CFA News Update- January 13, 2011

Food Safety Bill Becomes Law

Last week, President Obama signed into law legislation that Chris Waldrop, Director of CFA’s Food Policy Institute, called “the most comprehensive reform of the Food and Drug Administration’s microbiological food safety program in 70 years.” In a press statement praising the President for signing the bill into law, Waldrop said the expanded authority for FDA is “critical to protecting consumers from foodborne disease.”

Some commentators predicted that House Republicans, who have pledged dramatic cuts to the federal budget, might deny the agency the funding it needs to carry out its new responsibilities. Carol Tucker-Foreman, Distinguished Fellow at CFA’s Food Policy Institute, countered that, “Food safety isn’t partisan. Members of Congress don’t want their constituents to suffer because they were exposed to peanut butter, spinach, eggs or some other food that looked great but was tainted by dangerous bacteria. Members of Congress don’t want their farmers or processors losing business because their products were associated with an outbreak. And Members of Congress surely know that the new law won’t help anyone – consumers, farmers or processors – if there’s no money for FDA to implement it.”

President Signs Privacy Bills

Two bills aimed at protecting consumer privacy were signed into law in December. The “Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act” (P.L. 111-345), sponsored by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), makes it illegal for one company that a consumer does business with online to give the consumer’s financial account number to a second company for sales purposes, a practice known as “data passing.” In addition, the new law requires that a consumer give express, informed consent before being charged for goods or services sold online through “negative option” marketing, such as “free trials” that the consumer must cancel in order to avoid being charged, and it requires that simple mechanisms be provided for consumers to stop recurring charges.

The president also signed the “Social Security Number Protection Act” (P.L. 111-318) into law. Sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), it prohibits the displaying of individuals’ Social Security numbers on any checks issued by federal, state and local agencies. It also bars federal, state and local agencies from entering into any contracts for prison labor that would give prisoners access to individuals’ Social Security numbers.

“These are steps in the right direction to protect consumers’ sensitive personal information,” said CFA Director of Consumer Protection Susan Grant.

Fewer But Pricier Refund Loans Expected This Year

As consumers gear up to fill out their tax returns, a new analysis from CFA and the National Consumer Law Center predicts that, as a result of major changes in the refund anticipation loan market, fewer such loans will be available this year, but the loans that are available are likely to be even higher priced than in the past. The release both describes recent developments in the refund anticipation loan market and provides consumers with tips on how to find lower cost alternatives. “Refund anticipation loans are high-cost risky loans that drain anti-poverty benefits from working families,” said CFA Director of Financial Services Jean Ann Fox. “Instead of paying triple-digit rates for a very short term loan that the taxpayer’s refund might not cover, we urge consumers to get all of their tax refunds by filing electronically and having the IRS direct deposit the refund to their own bank account.”

Groups Urge FCC to Strengthen “Bill Shock” Rules

A broad coalition of consumer and media groups, including CFA, submitted comments to the FCC this week urging the agency to strengthen proposed rules designed to protect consumers from unexpectedly high wireless bills resulting from hidden fees and overage charges. While praising the proposed rules as a good first step, the groups urged the agency to add a “circuit breaker” that would allow consumers to avoid overage fees by requiring either an opt-in or opt-out mechanism after they have reached their limits. A news release on the comment letter is available here, and the comment letter itself is available here.