CFA News Update- May 23, 2012

FSIS Traceback Policy Proposal Would Improve Food Safety

In an important step forward for food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a proposal earlier this month to implement new procedures when raw ground meat tests presumptive positive for E. coli O157:H7 to trace the contaminated meat back to its originating source.  The proposal represents “a good step forward,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of CFA’s Food Policy Institute, in a press statement issued in response to the announcement.

For several years, CFA and other consumer groups have been urging the agency to fully trace ground beef that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 back to the originating source. CFA has also urged FSIS to then trace product forward through the supply chain to identify potentially contaminated product from that same source that may have been sold to additional establishments.  Previous FSIS policy meant that the agency would conduct a thorough traceback and trace forward investigation only after contaminated product in the marketplace had resulted in a foodborne illness outbreak and sickened consumers.

“Tracing contaminated food through the food supply chain quickly and effectively is essential to protect consumers from foodborne illness,” Waldrop said. “By conducting traceback activities early, following a presumptive positive test result for E. coli O157:H7, FSIS could potentially prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from occurring in the first place.”

Groups Oppose Cyber Security Bills

More than 30 consumer and privacy organizations wrote to members of the Senate this week urging them to oppose cyber security legislation (S. 2105) that is reportedly scheduled to be brought to the Senate floor for consideration next week.  The groups outlined a number of fundamental problems with the legislation, not least that it would undermine “privacy and cybersecurity by expanding without justification the authority for companies to monitor their clients’ and customers’ Internet usage for broadly-defined ‘cybersecurity threats,’ by authorizing ill-defined ‘countermeasures’ against such ‘cybersecurity threats,’ and by immunizing companies against liability for monitoring activities that violate their own contractual obligations.”  The letter expressed particular concern over the information-sharing provisions of the legislation, which, “notwithstanding any law” would permit companies to share sensitive Internet and other information with the government “without sufficient privacy safeguards, oversight or accountability.”  The groups also wrote in opposition to S. 2151, which has been presented as a more acceptable alternative but which not only does not address the concerns raised with regard to S. 2105, but “in some respects poses even greater threats to privacy and civil liberties.”

Consumer Credit Score Knowledge Improves, But Gaps Remain

Consumer knowledge of credit scores has improved significantly over the past year, but important gaps remain, according to the second annual survey of consumer credit score knowledge released last week by CFA and VantageScore Solutions.  The survey found significant improvements in consumer awareness of who collects information on which most scores are based, the importance of checking this information, what good scores are, how to raise them, and what service providers use these scores.  On the other hand, most consumers still do not know how costly low scores can be, when multiple inquiries hurt their scores, and the risks of purchasing credit repair services.  “In the numerous consumer knowledge surveys we have undertaken over the past several decades, I have never seen such improvement from one year to the next,” said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.  “However, credit reports and scores are so important to consumers that they should try to improve knowledge that remains deficient in several key areas.”  Toward that end, CFA and VantageScore will continue to inform consumers and financial educators about the updated online quiz at creditscorequiz.org (available in Spanish here) and its related brochure.

OCC Urged To Prevent Payday Lender from Evading State Laws

More than two dozen national and state civil rights, consumer, and community groups wrote to the Comptroller of the Currency earlier this month, urging the agency to take immediate steps to stop Urban Trust Bank, a Florida-based federal savings association, from partnering with Community Choice Financial Inc. (“CheckSmart”) and Insight Card Services, LLC (“Insight”) to facilitate payday loans on prepaid cards in circumvention of state law. According to a press release on the issue from CFA, Center for Responsible Lending, and National Consumer Law Center, CheckSmart is using Insight prepaid cards issued by Urban Trust Bank to offer 400 percent payday loans. “These loans present significant safety and soundness risks to Urban Trust Bank and could potentially violate a number of state and federal laws,” said CFA Director of Financial Services Jean Ann Fox.  For example, the cards are being offered in Arizona, which has a 36 percent usury cap, and Ohio, which has a 28 percent cap. In their letter, the groups urged the OCC to stop Florida-based Urban Trust Bank from issuing prepaid cards sold by CheckSmart in Arizona, Ohio, and other states where CheckSmart cannot legally make the loans directly.

Groups Counter Misinformation About Window Blind Safety

In an effort to counter industry misinformation, CFA, Consumers Union, and Parents for Window Blind Safety wrote to members of the House of Representatives last week, urging them not to sign on to a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission being circulated by Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS).  “The letter seriously mischaracterizes important facts about window covering safety and the ineffectual voluntary standards adopted by the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA),” the groups wrote.  Rather than sign on to the letter, they urged members to “call on the WCMA to support solutions that will protect our nation’s children from the known and preventable strangulation risks posed by cords in window blinds.”  “The voluntary standard process is not yet complete but is highly flawed,” said CFA Senior Counsel Rachel Weintraub. “WCMA continues to fail to address the strangulation hazard posed by corded window coverings in the current draft standard and has not adequately responded to the numerous negative comments it has received,” she added.

Leading Experts Address Food Safety and Nutrition at Annual Conference

Leading experts and advocates on food, agriculture and nutrition policy gathered in Washington, D.C. last week for the 35th annual National Food Policy Conference.  USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics Catherine Woteki, and FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor headed the list of conference speakers, updating conference attendees on the administration’s key food safety and nutrition initiatives.  The conference also examined voter attitudes on food and nutrition issues, efforts to improve nutrition for competitive foods, the challenges of antibiotic resistant pathogens, the continuing debate on food biotechnology, the role of third party auditors in food safety, and the impact of immigration reform on food production, among other issues.