of just giving you blue book for your wrecked one. Rental cars are covered in full under Chubb’s policy, and if you get personal liability coverage, Chubb provides $50,000 worth of identity theft coverage, including paying professionals to help you get your identity back and deal with problems caused by the theft.

Insurance is one area where you can vote with your money. Read Fight Bad Faith Insurance Companies’ reviews and move your business to an insurance company that treats consumers fairly, abides by the law and deals in good faith.