Raw milk is a raw deal for consumers

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

NCL has recently signed onto a consumer group letter opposing two shocking federal bills introduced to weaken restrictions on the sale of raw milk. Raw milk – which by definition is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill dangerous bacteria – can kill you. NCL’s first leader, Florence Kelley, watched children get sick and die from raw milk. She was disconsolate that states were slow to require pasteurization – Louis Pasteur’s great discovery that heating milk kills pathogens. (Pasteur also developed the rabies vaccine.)  Heating milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, known as flash pasteurization, is all it takes to make milk safe.

The ignorance of those who champion the so-called benefits of raw milk is astounding. Its one thing if an adult wants to consume raw milk, but parents feed raw milk to their children putting their kids’ lives at risk.  The CDC reported in 2012 that unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause food borne illnesses than pasteurized versions.

One of the federal bills would end the interstate ban on raw milk sales and the second would allow interstate transport between states where raw milk is legally sold. There are 40 bills to allow raw milk sales at the state level.

Bill Marler is a food lawyer in Seattle who has handled two-dozen cases involving illnesses from raw milk consumption in children or the elderly.  “It’s a high risk product and in most cases, I’m representing the most vulnerable in society,” Marler said.

In November, five-year-old Maddie Powell was one of nine children in her family, all younger than seven, who were sickened by E. coli from raw milk. Maddie, along with two of the other children, developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal kidney disease that is known to coincide with E. coli infections. After this frightening and costly experience, Maddie’s mother said they would not return to drinking raw milk.

Why in the world would any parent knowingly subject their child to such a dangerous product to begin with? Because raw milk advocates are peddling a message that their product has health benefits superior to pasteurized milk. Nothing could be more misguided. We hope these federal bills will generate an informed discussion that will demonstrate the folly of consuming raw milk.

Advertisements

Women CAN have it all!

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I finally got around to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. I confess that from the reviews, I wasn’t sure if I’d like or hate the book.  I liked it a lot, but even more, I think it’s an important book. It’s a feminist manifesto for the current generation of working women.  Sandberg counsels her peers not to drop out of the workforce because someone convinced you that “you can’t have it all.” I’ve always disliked that phrase.  It’s self defeating and ultimately meaningless.  She tells women to use their brains, their education, their families, spouses and moxie to figure out a work-life balance. Having children and working full time is do-able with the right support systems in place. She acknowledges that not every woman has those support systems; but if you do, don’t shy away from a promotion, a new job, or new opportunity.

This is an inspiring book. It’s true that Sandberg’s led a charmed life –which is why I had my doubts about the advice she was dispensing – she’s has two degrees from Harvard – undergrad and the Business School (when I lived in Boston they called it Preparation H!) , she’s a protégé of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and his chief of staff at Treasury, was recruited by Eric Schmidt to work at Google, then recruited to be CEO at LinkedIn and turned it down, and is now one of Mark Zuckerberg’s general’s at Facebook.  She’s also a Jewish girl who managed to find the ideal, supportive Jewish husband and have two perfect kids. Plus, she’s reported to be worth over a billion dollars. I’ll get to that point in a minute.

In spite of this gilded path, it’s hard not to like Sandberg:  she’s supportive of colleagues and friends, she’s funny and self deprecating, she acknowledges leading a privileged life, and notes that she learned  along the way – to her surprise – that she’s actually a feminist, a description she rejected in her younger years. Many in my generation of working women cheer when we hear that, since so many younger men and women have accepted the negativity foisted on the word “feminist” by a culture threatened by empowered women.

Sandberg’s had a few bumps in the road. She got divorced after a hasty marriage right out of college and experienced some old fashioned sexism while serving as a page to a New York Congressman. When she was introduced to House Speaker Tip O’Neill he commented “She’s pretty,” and turning to Sandberg asked her “Are you a Pom Pom girl.”  Every working woman has experienced that kind of sexism.

But her advice to working women is solid. History is replete with examples of women who did it all – raised families and had remarkable careers.  The women who first ran the National Consumers League are a case in point.  Florence Kelley had three children, fled an abusive husband to land at Hull House in Chicago, relied on friends to care for her small children while she pursued her remarkable career of exposing the evils of child labor, drafting the nation’s first minimum wage laws and getting the Supreme Court to hear the first maximum hours’ case laws. She traveled far and wide, speaking at women’s clubs and conferences. Frances Perkins served as Secretary of Labor all four of FDR’s terms and is largely responsible for lifeline programs like social security, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance. She lived in Washington, traveling to see her husband (who suffered from mental illness so she couldn’t depend on him to care for their daughter) and daughter on weekends. Neither of them was rich, nor did they have parents they could rely on for support. Both Kelley and Perkins felt guilty about being away from their families, but each had a calling and what an enormous debt we owe them for their impact on social reforms in America – and what a loss it would have been had they chosen not to work.

So thank you to Sheryl Sandberg advising working women to lean in and to stay in the workplace if they want to. Don’t believe that adage that you “can’t have it all.” What bunk!  Women in America today have far too much education, talent, and valuable skills to let themselves be talked out of a fulfilling career. I recommend Sheryl Sandberg’s book women of all generations.

That said, I also think Sandberg should put some of the cash – of which she has so much – toward bettering the lives of low income working women and families. Below are six organizations that I would put on my Hanukah giving list if I was worth what she’s worth (of course, the National Consumers League get my first $100 million!):

National Employment Law Project (NELP) – NELP works in partnership with national, state and local allies, promotes policies and programs that create good jobs, strengthen upward mobility, enforce hard-won worker rights, and help unemployed workers regain their economic footing through improved benefits and services.

National Partnership for Women and Families – Founded in 1971 as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, the Partnership promotes  fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care, and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family.

MomsRising – MomsRising combines the best of American innovation and ingenuity. They are a transformative on-the-ground and online multicultural organization of more than a million members and over a hundred aligned organizations working to increase family economic security, to end discrimination against women and mothers, and to build a nation where both businesses and families can thrive.

9to5 – 9to5 is one of the largest, most respected national membership organizations of working women in the U.S., dedicated to putting working women’s issues on the public agenda. Their mission is to build a movement for economic justice, by engaging directly affected women to improve working conditions.

Interfaith Worker Justice  – IWJ has many work and job sites around the country where workers, many of them low income women, can come for advice when they’ve been deprived of fair wages, are being discriminated against for being pregnant or are facing dangerous working conditions    http://www.iwj.org/

Economic Policy Institute – EPI was created as an economic think tank to address the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.  To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America, with a focus on low and moderate income workers.

Taget CEO is out

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This week the CEO of Target, Gregg Steinhafel, resigned. He was unable to recover from the damage caused by a massive data breach at the company – which happened right in the middle of the holiday shopping season last year.  Last December, Target announced that 40 million customers’ credit and debit cards and personal information had been compromised.  Steinhafel was with the company for 35 years.

Target’s experience is a cautionary tale for corporate leadership. The company was slow to respond to the panic that set in when consumers learned their card information had been compromised. I remember reading the advisory the company posted in December telling consumers all the things they had to do to protect themselves. There was precious little the company shared with its valued customer base – many of whom were Target credit card holders  – about what it intended to do to protect customers after the breach and into the future.

NCL issued a statement after the breach calling on retailers in the US to get with the program and adopt a more secure credit card system of Chip-and-PIN. That protocol is used widely in Europe and is less vulnerable to hacking at the point of sale. Criminals are busy 24/7 figuring out how to hack into retailer databases. We need to fight fire with fire. American consumers deserve the best protection for our financial transactions that the industry has to offer. Companies that don’t adopt these protections will find themselves much like Target  – losing customers’ trust and their business along with it.

Closer look at Tax Day

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Tomorrow is Tax Day. People resent the Internal Revenue Service because they take your money. Republican candidate for president Mike Huckabee said during a 2008 candidates debate, “People would love to see the IRS abolished. The harder you work, the more you earn, the more the IRS and the government wants from you.” That’s called “the progressive taxation” system. The more money you make, the more you can pay. Seems fair to me.

So I’m not of the Huckabee school – I much prefer this quote, from Progressive era Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — and in fact, it is emblazoned on the front of the IRS building in Washington DC: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

Indeed. And this is also good time to take a look at where our taxes go. Thanks to Campaign for America’s Future and their “National Priorities Project” for excellent information on this topic.

Across the United States, the average taxpayer paid $11,715 in 2013 federal income taxes. The military received the largest share that of tax payment: 27 cents on every dollar, compared to 22.5 cents for health care. Defense spending doubled from 2001 to 2011. So we’ve doubled defense spending in one decade. I was surprised to see that military spending outpaced money going to support social programs, given all the griping and grumbling from conservatives about “entitlement programs.”

This means the average taxpayer paid $3,174.25 to the military in 2013. Health care received $2,662 for programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Meanwhile, only $238 went to education programs, and just $15.84 and $6.56 went to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and National Forest System, respectively.

National Priorities has also looked at each state’s average taxpayer and calculated where taxes from every state are going. These state-by-state tax receipts show the state with the highest average taxes paid (Connecticut, $18,988) and lowest (Mississippi, $7,402), and everything in between.

Although these state receipts show the average taxpayer’s contribution to the budget, Americans don’t all pay taxes equally. In theory the tax code is progressive, meaning those who make more money pay higher tax rates – yet in practice that’s not always the case. As Warren Buffett made famous, billionaires sometimes pay lower rates than middle-class workers. And some corporations, like Bank of America and Citigroup, have gotten away with paying zero federal income taxes, even when they make billions in profit. That’s because the tax code is chock-full of tax breaks.

Ten of the largest tax breaks that together totaled more than $750 billion in tax savings in 2013 overwhelmingly benefited the top 1 percent of households, with 17 percent of the benefits going to those top earners. That’s in part because tax deductions – one important type of tax break – are far more likely to benefit the wealthy than middle- and low-income folks, because deductions only offer savings to taxpayers who itemize deductions. Only 16 percent of households making between $25,000 and $30,000 itemize tax deductions, while nearly 100 percent of those making over $200,000 itemize.

Recent high profile stories about GM and Toyota reveal the flaws of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

In the shadow of the General Motors and Toyota stories about widespread safety issues that went largely ignored, is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s lax performance. This agency is the consumer’s guardian to ensure that industry designs and manufactures cars and trucks safely. The federal agency failed at this assignment. As a New York Times editorial noted, recent events “show[s] glaring deficiencies in enforcement of auto safety regulations.”

Consumers reported from 2009-2010 sudden acceleration problems with their cars.   When Toyota denied it had problems with the phenomenon of sudden unexpected acceleration (SUA), NHTSA agreed, issuing a report in 2011 essentially denying consumers’ experience with this very dangerous defect: it sends a car hurtling down the road, unable to stop. An off duty policeman and three members of his family were killed when his brakes failed to override the throttle mechanism. NHTSA’s report claimed “driver error”.  The agency was wrong, and a recent $1.2 billion settlement reached between Toyota and the Department of Justice shows: Toyota admitted it failed to report defects and worse, denied there was ever a problem.

General Motors recalled 1.6 million cars after admitting it had failed to report faulty ignition switches it knew were defective.  But NHTSA had reports from consumers for years that it failed to act on. The ignition key would slip out of place and freeze up the steering wheel. A dozen innocent people were killed in accidents related to this defect.

The New York Times notes that NHTSA’s $10 million budget for investigations has barely increased over the past decade and the agency lacks criminal power to levy criminal sanctions. There are many good people who work at NHTSA that are dedicated to protecting consumers and improving car safety, but that’s no excuse for NHTSA’s lapses.

I spent a decade working on auto safety for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. We couldn’t get NHTSA to act on some glaring safety problems – like SUVs and pickup trucks rolling over at much higher numbers than cars. We had to go to Congress – Senator Ed Markey led the charge when he was in the House of Representatives, getting legislation passed mandating that NHTSA develop a test for vehicle stability.

I’m sorry to say the GM and Toyota examples tell me that not much has changed. Federal safety agencies should never forget they hold the lives of consumers in their hands The agency needs to be far more responsive to reports from consumers of vehicle defects. Consumers’ lives depend on it. If that takes a changes of leadership and culture, so be it.

“There is no question that in these cases, the automakers failed the public,” the Times rightly concluded, “federal regulators – and the Congress that has denied them the weapons they need – are complicit in that failure.”

The ticket marketplace: A scalper’s paradise

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This week I braved the ticket buying process for Roland Garros, otherwise known as the French Open. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but I had heard from those who attended in the past that you have to buy as soon as tickets become available as they sell out immediately. I didn’t realize tennis was so popular and so many people would get on line to buy those tickets up.

So at 2 am EST, 7 am French time, I logged on to the French Open website and was put in queue for 80 minutes. I sat with a book on my lap reading and whiling away the time in the middle of the night. About an hour later, the purchase page popped up, I put in my info and got my 3 tickets. I was delighted that the French seemed to be effective at preventing scalping and appeared to be doing their best to make tickets available to as many people as possible at a reasonable price.

How foolish I was to believe these modest measures would prevent scalping. Two days after I bought my face value tickets, I saw seats in the same section as ours going for four times what we paid. I can’t help feeling angry about scalping. My son, who helped orchestrate the buying process, thinks I’m hopelessly naïve. He claims that when a hot Nike shoe goes up on a website, it’s gone in 10 minutes, only to quickly show up online for $5,000.

The National Consumers League has been working to prevent bots, illegal ticket buying software, from being used to scoop up in-demand tickets that then get sold at far higher prices. We’ve looked at many creative ways to prevent scalping, but it’s a difficult problem to solve when there’s more demand than supply. We can make it illegal to sell a ticket for more than face value, but then the worry is that the secondary market goes underground. At least with some of the official secondary market services, you have some consumer protections built in to guarantee that you’ll get the ticket you paid for.

My experience this week reinforces my frustration with scalping. Many people are making a lot of money by buying up face value tickets, then charging triple or quadruple the price. I think that’s unfair. What we need are creative solutions that ensure fair access to tickets, as opposed to the exorbitant markups that the scalpers too often charge. Yes, I’m hopeless naïve, but I can’t help but want average people to get a fair shake in the ticket market.

March is National Nutrition Month and it’s time to get informed. Do you know where your calories come from?

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

March kicks off National Nutrition Month – a good time for us to reflect on our diets and physical activity.  We all know the importance –and the challenges — of maintaining a healthy weight.  A third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight.  That means that two thirds of Americans are at increased risk for certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other life threatening illnesses that accompany excessive poundage.

There are a few promising signs that the nation’s health is improving, however. Just this week, a major federal health survey reported that the obesity rate among two-year-old to five-year-old children has dropped 43 percent. Children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. There is a strong focus nationwide on improving eating habits and being more conscious about what we put into our bodies.

In pursuit of sound eating practices, we recommend watching portion sizes, looking at nutritional labels and moderation above all else.   It is easy to overeat when we are surrounded by high calorie, high fat foods, many with surprisingly little nutritional value.  Americans’ top sources of calories, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are cakes, cookies, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.  These foods are laden with fat and/or sweeteners and easy to consume in large quantities.  Surprisingly, some foods like candy contribute only 2.2% of calories to the American diet.    First Lady Michelle Obama says it well – it’s not that we can NEVER have certain foods like candy or ice cream, but that we should enjoy them in moderation.

We believe strongly in studying Nutrition Facts labels!  They are also being updated for the first time in 20 years.  Almost every packaged food item includes them: they provide calories per serving and help consumers monitor and control caloric intake for the recommended 2,000 calorie a day diet.  The updated labels will now reflect more accurate caloric information, provide larger font and a listing for added sugars, which is useful to know. Focusing on eating more foods that are nutrient dense and low in fat and calories is a critical step in the right direction if you’re looking to shed a few pounds.  As “My Plate” suggests, making half of your meal fruits and vegetables is an easy way to do this.  A few other tips to get on track are:

  1. Increase intake of whole grains, making half of all grains consumed whole grains.
  2. Reduce consumption of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages like soda.
  3. Monitor and minimize calorie intake from alcoholic beverages.
  4. Be aware of how large portion sizes are, especially when dining out.
  5. Prepare more meals at home where you have control over the amount of added salt, sugar and fat.

A balanced diet is just that, balanced.  Eat a variety of foods:  it keeps your food choices interesting and satisfying.  And of course, partake in the occasional indulgence. A very restrictive diet can backfire.  A candy bar, piece of chocolate, or some other reasonably small treat can be helpful in curbing cravings.

Finally, physical activity can play a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight.  The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking at a brisk clip or riding a bike, each week.  The idea of fitting this in can be daunting for many of us, but it helps to know that walking to work or taking a quick stroll on your lunch break counts.  Any amount of physical activity – however brief – yields rewards and is better than none at all.  Taking these steps to better your health may be difficult at first, but with time and practice, they become habit and will surely enhance your quality of life.