Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Americans waste a ridiculous amount of food

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 29, 2016, at 11:31 a.m.

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The figures are more than troubling. With thousands of Mainers at risk of hunger every day and with so many resources used in the production of food, the amount that we waste is staggering.

By conservative estimates, 20 percent of all food we grow or buy is wasted. More pessimistic estimates put the figure at closer to 40 percent.

People who have looked into the issue say the figures don’t have to be even close to what they are.

In a white paper four years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council said getting food from the farm to our tables:

— Uses 50 percent of U.S. land.
— Requires 10 percent of our energy budget.
— Consumes 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the U.S.

The NRDC estimates that cutting food waste by 15 percent would help feed more than 25 million Americans every year. The Environmental Protection Agency says about 95 percent of the food we throw out goes to landfills or combustion facilities. In landfills, food breaks down to form methane gas.There’s more at the EPA website at epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has guidance about the differences between “sell by,” “use by” and “expiration” dates. Visit fsis.usda.gov and search “food product dating.”

Last fall, USDA and EPA set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. We’re always leery of benchmarks measured in decades, but this one seems to have a chance.

In 2013, the two agencies issued the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, helping people and groups find ways to reduce, recover and recycle food. By the end of 2014, the agencies said the challenge had more than 4,000 participants — well over its initial goal of reaching 1,000 participants by 2020.

College students are leading the charge through something called the Food Recovery Network. In a paper prepared for a symposium last spring, leaders of the five-year-old network wrote “we are challenging the status quo, making food recovery the norm and not the exception.”

We know this is an issue that resonates. People reacted strongly when Shaw’s Supermarkets stopped donating food to groups that work to feed hungry families. Shaw’s reversed field, at least partly at the urging of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has introduced two bills to reduce food waste.

A provision in the Food Recovery Act passed the House in December. It creates an “enhanced” tax deduction for grocery stores, farmers and restaurants that donate excess food to soup kitchens, food banks and the like.

The Food Date Labeling Act would replace the current, often confusing system with two labels: one citing quality through a “best if used by” designation and one stating when a food will become unsafe (“expires on”).

Consumers can help by shopping in our refrigerators first and using up leftovers. We can make meal plans so that we buy just what we need, and buy in bulk only if we’ll use things while they’re still good. We can store things that will last and use up what won’t. We can donate excess produce from our gardens to agencies that help feed the hungry.

We can urge food-centered businesses to follow our lead. We can urge our elected leaders to work for effective changes and steer away from rules for rules’ sake. We can think about the nutritional value of food and maybe overlook a bruise or brown spot. We can do more.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

If you have to borrow, here’s how to do it smartly

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 22, 2016, at 6 a.m.

In prior columns, we’ve discussed the need to shop around for low annual percentage rates or APRs when borrowing money. Either a hefty APR or a term that’s too long can add interest dollars that end up making that loan a bad deal.

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That point is among many made in the latest in the series called Downeaster Guides. The newest one deals with high-interest, high-cost loans. Like the others, it is published by Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.

Regular readers of this column know that earlier guides have dealt with a range of issues affecting credit. David Leach, principal examiner with the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection and co-author of the latest guide, says it explores alternatives to several types of high-cost borrowing, including:

— Buy-here-pay-here auto loans.
— Payday loans.
— Furniture and appliance loans.
— Private student loans.
— Non-bank finance company lending.

As an example, the guide points out that overdraft lines of credit usually carry annual percentage rates or APRs of 9.9 percent to 18 percent or a flat per-item fee. The guide goes on to say, “A line extension of $100 for a couple of days could result in finance charges under $1.00 — a big savings over a payday loan!”

A major component of consumer debt is acquired through credit cards. Many consumers have multiple cards, and many have more debt than they would like on more than one card. The guide advises that consumers might take one of two possible routes to whittle down those debts.

One strategy is called the “avalanche” method. Budget an amount to pay toward lowering your total credit card debt each month. Then, pick the debt with the highest APR and put the bulk of your budgeted amount toward eliminating that debt. Make at least the minimum payments on the other card bills.

When the highest APR bill is zero, use the same strategy on the amount with the next highest rate. Keep the same budgeted amount each month and knock down the balances one by one.

Another approach is termed the “snowball” method. Some financial experts say it focuses on the smallest debts first, while others say consumers focus on paying for the things that matter to them the most.

Leach is in the second school, saying, “Experts agree that the mortgage or rent gets paid first, followed by a vehicle loan payment, because in Maine, we need a car or truck to get to work!”

Some consumers will prefer the avalanche method, while others will find the snowball method more satisfying. The key is to choose a strategy and stick with it.

The Downeaster Common Sense Guide to High Interest/High Cost Loans details strategies to keep debt under control. The guide will be available soon at www.Credit.Maine.gov; click on “consumer guides.” A hard copy is available free to Maine residents by calling the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

Feds weigh changes to make aggressive debt collectors back off

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 08, 2016, at 7:08 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2016, at 9:29 a.m.

As Maine gripes, so gripes the nation.

That twist on an old saying means the top consumer complaint heard by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, deals with bill collection. Of the roughly 400 complaints filed yearly with Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, about 100 concern debt collectors.

In late July, the CFPB made public a proposal to strengthen the rules governing debt collection.

When the proposals take effect, they would limit the number of times companies can contact debtors to six per week, and they would require debt collectors to have better information about debts before they collect them.

While collecting, companies would have to limit communications, explain details of the debt clearly and make it easy for consumers to dispute the debt. Collectors also would have to explain if debts are too old for the collectors to take them to court.

The CFPB said it has reasons for its proposed changes. When old debts are sold, the information about those debts may not be complete. Anything consumers have submitted might not be passed along, and errors can result.

The new CFPB rules would require collectors to verify information they have before contacting debtors.

William Lund is superintendent of Maine’s BCCP, and he said a lot of work went into the 200 pages of rules and reports the CFPB has made available to his office. Lund said eliminating indiscriminate calling by collectors, including the limit of six calls per week, is a positive step.

He also supports moves to verify debtor information, make disputing debts easier and limit actions by a collector during a dispute.

Lund said another change would affect the sales of debt.

“Sellers would be required to be more careful in what they sell and would have to provide more information as a part of each sale. That’s a positive proposal,” Lund said.

The new rules probably won’t be final for at least a year, and there’s criticism from consumers and the collection industry.

Some consumer groups say while the rules are a good start, portions may confuse consumers. If a collector calls and says, “this debt is too old to take to court, but you still have to pay it,” the debtor might wonder just how much clout the caller has.

Collectors say the rules apply only to third-party collection efforts. Groups including the American Financial Services Association and Consumer Bankers Association are first-party collectors, whom the CFPB may address separately.

Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the bankers group, said in a statement that CFPB recognizes that “consumers have very different experiences when dealing with banks as opposed to debt collectors.”

CFPB said it recognizes that “debt collection serves an important role in the proper functioning of consumer credit markets.” It is also trying to avoid any tightening of credit that over-regulation might trigger.

“If creditors are not able to collect rightfully owed debts, they will be less likely to extend credit to consumers,” Cindy Sebrell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, said.

Lund said the CFPB proposals apply only to the “larger participants,” the 175 companies that recover about more than $10 million per year, or about 60 percent of outstanding debt. Lund said depending on the wording of the final rules, Maine might adopt them and “fill in the gap” by having them apply to companies of all sizes.

You can find a list of licensed debt collectors at BCCP’s website at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/index.shtml. There’s also a link to the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Debt Collection under the heading “consumer tools.”

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Where to look if you want to check up on your dentist

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 01, 2016, at 8:59 a.m.

Click image to access MDA

The state of Maine has a new website for consumers with concerns about dental health professionals, maine.gov/dental.

Users found that the old website was a little tricky to navigate. It also did not provide as many services as its designers believe the new one will.

The Maine Board of Dental Examiners launched the website in partnership with InforME, the portal provider for state government. The site is intended to inform consumers and practitioners about rules and laws, provide licensing information and make policies affecting the dental examiner profession in Maine easily accessible.

As in the rest of the virtual world, the site should help licensees keep abreast of new rules, handle forms and applications online and update contact information.

“This new website should substantially improve how we connect with our licensees and the public,” Penny Vallaincourt, executive director of the Maine Board of Dental Examiners, said.

There’s also a complaint form that consumers can use. While it may be easy to dash off a criticism, the American Dental Association or ADA suggests that consumers with concerns first discuss them with their dentists.

Sometimes people in a state dental association can help. The Maine Dental Association has a contact form at its website, medental.org.

When consumers want to find out if disciplinary action has been taken against someone the Board regulates, a simple search is all that will be needed. Current actions will appear on the new website soon; meanwhile, consumers can search pfr.maine.gov/almsonline/almsquery/welcome.aspx?board=384 for that data.

The state’s new website is not intended to provide financial relief for consumers. A peer-review process offered by dental societies can resolve some disputes about what constitutes appropriate care and sometimes what fees are charged. Serious disputes may end up in civil court.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to cure children of ‘nature-deficit disorder’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 25, 2016, at 6:50 a.m.

Parents concerned that their youngsters are spending too much time in front of screens have a place to turn: the great outdoors.

The places where many Maine people feel most at home may offer the best antidote for what The New York Times called “the fully automated child.” Many of our children are or seem to be so disconnected from the natural world that they’ve been branded as sufferers of something called “nature-deficit disorder.”

That’s not a real medical condition. The man who coined the term, writer Richard Louv, contends that a strong connection with the natural world has all kinds of benefits, including mental sharpness, lower levels of obesity, boosting overall health and simply having fun. Louv writes in several books that getting ourselves into natural settings is critical to our healthy growth and development.

Many who have studied the erosion of recess in schools will argue that time spent outdoors in addition to classrooms offers a balanced education. In the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote that she had been seeing more and more young patients who could not tolerate wind in their faces, had poor balance or lack of coordination or who cried or got upset in unfamiliar situations.

Hanscom wrote that lots of movement is the key to countering those problems. “I discovered that movement through active free play — particularly in the outdoors — is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children …” (emphasis hers).

Louv and Hanscom have found that their messages resonate with people and groups across the country. Schools, civic groups and volunteers from numerous organizations have set up environmental education programs for young people of various ages. Summer camps are bustling with young people running headlong into nature, many for the first time.

Groups in many states have joined a coalition called “No Child Left Inside” or NCLI. The goal is to get kids outside, moving as they need to, interacting with nature as they learn about it and themselves.

Portland Water District is among the 35 Maine members of NCLI. The district’s Sarah Plummer coordinates educational offerings of the district. “Getting kids connected to nature from a young age is important,” she told me. “It fosters a love and respect of the environment.”

And some classroom teachers must be wondering, “Why not here?”

Recess times have been shortened to put more emphasis on academics. When children fidget, we tell them to keep still. Hanscom argues that when children are inactive, their brains tend to shut down. She wrote in The Washington Post that 20 minutes of activity is not enough. “They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

As consumers, the ways we use our time may be among the most important decisions we make. Helping young people to put their time to its best use might be the best education we can offer.

“In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention,” Plummer wrote in The Washington Post. “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Volkswagen agrees to settle on charges it misled consumers about their ‘Clean Diesel’ technology

PRESS RELEASE

June 30, 2016

AUGUSTA – Attorney General Janet T. Mills today announced a settlement requiring Volkswagen to pay more than $570 million to states for violating state laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices by marketing, selling and leasing diesel vehicles equipped with illegal and undisclosed defeat device software. The settlement also establishes an environmental mitigation fund of $2.7 billion. This agreement is part of a series of state and federal settlements that will provide cash payments to affected consumers, require Volkswagen to buy back or modify certain VW and Audi 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, and prohibit Volkswagen from engaging in future unfair or deceptive acts and practices in its dealings with consumers and regulators.

These coordinated settlements resolve consumer protection claims raised by a multistate coalition of State Attorneys General joined by 43 states and jurisdictions against Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Porsche AG and Porsche Cars, North America, Inc. – collectively referred to as Volkswagen. They also resolve actions against Volkswagen brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), California and car owners in private class action suits.

“Volkswagen groomed an image to lead customers to believe they were making a purchase that was environmentally sound,” said Attorney General Mills. “It turns out their ‘clean diesel’ technology was anything but. Maine consumers were particularly impressed with this marketing, as demonstrated by data showing Maine had among the highest per capita VW ownership in the country. These settlements show that we will not tolerate this kind of manipulation in the market place.”

The investigation of the attorneys general confirmed that Volkswagen sold more than 570,000 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel vehicles in the United States equipped with “defeat device” software intended to circumvent applicable emissions standards for certain air pollutants, and actively concealed the existence of the defeat device from regulators and the public. There were 3,982 affected vehicles sold in Maine. Volkswagen made false statements to consumers in their marketing and advertising, misrepresenting the cars as environmentally friendly or “green” and that the cars were compliant with federal and state emissions standards, when, in fact, Volkswagen knew the vehicles emitted harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOx) at rates many times higher than the law permitted.

Under the settlements, Volkswagen is required to implement a restitution and recall program for more than 475,000 owners and lessees of 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, of the model year 2009 through 2015 listed in the chart below at a maximum cost of just over $10 billion. This includes 3,982 vehicles in Maine.

Once the consumer program is approved by the court, affected Volkswagen owners will receive restitution payment of at least $5,100 and a choice between:

• A buy back of the vehicle (based on pre-scandal NADA value); or • A modification to reduce NOx emissions provided that Volkswagen can develop a modification acceptable to regulators. Owners will still be eligible to choose a buyback in the event regulators do not approve a fix. Owners who choose the modification option would also receive an Extended Emission Warranty; and a Lemon Law-type remedy to protect against the possibility that the modification causes subsequent problems.

The consumer program also provides benefits and restitution for lessees (restitution and a no-penalty lease termination option) and sellers after September 18, 2015 when the emissions-cheating scandal was disclosed (50 percent of the restitution available to owners). Additional components of today’s settlements include:

• Environmental Mitigation Fund: Volkswagen will pay $2.7 billion into a trust to support environmental programs throughout the country to reduce emissions of NOx. This fund, also subject to court approval, is intended to mitigate the total, lifetime excess NOx emissions from the 2.0-liter diesel vehicles identified below. Under the terms of the mitigation trust, Maine is eligible to receive approximately $20 million to fund mitigation projects to be determined by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

• Additional Payment to the States: In addition to consumer restitution, Volkswagen will pay to the states more than $1,000 per car for repeated violations of state consumer protection laws, amounting to $570 million nationwide. This amount includes $3,651,270 for affected vehicles Volkswagen sold and leased in Maine.

• Zero Emission Vehicles: Volkswagen has committed to investing $2 billion over the next 10 years for the development of non-polluting cars, or Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV), and supporting infrastructure.

• Preservation of Environmental Claims: Today’s settlement by state attorneys general preserves all claims under state environmental laws, and Maine maintains the right to seek additional penalties from Volkswagen for its violations of environmental and emissions laws and regulations.

Volkswagen will also pay $20 million to the National Association of Attorneys General to establish a fund that state attorneys general can utilize for future training and initiatives, including investigations concerning emissions violations, automobile compliance, and consumer protection.

The full details of the consumer program will be available online at VWCourtSettlement.com and www.ftc.gov/VWSettlement.

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

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