Monthly Archives: May 2011

Protesters target Whole Foods Market

When a team of activists wearing white hazmat suits showed up at a Chicago grocery store to protest the sale of genetically modified foods, they picked an unlikely target: Whole Foods Market.

Organic foods, by definition, can’t knowingly contain genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. But genetically modified corn, soy and other crops have become such common ingredients in processed foods that even one of the nation’s top organic food retailers says it hasn’t been able to avoid stocking some products that contain them.

“No one would guess that there are genetically engineered foods right here in Whole Foods,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, which organized the protest. The activists dramatically trashed a battery of well-known health food brands outside the store, including Tofutti, Kashi and Boca Burgers.

Though people have been modifying foodstuffs through selective breeding and other methods for centuries, genetically modified crops differ in that the plants grow from seeds in which DNA splicing has been used to place genes from another source into a plant. In this way, the crop can be made to withstand a weed-killing pesticide, for example, or incorporate a bacterial toxin that can repel pests.

Some consumers are concerned that such changes may pose health risks and say manufacturers should be required to prove GMOs are safe for human consumption before putting them on the market. They also say products containing genetically modified ingredients should be identified for the consumer. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that does not require such labeling or testing.

Industry representatives say that GMOs are safe and that labeling them is unnecessary, citing a 1992 statement from the FDA saying the agency had no reason to believe GMOs “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” No mainstream regulatory organization in the U.S. has opposed the introduction of GMOs.

“FDA has the scientific and nutrition expertise to establish food labeling and to assess food safety,” said Ab Basu, the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s acting executive vice president for food and agriculture. “You can look at the FDA website and see that if the corn is substantially equivalent to corn produced conventionally, there is no reason to label it as being any different.”

Critics of the technology say they are concerned not only about possible health risks but also about soil and plant nutrient losses, contamination of non-GMO crops and increased pesticide use.

With an unprecedented number of genetically modified crops being greenlighted by the Obama administration in recent months amid public debate — including ethanol corn, alfalfa and sugar beets under certain conditions — some advocates say the issues may be reaching the awareness of consumers beyond the health-conscious shoppers who frequent Whole Foods.

They cite polls taken by the Pew Center, Consumers Union and Harris Interactive over the last decade that have consistently found the vast majority of Americans would like to see genetically modified foods better regulated and labeled.

“If companies say genetic engineering is fine, then OK let’s label it and let the consumers make their own decisions,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, which produces Consumer Reports. “That’s what all the free market supporters say. So let’s let the market work properly.”

Michael Jacobsen, executive director for Center for Science in the Public Interest, which does not oppose GMOs, says many manufacturers see labeling as too risky.

“No food company would use GMOs if they had to label them because there is no benefit to the companies,” he said. “The term GMO has become a toxic term, and so if a company figures they will lose maybe 2 percent of their sales why should they? It’s all loss for them.”

In fact, a 2006 study for the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology found that only 23 percent of women (the primary shopping decision makers) thought genetically modified foods were safe.

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Taking pets on vacation becoming more popular

So you want to go on vacation, but you’re stressed out about what to do with your pet while you’re off enjoying R and R. Well, summer vacation is no longer just for two-legged travelers.

Room service menus for Fido, massages for over-stressed terriers and tabbies, cushy beds for canines: many hotels have been ratcheting up the pet amenities. Best Western has even hired Cesar Millan of National Geographic Channel’s “Dog Whisperer” to be the chain’s pet travel expert, according to a story in the New York Times.

It sounds good, but is taking a pet on vacation more relaxing or problematic?

One issue to consider is getting your pet to the destination. In recent years, transporting pets on commercial flights has grown more complicated — and more expensive.

All major carriers have significantly raised the fees they charge for bringing pets onboard, matching, or in some cases, surpassing, the $100 surcharge each way they typically charge for children flying alone. Fees vary depending on whether the pet flies under your seat, or as checked baggage or cargo, which involve extra handling.

 American, Delta, United and Continental charge $125 each way for pets in the cabin. United charges the most for pets traveling as checked baggage: $250 each way or $500 round trip.

Pet safety has also become a more pressing issue. Incidents of animals being lost, injured or dying have recently risen. Thirty-nine animals died while flying aboard commercial jets in the United States last year, compared with 22 in 2009, according to the Department of Transportation. Thirteen were injured and five were lost.

Delta was responsible for a significant portion of the increase, with 16 deaths and 6 injuries in 2010, compared with 3 deaths and no injuries the previous year.

While those numbers are a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of animals flown by the airlines each year, they expose the dangers that pets may face while traveling. Not that airlines don’t anticipate risks.

Carriers typically will not accept pets as checked baggage or cargo when the temperature is forecast to exceed 85 degrees or fall below 20 degrees at any location on the animal’s itinerary.

Also, many airlines will not accept snub-nosed pets, like bulldogs or Persian cats, as cargo since they are prone to breathing problems. Delta, for instance, which reported several bulldog fatalities last year, has changed its policy and now bans the breed from its planes.

Health care costs expected to rise in 2012

Health care costs will take another leap next year, and more employers will ask their workers to help absorb that by paying deductibles even if the care is within a plan’s network of providers, according to the consulting firm PwC.

The percentage of companies that ask their employees to pay deductibles for in-network care has grown steadily the past few years. For instance, PwC said only 11 percent of the companies it surveys annually on expected health care costs reported deductibles of $1,000 or greater in 2009. But it expects that total to rise to 28 percent next year.

The percentage of employers with deductibles of $400 or greater will climb to a projected 54 percent next year from 31 percent in 2009.

Deductibles are the annual amount a patient pays out of pocket for care before insurance coverage starts. They are generally separate from co-payments and coinsurance.

“A few years back, you didn’t even have deductibles in network,” said Mike Thompson, a principal with PwC. “I think employees can expect to share in more and more of the cost going forward.”

Companies raise in-network deductibles because it’s an easier way to address rising health care costs than more drastic measures like changing provider networks or prescription drug coverage, said Paul Fronstin, director of health research and education for the Employee Benefit Research Institute. He didn’t participate in the PwC study.

“It’s a simple financial shift that doesn’t affect anything else,” said Fronstin, noting that healthy people who use little health care may not notice much of a change.

PwC surveys companies every year to get a sense for the projected increase in the cost of medical services. For its 2012 report, it surveyed about 1,700 U.S. employers and interviewed hospital executives and health insurance actuaries.

The firm found that medical costs are expected to rise to 8.5 percent next year, which compares to an 8 percent increase it projected for 2011.

But this doesn’t mean workers will see their monthly premiums jump by the same amount. Companies can do things like raise deductibles or change benefit-plan designs to keep actual premium increases below the cost rise.

PwC said last year that costs would rise 9 percent in 2011 but then lowered that figure to 8 percent because of slower-than-expected growth in care use.

Analysts and insurance executives say cost increases have been rising more slowly than expected in part because people tend to hold off on care in the aftermath of a deep recession. But Thompson said that trend is starting to ease.

“There is evidence that there’s this pent-up demand for services that is starting to get realized,” he said.

The health care overhaul that was passed last year and aims to control costs and eventually cover millions of people will have little impact on next year’s costs because the few provisions that have unfolded so far involved small changes that employers already accounted for, PwC said.

China reportedly slashes AIDS mortality

China has slashed AIDS mortality by nearly two-thirds since it began distributing free antiretroviral drugs in 2002, Chinese government scientists are reporting, according to a New York Times story.

About 63 percent of all those needing AIDS drugs are getting them, up from virtually zero in 2002.  That has caused a 64 percent drop in mortality in “person-years,” as China measures it, an estimate of how long someone would have lived without the disease.

AIDS mortality dropped to 14.2 per 100 person-years in 2009, from 39.3 in 2002.

 The study, led by China’s national center for control and prevention of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, was published online on Wednesday by Lancet Infectious Diseases.

China’s success in such a short time “is a testimony to the young midlevel scientists who convinced the leadership that this was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Myron Cohen, an AIDS specialist from the University of North Carolina who has lived in China and helped it battle the epidemic.

A different report, released Wednesday by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations, criticized China’s health-care system, saying that people infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, were frequently turned away by hospitals. 

The report, based on interviews with patients, health care workers and hospital managers, said patients are sent by general hospitals to infectious-disease hospitals. But they often refuse to perform surgery, for example, for fear that paying patients will avoid the hospital if word spreads that it operates on AIDS patients. China’s national center for AIDS control, a co-author of the report, agreed that hospital discrimination was a problem.

The number of infected people in China — 740,000, according to estimates by the government and U.N. AIDS — is large by comparison with most countries, but small in a population of 1.3 billion. Of those, 323,252 have been tested and 82,540 are being treated.

If the total caseload estimate is correct, China has tested nearly half its infected people. By comparison, the United States estimates that 80 percent of its 1.1 million infected people have been tested.

China now begins treating when a patient’s CD4 cell count, a measure of immune system strength, drops below 350 per cubic millimeter.

It is now debating whether to start treatment as soon as a patient tests positive for H.I.V., Dr. Cohen said. A study released last week showed that this strategy, known as “treatment as prevention,” could reduce the risk of new infections by 96 percent by protecting an infected person’s sexual partners.

Posada’s mental health day tough for some to swallow

Jorge Posada’s late scratch from the Yankees’ lineup shortly before a 6-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Saturday at Yankee Stadium led to a night of speculation and disagreement over why he did not play.

Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports: “Around 6 o’clock, he came into Joe Girardi’s office and removed himself from the lineup. It’s not an injury situation. That’s all I can report right now.”

Later in the night, a message from the Twitter account of Posada’s wife, Laura, said: “Jorge loves being a Yankee more than anything. He’s trying his best to help his team win. Today, due to back stiffness, he wasn’t able to do that.”

Manager Joe Girardi gave his version of events in his postgame news conference:

Girardi: The conversation was really short. Jorgie came into my office and said that he needed a day – he couldn’t D.H. today. And that was basically the extent of the conversation.

Reporter: Is the back something that you understand to be an issue at all? He did tell us he saw a chiropractor. He did not indicate he was with the trainers.

Girardi: I was not made aware of his back in our conversation, or today at any point.

Reporter: Joe, do you consider Posada’s action today insubordination?

Girardi: I’m not going to talk about this much. This is a situation obviously we will take care of. You know players go through difficult times in this game. We all do. And sometimes we need days to clear our head and just to take a deep breath. I’ve been there, I’ve been through struggles, and this season has been a struggle for Jorgie. It has been. And he has tried to fight through it, and today he just felt like he needed a day.

Reporter: Are you prepared to play him tomorrow, or are there certain hurdles that need to be jumped in order for that to happen?

Girardi: As I said, we’ll make a lineup tomorrow, and as far as commenting on that, I don’t have a comment right now.

Reporter: Joe, did he indicate to you that the reason he needed to clear his head in any way was because he was insulted that he was hitting ninth?

Girardi: No. He never told me that.

Reporter: What was your initial reaction to hearing, “Need to clear my head?” How did you take that?

Girardi: That he needed a day. His struggles have been tough on him. As I said, I’ve been through struggles that seemed extremely difficult in my career. Jorgie has always been a guy who wore his emotions on his sleeve, plays with a lot of passion and a lot of fire. Today, he just felt like he needed a day.

Reporter: In the middle of a series, in the middle of a stretch where you’ve been struggling, and against a tough team, did you take this any other way? That he was quitting on you in any way, or anything like that?

Girardi: As I said, I’m not going to get into this a lot. Sometimes you want to sleep on things, you talk the next day. He told me he needed a day. If a guy tells me he needs a day, I’m going to give him a day.

Reporter: Joe, you said the conversation was very short. It doesn’t seem typical of you just to let something like that go without a conversation with a player. In that sense, it seems like it had something to do with hitting ninth or something else you disagreed on.

Girardi: I’m going to tell you again what he told me. He told me he needed a day. That he couldn’t be the D.H. today. He made no reference to hitting ninth, he made no reference to his back. I took it that he needed a day off mentally. If a guy tells me he needs a day off mentally, you’re not sure what you’re going to get that day if you put him in there. So, I went with another guy. And thought I’d give him a day off mentally.

Reporter: It just seems strange that you wouldn’t bring him into conversation on that.

Girardi: This conversation didn’t take place three or four hours before the game. That’s part of the issue. I have to make changes. I have to tell people they’re in the lineup. It’s final preparation for a game. We have to get lineup cards out. It was a late conversation.

Reporter: In your three-plus years as manager here, has a noninjured player ever asked for a mental health day?

Girardi: Guys have told me they’ve needed a day. Now, was it physical or mental? No one has ever made that sort of statement. But you can take it as a guy just mentally needs a day off.

Reporter: Joe, I think it was just a week ago where you had a heart to heart with Jorge after one of those games. Where do you think he’s gone in that last week from your standpoint?

Girardi: Frustration, continued frustration, Sweeny. As I said, when you look up (at the scoreboard) and your average is in the 100s, it’s tough. I’ve been there. It’s tough to look at that. And for a guy who has had so much success in his career and so many big hits for this organization, it’s tough. And sometimes you need a day to clear your head. And as I said, Jorge is a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I said O.K., and I went to work, I started preparing the other guy to play. I had to do things and … it happens.

Reporter: Because of the stature of this guy in the organization, I mean he’s one of your remaining core three players, do you give him wider berth than you might be for somebody else?

Girardi: I try to be sensitive to my players. I’ve been through struggles in my life. I’ve been through death in the family, I’ve been through a lot of things where there are days where it was tough for me. And I try to be sensitive to my players’ feelings because we’re human beings. And, you know, the last time I ever played a game I cried like a baby. Am I ashamed of that? No. It’s hard. It’s hard when you get older in this game. There is no doubt about it. And when you’re struggling and you’re older, people start to question, can you do it anymore? And that’s hard for a player to hear. So I try to be sensitive to all my players.

When they’re young, they say, can a player do it at all? And for a young kid that’s talented, that can be tough to listen to. So I try to be sensitive to them. I think sometimes people look at us as people that don’t necessarily have feelings because we go out there and play a game, and people get excited to watch the games and cheer for your teams. We have feelings and issues just like anybody else.

Reporter: Joe, one of the things Jorge acknowledged was he said he does feel a little bit disrespected here by the organization for several reasons, going back to losing his job behind the plate, or he didn’t say specifically being dropped to ninth, but he was asked if he feels at all disrespected. How do you respond to that?

Girardi: I didn’t hear him say that. So, for me to respond to that, I would have to hear him say that.

Reporter: Joe, does he have any need to address his teammates?

Girardi: As I said, let’s just take this a day at a time. As far as Jorge Posada, I’m done talking about Jorge. If we want to talk about the game, and us losing, I’ll talk about that. If not, I’m done.

After the game, Posada told reporters: “I told him I couldn’t play today. I needed time, first to clear my head. That was it. My back stiffened up a little bit. I was taking a lot of ground balls at first base and worked out, and I wasn’t 100 percent.”

When asked if retirement was at all in his mind, Posada said: “What?”

When the reporter said retirement again, Posada just laughed and said no.

Hey, buddy, you may be too good looking for your own good

Have you ever lost the girl to a totally average guy and couldn’t understand why? You might be too attractive, according to a new British study.

In the study, women were less likely to choose attractive men with high status careers as relationship partners — and more likely to choose average-looking guys — when the women had trust issues and didn’t see themselves as desirable.

“More desirable, high status men, in general, would be more likely to desert their relationships for attractive alternatives. Women who are less trusting are more aware of that,” said lead study author Simon Chu, Ph.D., professor at the University of Central Lancashirein the U.K.

Part of it goes back to the caveman days: Although physical attractiveness is an indication of good genes, it also means that men are less likely to stick around and contribute to childcare since they know they can mate with multiple women, said Chu. (Not that every attractive man acts this way, of course. Chu simply said that women are still wary of these evolutionary instincts.)

To get her to trust you, avoid harmless actions that could seem shady, said psychologist Michelle Callahan, PhD, relationship coach in New York City.

For example, don’t minimize your browser window when she walks in, take a call in front of her, not in the other room (and let her know who was calling), and invite her out to drinks with your coworkers and female friends so she knows you’re not hiding anything. (Related from MensHealth.com: How to Appease Her Jealousy.)

California study reports more gay men survive cancer

More gay men reported being cancer survivors than straight men in a new study from California, according to Reuters Health news.

That suggests they may need targeted interventions to prevent cancer, the researchers said, but more studies are needed to answer lingering questions. For example, are gay men more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than straight men? Or, are they just more likely to survive if they do get cancer?

“A lack of hard data” on how sexual orientation affects the risk of cancer is “one of the biggest problems we have,” said Liz Margolies, executive director of The National LGBT Cancer Network. Margolies, who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Health, “It’s critical that we know that for funding and for program planning.”

As a step toward addressing the lack of data, researchers looked at three years of responses to the California Health Interview survey, which included more than 120,000 adults living in the state.

Among other health-related questions, participants were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with cancer and whether they identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight.

The findings are published in the journal Cancer.

Out of 51,000 men, about 3,700 said they had been diagnosed with cancer as an adult. While just over eight percent of gay men reported a history of cancer, that figure was only five percent in straight men. The disparity could not be attributed to differences in race, age, or income between gay and straight men.

About 7,300 out of 71,000 women in the study had been diagnosed with cancer, but overall cancer rates did not differ among lesbian, bisexual, and straight women.

However, among women who were cancer survivors, lesbian and bisexual women were more likely to report fair or poor health than straight women.

Ulrike Boehmer, the study’s lead author from the Boston University School of Public Health, said higher rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may be related to the increased risk of cancer in gay men, but the study couldn’t address that question specifically.

Margolies thinks there is more going on.

Gay men as a group have a bunch of risk factors for cancer,” she said.

For instance, gay men and lesbian women are more likely to smoke and abuse alcohol than straight men and women. They’re also more likely to avoid going to see their doctor for routine physicals or cancer screening, Margolies added, since healthcare providers may not all be tolerant and accepting of their identity.

“I don’t think that we’re going to get people to have early screening or see doctors except in emergencies … until they can be guaranteed a safe and welcoming experience” at the doctor’s office, she said.