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    Safer medicine bottles could prevent acetaminophen poisoning in kids

    To help reduce the threat of acetaminophen poisoning, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently called on all drug manufacturers to include a simple safety feature in bottles they produce of infant and children's liquid medications that contain acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Acetaminophen poisoning is one of the leading causes of accidental medication overdoses in children.

    While acetaminophen is safe in recommended doses, ingesting too much can cause severe liver damage and rarely, even death. For many infants and young children, a syrupy liquid medication that smells and tastes like candy can be all too tempting to grab when a caregiver’s back is turned. So to stop a free-flow of liquid acetaminophen from getting out of a bottle, drug manufacturers may use a small device known as a "flow restrictor." It fits into the neck of the bottle to make it harder for kids to drink or suck out the liquid contents.

    We tested the various flow restrictors of more than 30 infant and children’s liquid acetaminophen bottles in late 2013, and found two basic types. Each type added an extra layer of protection against acetaminophen poisoning in children, but one design used in PediaCare products, and a store brand, DG Health, found at Dollar General Stores worked, much better than the other.

    McNeil, maker of market-leading Tylenol products, was not one of the manufacturers using the flow restrictor we found most effective in our testing. The company also recently confirmed that they are still using the same flow restrictor.

    Unfortunately, the recent FDA recommendations stopped short of suggesting manufacturers use the more effective design.

    Read more about how flow restrictors work and see results from our tests of more than 30 bottles of liquid infant acetaminophen in our December 2013 report.

    "We’d like to see all manufacturers using the more effective valve," says Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of Consumer Reports’ Health Ratings Center, adding that acetaminophen is not the only medication that poses an overdose danger to kids. "Well-designed flow restrictors should be used on all liquid medications for adults and children."

    The FDA’s new voluntary guidelines also call for manufacturers to include a well-labeled tool for giving medications such as an oral dosing cup or syringe. That’s a good idea says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because a spoon or different dosing tool might hold the wrong amount of medication. In addition, the CDC advises the following steps to protect your kids from acetaminophen poisoning as well as accidental overdose from any medication:

    • Store  all medicines out of the reach of children.
    • Don’t leave medicines lying around. Put them back after each use.
    • Always relock the safety cap every time you open it.
    • Teach your children about medicine safety.
    • Program the Poison Help number into your phone: 1-800-222-1222.
    –  Teresa Carr

    This article is made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why tick bites can be so dangerous

    If you’ve been spending a lot of time working outdoors, take note: it’s still tick season, and those tiny beasts can cause big health problems. I know this first-hand because one of the blood-suckers made my 180-pound husband so sick last month that he was nearly hospitalized.

    The problem is that right now, in some areas of the country, up to half of ticks can be infected with diseases such as Lyme, compared with just 25 percent of ticks earlier in the summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the reason for the increase is that the spiderlike creatures have had more opportunity to pick up disease-causing bacteria.

    And they’re not picky eaters. Ticks feed on rodents, pets, and deer, though they acquire illnesses like Lyme from mice and chipmunks. Their tick bites then spread disease to people who spend a lot of time outside, like my husband.

    Find what really works against bug bites and how to get rid of ticks in your yard.

    Tick reality check

    “Mosquitoes kill more people than ticks do, but ticks can infect people with more than one disease at a time,” says Marc C. Dolan, M.Sc., a senior research biologist for the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo.  

    That’s why it’s important to keep up your guard when you’re outside—even this late in the summer. “I spend one week a month working in tick habitats,” Dolan says, “I’ve never gotten sick, but I’m diligent about wearing insect repellent, tucking my pants into my socks, and wearing long pants and boots.”

    Because ticks grow larger at each life stage, they’re easier to spot in the fall if one hitches a ride on you. Still, a tick bite may go unnoticed because its saliva contains a numbing agent. So daily tick checks are important, too.

    Dolan says if you see a tick you need to remove it quickly, within 24 to 36 hours, to prevent it from transmitting Lyme disease. But other diseases may be transmitted in minutes, not hours.

    Remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers or, as a last resort, your fingernail. Special tick-removers you see advertised don’t actually work any better, he says. Make sure to use direct, even pressure to pull the tick straight out—don’t twist it. Then, flush it down the toilet or wrap it in tape or a sealed plastic bag. Never crush the tick with your fingers because infected material can come out of the damaged tick.

    Should you panic?

    Once you remove a tick you might be worried about getting sick. You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the CDC’s bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. Sometimes an antibiotic may be warranted if all of these conditions are met:

    • Lyme disease is common in the area where you live or have recently traveled.
    • The tick bite is from a blacklegged (deer) tick.
    • The tick was attached for more than 36 hours (based on how engorged it is with blood or when you were likely exposed to it).
    • You’re able to take the antibiotic within 72 hours (3 days) of removing the tick.
    • You’re not allergic to the antibiotic.
    • You're 8 years old or older.
    • You’re not pregnant.

    "Antibiotics are powerful drugs and should only be taken in situations where they are likely to be effective,” Beard says.  

    What to do if you get sick

    Despite all this, what if you come down with flulike symptoms—fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches? You might be confused because you didn’t develop the usual bull’s-eye rash (my husband didn’t) that an estimated 70 to 80 percent of people do get. Or maybe you don’t recall having gotten a tick bite at all.

    Still, if you live or recently traveled in certain parts of the country, Consumer Reports’ medical advisers say you should suspect a tickborne illness and call your doctor so that treatment can start quickly and you can get some relief from your misery.

    Tickborne diseases can be severe and even deadly if not treated early. “The sooner you get treatment the better, especially for the elderly or those with weak immune systems,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director.

    My husband fell ill swiftly, starting with night sweats and chills. He woke up with a high fever and, on the advice of his doctor, we went to the emergency department on a Sunday afternoon.

    The doctor on duty recognized an illness he had seen so often in New York and prescribed an antibiotic called doxycycline right away, though blood tests were still pending. Even taking the medicine, his symptoms didn’t really start to subside until about 48 hours later. The diagnosis of Lyme wasn’t confirmed until weeks later in follow-up blood tests because it takes that much time for the antibodies against the disease to develop.

    He's back to cutting the grass and whacking the weeds, but now he reaches for the insect repellent first.

    —Sue Byrne

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tesla Model S P85D test results

    On August 27, we will release the full results of our multiweek Tesla Model S P85D test, but we wanted to share some Tesla Model S P85D test results. (Watch the video above to go behind the scenes of the testing.)

    You may have seen Model S P85D tests before, but we do things a little different at Consumer Reports. We bought a Tesla Model S P85D—our test car is not on loan from Tesla. And all the testing is done in a precisely controlled environment—our 327-acre auto test facility in Connecticut. Like every car we purchase, the Model S P85D was put through an extensive gauntlet of more than 50 tests and evaluations, after a significant break-in period.

    Below are a few highlights of the Tesla Model S P85D test results:

    Accident avoidance maneuver

    Our accident avoidance maneuver is similar to the European "elk" or "moose" tests. (Not to worry, no wildlife is involved.) This is a part of our emergency handling tests that simulates swerving out of your lane to avoid hitting an obstacle in the road, and then swerving back into your lane to avoid oncoming traffic. We use two drivers and average their fastest time through the course without hitting a cone. We're not relying on the speedometer or a stopwatch; we use a laser to measure the car's speed. And a judge watches the test to make sure the cones escape untouched. Our car made it through at 55.5 miles per hour. That's really good, putting the P85D in performance car territory, despite being a big luxury car.

    Acceleration

    We did multiple acceleration runs on a full charge and averaged times in both directions at our track. To measure speed, we use a GPS data acquisition system with position accuracy to as tight as two centimeters. Our P85D took 1.4 seconds to reach 30 mph and a scant 3.5 seconds to get to 60 mph in "Insane" mode—a bit short of the advertised 3.1 seconds. Tesla promises the new “Ludicrous” mode will lower that to 2.8 seconds, but based on our testing, we're not convinced. The quarter-mile mark blew by in 12.1 seconds at 111.9 mph. Interestingly, we didn't see a drop off in acceleration times after multiple runs.

    Braking

    No track testing is done before the vehicle hits 2,000 miles, and we perform a brake seating procedure the day before we take measurements. The test procedure is done on special areas of our test track that are monitored for consistent friction and involves over a dozen stops, with cool-down laps in between to ensure accurate results. We begin measurement as soon as the driver hits the pedal, and the distances are adjusted for temperature. The P85D stopping distances were very short, like a high-performance sports car at 118 feet in the dry and 129 feet in the wet with the optional 21-inch wheel and tire package. 

    We’ll post our complete road test, including all Tesla Model S P85D test results, on August 27 at ConsumerReports.org/tesla. The page will be available to all visitors.

    Jake Fisher

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why your retirement savings plan may be overdiversified

    It’s the time of year when your 401(k) plan administrators are showering you with annual disclosure statements. It’s tempting to toss them, but before you do, check your portfolio to make sure you haven’t fallen into the overdiversification trap.

    Most financial advisors will tell you that diversification—spreading your money across several asset classes and investment styles—is the best way to protect your portfolio from risk and volatility. But what if an investor overdoes the advice not to put all her eggs in one basket and has too many eggs in too many baskets? Overdiversification—buying more and more mutual funds, index funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—can actually amplify risk, stunt returns, and increase transaction costs and taxes. 

    Is your portfolio properly balanced? Read "Right-sizing your asset allocation" to find out. 

    Too much of a good thing

    Overdiversification is a situation that sneaks up on you—especially as you collect funds in your retirement accounts without considering the overall impact on your portfolio.  

    Craig Adamson, president of Adamson Financial Planning in Marion, Iowa, describes a typical case. As a result of changing jobs a few times, a client had four different 401(k)s, a Roth IRA and a regular IRA.  The client stated that he didn’t want to invest in foreign stocks, yet after analyzing the funds in the portfolio, Adamson discovered that 30 percent of the fund holdings were in international equities—a huge overweighting. “He thought he was diversified because he had money in four different 401(k)s and two IRAs, instead of looking at his underlying investments,” Adamson notes.

    A bloated portfolio can negate the benefits of diversification in a variety of ways:

    • Owning too many funds increases risk by concentrating your holdings in a few areas. A typical joke after the technology bubble burst was that investors thought they were diversified because they held Janus Twenty, Janus Mercury, and Janus Growth; in reality, each of those funds held almost the same technology stocks.
    • Funds with completely different strategies can, in fact, hold large concentrations of the same stocks. For example, five of the top ten holdings of an index fund tracking the growth stocks in the S&P 500 (ticker: IVW) are also in the top ten picks of a well-regarded technology mutual fund (VGT).
    • Returns suffer for the simple reason that if you have too many investments, the positive contribution of one won’t be big enough to make a difference. For example, if a fund only makes up 1 or 2 percent of your holdings, even a significant gain in that investment won’t sway the overall portfolio.  
    • In addition, if you have too much of the same kind of asset class, such as large-cap stocks, you risk “index-hugging,” the term for when your holdings mirror one of the standard indices, such as the S&P 500. In that case, your return will revert to the mean, or average. But because the portfolio might not be balanced to match the index, it could actually lead to lower returns.
    • Overall performance can also be eroded by unforeseen trading costs, tax inefficiencies, or, operating expenses. Paying for trades or sales charges in actively managed funds can add up; similarly, high turnover in a taxable portfolio can create an expensive tax bill at the end of the year.
    • Last, an overdiversified portfolio can become too unwieldy to monitor, leading to what financial advisors call “analysis paralysis.” “There are too many elements to keep track of,” says Adamson. “Investors just get overwhelmed.” 

    Avoiding portfolio bloat

    There’s no flashing light that says, “I’m an overdiversified portfolio.” It’s up to the individual investor to take a deep dive.

    • Look up each fund’s description of its investment strategy: Is it focused on U.S. large-cap growth stocks or foreign developed markets? If the description of one fund’s strategy sounds eerily familiar to that of another fund, alarm bells should starting ringing.
    • Check each fund’s top ten holdings for duplication. If you see Apple or Google in too many top ten holdings, you might want to question whether you bought the same thing five or ten times.














    Finding the right balance

    • For novice investors, start with one low-cost fund that covers the total U.S. equity market or a target date fund that includes U.S. and international stocks and bonds.
    •  It makes sense to diversify into specific asset classes when your portfolio reaches $10,000.
    • Five to seven funds are sufficient. Divide them among: large-cap growth and large-cap value stocks (or both, through a large-cap blend); small-cap growth and small-cap value; international equities (including developed and emerging markets); and U.S. bonds.

    — Catherine Fredman

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Redesigned 2016 Lincoln MKX shows real substance

    With no stand-alone models and an all-too-close association with Ford brand equivalents, it’s been a real struggle for Lincoln to reestablish itself as a credible luxury brand like Audi, BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz. But there’s been an ongoing effort to differentiate itself with better products, more advanced technology, and attractive styling.

    Lincoln’s latest entry in this high-stakes game is the redesigned MKX, a midsized SUV related to the Ford Edge. The previous MKX, a kin of the disappointing last-generation Ford Edge, was a luxury poseur. But the 2016 Lincoln MKX has a solid foundation on which to build—the impressive, second-generation Edge. We got to drive a 2016 Lincoln MKX, rented from Ford for a couple weeks, and it made a good first impression with its high levels of sophistication, comfort, luxury, and athleticism. (Read our Ford Edge first drive.)

    Fresh to the market, the 2016 Lincoln MKX offers either a traditional 3.7-liter V6 or a smaller, turbocharged 2.7-liter V6. As before, front- and all-wheel drive versions are available. Prices start at $38,100 and go up to $55,990 for the super-lux Black Label trim that we sampled. It is expected that the most popular configuration will be the Reserve trim line, which with typical options lands in the mid $50,000s.

    Within the first quarter mile on the road you’ll realize that this isn’t your grandmother’s Lincoln. The small-displacement 2.7-liter turbo pulls like a freight train. Effortless, punchy and refined, it supplies enough forward thrust to warm the heart. The only powertrain item that falls a little short of current standards is the six-speed automatic, which can be caught off-guard, occasionally bumping into gear in a rather ungracious way.

    When it comes to carving corners, the 2016 Lincoln MKX proved taut and agile, with a tied-down feel that’s enjoyable and confidence inspiring. This shouldn’t be a total surprise since the platform is derived from the fun-to-drive Fusion sedan. Even when driven with extra gusto at our track, the MKX kept its composure.

    Ride comfort is impressive, as well. The 2016 Lincoln MKX feels planted and steady. Even with its 20-inch wheels, bumps and ruts are nicely muted and the cabin stays quiet and tranquil.

    Another focus of the brand recast has been spiffing up the interiors. In this car that means you’ll find a super-swanky, high society hunt-club atmosphere here, with leather on the dashboard, a suede headliner, and big chunks of Chilean maple. The furniture includes comfortable, supportive, heated and ventilated seats front and rear. A super-sized glass sunroof brightens the interior.

    The utility part of the equation is addressed with big doors, easy access, spacious rear seat, and plenty of cargo room. A power liftgate and power-folding rear seats lend a helping hand.

    Some indigenous frustrations remain, however: The initial batch of MKXs will have the MyLincoln Touch system. Although full-featured and versatile, MyLincoln Touch has small fonts and tightly-packed buttons. Later MKXs will get the automaker's new Sync 3 system, which promises major usability improvements. The unconventional pushbutton shifter will also take some getting used to.

    Another annoyance is the extremely small labeling of everything in the instrument cluster and onboard computer read-outs. It may be wishful thinking on Ford’s part to assume that new Lincoln customers will be young enough not to need reading glasses for that fine print.

    And speaking of impaired vision, thick rear roof pillars and a fairly small back window takes a toll on the view out the back. A multiple camera system, however, provides a very handy 360-degree view when parking, and that’s some consolation.

    With so many high-tech gadgets fitted to the top-trim Black Label, it’s not a big surprise that the sticker price on the 2016 Lincoln MKX can exceed $60,000. At least Black Label customers get treated to some pampering, including a dedicated liaison as your point person, free car washes, and complementary pickup and delivery when the car needs servicing.

    One can’t overstress the importance of the MKX to Lincoln. Some brands heavily hinge on a good midsized SUV. Ask Lexus. The MKX has all the ingredients to go head-to-head against the Lexus RX, its most direct competitor. But then again, the RX is also newly redesigned and goes on sale this fall.

    On the bottom line, sixty large gets you pretty close to the price of established luxury SUVs from the German brands and Lexus, and let’s face it, those names have more snob appeal than Lincoln. But now the MKX is a legitimate alternative with actual substance. The 2016 Lincoln MKX doesn’t need to make any excuses.

    —Gabe Shenhar

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 08/20/15--12:59: 4 tax-smart RMD strategies
  • 4 tax-smart RMD strategies

    Here’s a unique tax-avoidance strategy: Marry a younger person. The IRS says that if your spouse is at least 10 years younger than you, you’re entitled to take smaller required minimum distributions (RMDs) in retirement. You’ll owe less in taxes on those reduced distributions.

    So you say that tactic isn’t in the cards? Then consider these other options:

    Fund an annuity

    To encourage savers to fully fund retirement far into the future, the IRS now allows IRA owners to use a portion of balances toward buying “qualified longevity annuity contracts.” You don’t have to take an RMD from that portion of your IRA until age 85, compared with age 70½, when you normally have to take RMDs. That should save you in taxes.

    With a longevity annuity, you pay a one-time, lump-sum premium, or periodic premiums early on. You then get guaranteed income later in life. The IRS currently exempts longevity annuity premiums of up to $125,000 or 25 percent of your IRA account, whichever amount is less. Traditional, SEP-IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and 401(k) plans are included, as are 403(b) and 457 plans.

    Convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs

    Roth IRA balances are not subject to RMDs while the original owner is alive because the tax on the principal already has been paid. Converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA makes sense if you believe your ordinary income tax rate in later years will be higher, says Benjamin Gurwitz, a wealth manager at Financial Life Advisors in San Antonio.

    A good time to do that is when there’s a temporary dip in your income. If, for instance, you retire at age 66 but defer claiming Social Security till 70, your income in those four years could be smaller and subject to a lower marginal income tax rate than in later years when you have to start collecting Social Security and taking RMDs. Assuming you have enough other savings, use the opportunity to convert some IRA investments to Roths, paying at the lower tax rate. Later, when you must begin taking Social Security, you’ll have lowered your required minimum distributions and your overall tax bill.

    Each year Gurwitz’s firm estimates for clients how much they’ll be able to convert to a Roth; he then goes as far as to set up two Roth accounts for each client, one filled with bonds and one with stocks. Before the tax return is filed, they review the accounts’ performances. Whichever account has gained more continues as a Roth account and the client pays taxes on its conversion. The other account is recharacterized before year-end as a traditional IRA, and no tax is due. Recharacterization requires some simple paperwork, nothing more.

    Consumer Reports Investing Center helps make investment products such as mutual funds, ETFs, and annuities work together for you.

    Place your investments properly

    You’ll have the most flexibility with your investments, and the most opportunity to manipulate your RMDs, by owning investment and retirement accounts subject to different tax treatments.

    Think of it as a tax portfolio. Taxable brokerage accounts are a good place to put some high-growth investments because long-term capital gains are taxed at favorable rates. Roths work for investments like equities that you expect to grow the most. IRAs are where you can locate slow-growth investments with reinvested dividends that won’t generate as much ordinary income tax when you take out your RMDs. “By overweighting bonds in retirement accounts, you’ll pay less tax because you don’t pay ordinary income,” Gurwitz explains.

    Contribute to a charity

    With a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD, contributions of up to $100,000 made directly from an IRA to a qualified charity are not taxable. With that tactic you remove money from your IRA tax-free, reduce the base upon which your RMD for that year is calculated, and give to a worthy cause.

    This tax break was available in 2014 and has since lapsed. However, it still could be available for tax-year 2015; lawmakers have acted to renew it several years in a row, typically in late December. Regardless of what they do, Michael Kitces, a financial planner based in Reston, Va., suggests investors should proceed:

    "At worst, if the rules are not reinstated, the outcome will be no worse than just being forced to take an RMD and making a charitable contribution anyway (with the not-perfectly-offsetting tax deduction)," Kitces writes in a recent blog. "However, if the rules are brought back once again, those who make direct charitable distributions from their IRAs will enjoy all the benefits of QCDs … even if the rules are only 'fixed' after the fact!"

    To perform that tactic, you must be 70½ or older. Ask your IRA custodian to make a distribution from your account and send it directly to a qualifying charity. (To identify qualifying charities, go to irs.gov and type “search for charities” in the search box.)

    Folks age 70½ who don’t itemize their taxes stand to benefit the most from a QCD, mainly because they have fewer options than itemizers to search for tax savings, says Jeff Bucher, president of Citizen Advisory Group in Perrysburg, Ohio. The charitable contribution can be up to $100,000.

    Another benefit: With a lower or no RMD, your modified adjusted gross income will be lower for the year, which may help you stay within income ranges to avoid surcharges on Medicare Part B and D premiums.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Top car insurance companies that won't break the budget

    Since the late 1990s, two companies, USAA and Amica Mutual, have consistently stood head and shoulders above the competition in our car insurance Ratings of claims satisfaction, based on the personal experience of more than 128,000 customers over the past 17 years. Generally, higher quality comes with a higher price tag. But does that hold true for car insurance?

    Our investigative report, "The Truth About Car Insurance," found the surprising answer. 

    As the tables below show, USAA and Amica were bargain priced for our group of eight hypothetical single drivers with clean driving records and excellent credit scores, averaged across all the ZIP codes in the 23 states where USAA and four other big national brands are all market leaders. This was also true when we looked at a subset of 10 states where we also had apples-to-apples price data for Amica and the five other major insurers. The price quotes were collected in August 2014 and November 2014.

    Based on their personal experience, many of our readers found the same thing about these top car insurance companies. For example, Jeannine Sawicki told us via Facebook that she's been with USAA for 40 years, "and they are amazing in every way. Every five years or so, I get a quote from someone else, but it never comes near USAA." Sawicki says USAA's customer service is outstanding and response to claims and questions is quick.

    "AMICA! Fabulous; I'll never leave them," commented Rosemary Chieppo, also on Facebook.

    Sign our petition to tell insurance regulators and companies "Price me by how I drive, not by who you think I am."

    Average annual premium in 23 states*

    Brand

    Average annual premium

    USAA $817
    State Farm 1,147
    Geico 1,177
    Progressive 1,414
    Allstate 1,570

    *New-customer rate for male and female single drivers ages 25, 35, 65, and 75 with excellent credit and a clean driving record in AK, AL, AR, AZ, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, KY, LA, ME, NH, NM, NV, NY, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, and WA, the states where all five companies are market leaders.

    Lower costs passed on to customers 

    It's important to note that the premium comparison above is for a group of example policyholders with the exact same profile, who drive the same vehicle and buy the same coverage. So the only difference is the insurance company.

    Why is USAA so much less expensive?

    "We work very hard to keep administrative expenses low, so we can pass those savings on to our members," said Rebecca Hirsch, a USAA spokeswoman, who added that USAA's expense ratio, or cost for advertising, sales commissions, and other overhead related to acquiring new customers, is approximately half the industry average.

    USAA is not available to everyone. It's open only to members of the U.S. military, honorably discharged veterans, and the families of members. However, USAA estimates that about 60 million people qualify for membership, yet just under half of eligible veterans are aware that USAA exists.

    Amica, meanwhile, might seem more pricey than it actually is. The Rhode Island-based insurer is a mutual insurance company, meaning it is owned by its customers. In most states it consistently pays policyholders a dividend at the end of each year. The amount of the dividend is not guaranteed, but it is typically 20 percent and results in a net reduction of the annual premium.

    The table below shows Amica's $1,286 average annual premium for our drivers before any dividend, which places it fourth among the six insurers. We've also adjusted that premium assuming a 20 percent dividend, which reduces it to $1,029 and moves Amica to second-lowest-priced in the 10 states studied.

    Average annual premium in 10 states**

    Brand

    Average annual premium

    USAA $794
    Amica (adjusted for typical 20 percent dividend) 1,029
    State Farm 1,097
    Geico 1,198
    Amica (before annual dividend) 1,286
    Progressive 1,386
    Allstate 1,567

    **New-customer rate for male and female single drivers ages 25, 35, 65, and 75 with excellent credit and a clean driving record in AZ, CO, CT, FL, NH, NY, SC, TX, VA, and WA.

    What you can do

    If you're looking for superior claims satisfaction and a great price, our findings using these example drivers suggest that you should start your shopping at USAA (if you qualify) and Amica. If you can't get coverage there, State Farm was another lower-priced option in our comparisons, followed by Geico.

    But don't stop shopping for top car insurance companies there. Other national or regional insurers might have a better deal in your ZIP code for your specific profile and combination of rating factors and coverage needs. So you should always get quotes tailored to your circumstances from at least a dozen insurers in your state.

    You can do that efficiently by visiting thezebra.com, a website that uses independent data from Quadrant, the same company we engaged for our study. It provides customized premium estimates from 18 to 35 insurers, depending on your state. Other websites show quotes from only a handful of companies that do business with the site, so they don’t give you a comprehensive price comparison.

    A site like The Zebra will help you more thoroughly assess all of your options and determine how good a deal USAA and Amica are for your individual circumstances.   

    —Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Decode Tire Size and Other Data

    Choosing the right-sized tire for your car is as simple as checking the tires already installed. You'll also find the recommended tire size as well as the speed and load ratings for your vehicle on a placard in the driver’s doorjamb, the glove compartment, or on the fuel-filler door. Check the vehicle owner’s manual for additional information, too.

    In replacing the tires on a car bought used, it is especially important to check for the recommended size, as it is possible that the previous owner may not have installed the proper tires. For sports cars, be sure to compare front and rear tires, as they may be different.

    Here's what those cryptic sidewall codes mean for a typical tire:

    Size. P235/70R16 is a common one. P if displayed denotes passenger-car tire. Some may start with an LT prefix, used on heavy-duty trucks. The number 235 is the cross-section width in millimeters, while 70 is the ratio of sidewall height to cross-section width (70 percent). R means radial-ply construction and 16 is the wheel diameter, in inches.

    Load index. This number is based on the weight the tire can safely carry. You'll find it after the tire size; the 104 load index for most of the tires tested for this report correlates to 1,984 pounds. Choose tires with a load index at least as high as the one that's listed on your vehicle's placard or owner's manual.

    Speed rating. This letter denotes the maximum sustainable speed and is found directly after the load index. For S-speed-rated tires, it's 112 mph; for T, 118 mph. Speed ratings for other tires include Q, 99 mph; H, 130 mph; V, 149 mph; W, 168 mph; Y, 186 mph; and ZR, more than 149 mph. While such speeds may seem wildly impractical, tires with higher speed ratings tend to provide better handling at legal speed limits. Choose tires that have a speed rating at least as high as the one specified on your vehicle's placard.

    Tread-wear rating. Grades for our light-truck tires ranged from 180 to over 800. In theory, a tire graded 400 should last twice as long as one graded 200. But the tire makers certify the tires meet the wear ratings.

    Traction and temperature scores. These scores denote a tire's wet-stopping ability and temperature resistance. For traction, AA is best, C is worst. For temperature resistance, scores range from A (best) to C.

    Maximum pressure. This is a tire's maximum safe air pressure, given in pounds per square inch. But that doesn't mean you should inflate your tires to that pressure, since automakers typically recommend an inflation pressure well below the tire's maximum air pressure. Follow the advice on the vehicle's placard.

    When the tire was made. Every tire has a Department of Transportation (DOT) number following the letters on the sidewall. The last four digits determine the week and year the tire was made; for example, the digits 2214 would signify that the tire was made during the 24th week of 2014. Don't buy tires more than a couple of years old.

    See our complete tire buying guide and ratings.

    Gene Petersen

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Need a Windows 10 Laptop? We Just Tested Them

    Depending on how you approach new technology, the launch of a new version of Windows could seem like an ideal time to buy a new laptop, or a risky one. On the positive side, you get new interface features and laptop makers have an occasion to improve their hardware. Meanwhile, the nervous among us may fret that the new operating system will strain battery life or just act buggy. Well, Consumer Reports has been testing new Windows 10 laptop models, and the results support the optimists—Redmond's newest isn't causing any problems that we detected. The following computers all performed well, and they're just three among many that we've tested recently. (If you own one of the models featured here, or another laptop running Windows 10, tell us about it by adding a comment below.)

    Samsung ATIV Book 9 NP930X2K-K01US

    Like prior releases of the ATIV Book 9, the Windows 10 model did quite well in our tests, earning excellent performance scores. This 13-inch, $1,200 Windows 10 laptop has double the memory of the Windows 8.1 version, as well as a larger, 256GB solid-state drive. The long battery life of 9.75 hours was the same as the prior model's. If you’re looking for a travel companion, this 2.1-pound laptop is ready to hit the road with you.

    Dell Inspiron 13 7000

    You get a tablet and a laptop with the latest Dell Inspiron 13 7000, a 13.3-inch convertible that costs $750. You also get very good performance, as you’d expect from a computer with a Core i5 processor. Battery life was quite long, at just over 9 hours. This Windows 10 laptop is an upgrade over the Windows 8.1 version. It’s got twice the memory, and the display’s resolution is 1920x1080 compared to 1366x768 on the older model. The display has very good color reproduction and a wide viewing angle, and we liked the keyboard and touchpad ergonomics.

    HP 15-f355nr

    This 15.6-inch HP laptop wasn’t among the speedier performers we've tested, but this Windows 10 laptop is a decent machine considering the very low $300 price tag. If you buy one, plan on sticking to basics such as word processing, Web surfing, and light photo editing. The performance was in line with other laptops at this price. Battery life was short by today’s standards at five hours. But the machine was fairly light for its large size (4.9 pounds), the ergonomics were pleasing and comfortable, and you get a spacious 750GB hard drive.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What Makes a Really Bad Refrigerator?

    Consumer Reports spends a lot of time telling you about the top-performing refrigerators in our tests. After all, those are the ones we want you to end up with in your home. But aren’t you curious about the stinkers, too? Here’s a breakdown of what it takes to become a bottom dweller in our refrigerator Ratings—and why you definitely don’t want one sitting in your kitchen.

    Inconsistent temperatures. Flunking our temperature performance test is the surest way to sink in our Ratings, since we put the most weight on this test. We like refrigerators to maintain an optimum 37 degrees F in the refrigerator and 0 degrees F in the freezer, whether we're measuring temperatures on a top or bottom shelf, in the back of the unit or on the inside front door. Temperatures should stay uniform even as we crank up the heat in our climate-controlled chambers where refrigerators are tested. Bottom-rated models fall well short of the mark. For example, hot spots inside the Maytag MRT318FZDM top-freezer climbed as high as 41 degrees F in the refrigerator compartment and 4 degrees in the freezer. Those kinds of inconsistencies can really affect food quality.

    Big energy draws. Refrigerators have become much more efficient in recent years, thanks to tougher federal standards. But we still come across some energy hogs in our tests. Take the Samsung RF28HMELBSR, a four-door French-door refrigerator that, based on our energy-use tests, would cost an average of $158 per year to operate. That’s more than double what the most efficient models in the category cost. Over the life of the unit, that could mean $1,000 or more in added energy costs.

    Raucous compressors. Noise is especially important if you have an open kitchen where the refrigerator is within earshot of the adjacent living area. We measure it using a panel of listeners along with noise-meter readings. Loudness alone usually isn’t enough to a ruin a refrigerator’s score, but it can definitely contribute. For example, the Frigidaire FFTR1831QS top-freezer was hurt by a combination of subpar noise and inconsistent temperatures.

    As for the very best models in our refrigerator Ratings, they excel in all three of these performance tests, delivering pinpoint temperature control, the lowest energy use, and whisper-quiet operation. It’s worth noting that the manufacturers of the three duds mentioned here also have top-rated models—a reminder that when choosing a refrigerator, or any product from Consumer Reports' tests, you can’t buy by brand alone.                 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 ways a tiny tick can knock you out

    You probably know that Lyme disease is the scourge of the Northeast and upper Midwest. But did you know that most cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever are reported in six states that are nowhere near that mountain range?  

    It's important to keep up your guard for tick diseases even now, as ticks can be active as long as temperatures are 40° F or higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Everyone should take precautions, but especially hunters, hikers, and people cleaning up fall leaves.

    One of the best ways to prevent tick bites in the first place is to apply insect repellent. “A lot of people are nervous about using it on their children,” says Christina Nelson, M.D., a medical epidemiologist in the CDC’s bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. “But they’re safe and effective when used appropriately. I use them on my own children and I think they’re important.” Of the repellents Consumer Reports tested, products containing 20 percent picaridin, 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, and 15 percent deet were top performers.

    Tick diseases are not to be taken lightly. If left untreated, a Lyme disease infection can spread to your joints, heart, and the nervous system. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can become deadly if not treated in the first few days.

    Following are five of the most common tick diseases, where they occur most often, symptoms to watch for, and treatment suggestions from our medical experts.

    Find what really works against bug bites and how to get rid of ticks in your yard.

    Lyme disease

    Spread by: Blacklegged (deer) tick.

    Symptoms: Three to 30 days after a bite, watch out for a red, expanding rash, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

    Where it occurs: The most common of all tick diseases, it causes about 300,000 illnesses every year, mostly in these 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

    Treatment: Patients treated with certain antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely. Antibiotics commonly used include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil.

    Anaplasmosis

    Spread by: Blacklegged (deer) tick and western blacklegged tick.

    Symptoms: One to two weeks after a bite, watch for fever, headache, muscle pain, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, cough, and confusion.

    Where it occurs: The states that account for 90 percent of all reported cases are: Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

    Treatment: Anaplasmosis is a serious illness that can be fatal if not treated correctly, even in previously healthy people. Doxycycline is the treatment of choice for adults and children of all ages and should be used immediately whenever anaplasmosis is suspected.

    Babesiosis

    Spread by: Blacklegged (deer) tick.

    Symptoms: Watch for fever, chills, sweats, headache, body aches, loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue. Symptoms can start within a week or so but may take somewhat longer.

    Where it occurs: The states that account for 95 percent of all reported casess are: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.  

    Treatment: Babesiosis usually is treated for at least 7 to 10 days with a combination of two prescription medications. 

    Erlichiosis

    Spread by: Lone-star tick.

    Symptoms: One to two weeks after a tick bite, watch for fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches.

    Where it occurs: Most cases are found in Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

    Treatment: Ehrlichiosis is a serious illness that can be fatal if not treated correctly, even in previously healthy people. Doxycycline is the treatment of choice for adults and children of all ages and should be used immediately whenever ehrlichiosis is suspected.

    Rocky Mountain spotted fever

    Spread by: American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and the brown dog tick.

    Symptoms: Two to 14 days after a tick bite, watch for fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain. A rash may also develop, but is often absent in the first few days.

    Where it occurs: Most cases are found in Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

    Treatment: Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a serious illness which can be rapidly fatal, even among previously healthy individuals, if not treated in the first few days of symptoms. Doxycycline is the treatment of choice for adults and children of all ages and should be used immediately whenever this disease is suspected.

    —Sue Byrne (@SueCRHealth)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Vacation spots where the strong dollar buys more

    The dollar’s surge in purchasing power has been pushing travelers to take that Eurozone trip before winter settles in. But while the strong dollar buys 22.5 percent more euros than it did around this time in 2014, many vacation spots outside of the European Union will yield even better savings.

    Savings often come at the price of safety. For example, though a U.S. dollar buys 75.4 percent more Russian rubles than it did in early August 2014, the U.S. State Department warns of continuing terrorist attacks, high crime rates, and potentially violent demonstrations in the popular tourist destinations of St. Petersburg and Moscow. 

    But for now, the strong dollar can let you benefit from cheaper vacations on nearly every continent without skimping on personal security. Check out these dollar-friendly countries.

    Learn how to get the best deal on your vacation with our Travel & Vacation Guide. And check out our luggage buying guide and brand reviews before you shop for new bags.

    Denmark, Norway, and Sweden

    The currencies of the Eurozone’s northern neighbors have fallen a bit further in value than the euro, relative to the dollar. In Norway, a dollar buys 31.7 percent more kroner than it did in early August 2014. The dollar’s value has likewise increased by 26.3 percent relative to the Swedish krona and 22.6 percent relative to the Danish krone.

    In Scandinavia, you can use the exchange rate savings to tour cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen, go skiing and try to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in Norway or take the kids to Legoland in Denmark. 

    Australia and New Zealand

    Head down under, where the strong dollar now buys 26.5 percent more Australian dollars and 29 percent more New Zealand dollars than it did a year ago.

    In Australia, splurge on a show at the iconic Sydney Opera House, a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef or explore one of the country's many sprawling state parks. With summer coming to New Zealand, relax on one of the nation's numerous beaches, hike the dramatic landscapes where "The Lord of the Rings" films were shot or take a dip in the natural hot springs of Rotorua

    Brazil

    Worth 2.26 reals in August 2014, the dollar now buys 3.5 reals—a 53 percent increase in just one year. Use your savings to take samba lessons in Rio de Janeiro, delve into the rich history of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s first colonial capital, or voyage up the Amazon River. 

    Mexico

    The Mexican peso has seen a drop in value relative to the dollar similar to that of the euro: 22.5 percent over the past year. The country’s Mayan Riviera, the stretch of Caribbean cost on the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, is lined with couple- and family-friendly beach resorts. For a break from the sun and sand, use strong dollar savings for a full day at one of the Xcaret eco parks between Cancun and Playa del Carmen or visit the fortified Mayan city of Tulum.

    Madagascar and Tanzania

    Many African nations—including Morocco, Ghana and South Africa, all major travel destinations—have seen their currencies dive relative to the dollar. But the savings in Tanzania and Madagascar trump them all: the dollar now buys 32.7 percent more Malagasy ariaries and 27.1 percent more Tanzanian shillings than it did in August 2014.

    That makes this the year to climb Mount Klilimanjaro or go on safari in one of Tanzania's national parks, like the Serengeti or Lake Manyara. Madagascar's national parks are a wonder of exotic wildlife; world-class beaches abound on islands like Nosy Be and Ile de Sainte Marie.

    Lydia O'Neal

     

     

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  • 08/22/15--04:59: Tips for safe carpooling
  • Tips for safe carpooling

    As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, resuming their hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats, and that can put a child in danger. Likewise, many adults are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before the kids are large enough.

    Some states have laws governing booster seat use, requiring boosters for children of certain weights and ages, with some up to age 8. Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) consider this to be a minimum guideline, as children grow at different rates. Even at age 8 many are not large enough for an adult belt to fit them appropriately. Proper fit varies with every child and every car.

    See our car seat buying advice and ratings.

    A properly sized booster seat positions the shoulder portion of the vehicle's safety belt mid-way between the edge of the child’s shoulder and neck, and the lap part of the belt low and flat across the upper thighs and hip, and not across the abdomen. This allows the belt to be placed over the stronger parts of a child’s body, “belt to bone,” not the softer tissue that can be seriously injured in a crash. How can you tell if your kid is big enough to graduate out of a booster seat? Ask the following questions. If the answer to any of them is “no,” your child still needs a booster:

    • Does your child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
    • Do your child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
    • Does the vehicle belt cross your child's shoulder evenly between the neck and arm?
    • Is the lap belt as low on the abdomen as possible, near the top of the thighs?
    • Can your child stay comfortably seated like this for the whole trip?
    • Does the belt stay in place when the child moves?

    Despite the benefits of boosters, many parents ignore them when carpooling. A recent study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics found that two-thirds of parents carpool. However, among parents who use a safety seat, only half have their child use one when riding with friends and one in five do not always ask other drivers to use a booster. (Check the booster laws in your state to find out the requirements governing child passenger restraint use.)

    Once a child has outgrown the need for a booster seat, continue to keep them in the backseat until they are 13 years old, where they are best protected and away from the front airbags.

    At carpool time, make sure all children are in a proper restraint. Always provide the appropriate seat for another parent or caregiver to use if they're transporting your child and make sure they know how to install it properly. Only agree to transport children whose parents do the same. Also, never have more kids in the car than can be safely restrained.

    More tips from NHTSA for carpooling safely:

    • Children should be properly restrained at all times.
    • Be sure children understand that their safety needs and rules transfer from vehicle to vehicle.
    • Adults need to buckle up, too—children do as adults do. Set a good example.
    • Only one seat belt or child restraint per child—no sharing!
    • All children under age 13 should ride properly restrained in a rear seating position of the vehicle.
    • Explain to older children why they must ride in boosters even if their friends don’t. For example, the seat belt doesn’t fit yet, or riding in a booster allows you to see better out of the window.
    • Designate routine drivers that are currently licensed and insured; no substitute drivers unless previously approved.
    • Keep an roster with contact and emergency information for each child.

    Ultimately, err on the side of caution to keep the kids safe. Even if that means choosing to pass on using a carpool.

    Liza Barth

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Do you need to choose between growth stocks and value stocks?

    Growth and value are two types of stocks, each pregnant with virtuous sounding meaning. “Value” conjures up notions of sturdy, fairly priced products—perhaps even a bargain. “Growth,” on the other hand, stirs up images of a well-cultivated victory garden, ready to bestow its fruits to its owners. But neither approach to selecting stocks is based simply on sensibilities, even though they may appeal to your inner bargain hunter or green thumb. Value-fund managers are looking for stocks with particular characteristics, many of which differ from those that growth-fund managers are hunting for. 

    It’s about the metrics

    The primary metric used to distinguish a growth stock from a value stock is the company’s price-to-book ratio. Price-to-book is the current trading price of the company’s stock divided by the company’s book value per share. Book value, to somewhat simplify, is a company’s assets minus any liabilities it may have—for example, bonds it may have issued or interest payments it’s making.

    The higher a stock’s price-to-book ratio, the more growth oriented the company tends to be. Conversely, the lower the ratio, the more value oriented it is. But there’s no hard-and-fast price-to-book ratio that suddenly turns any stock into a growth stock or defines it as a value stock. Instead, a stock’s price-to-book ratio is measured relative to others to determine which camp it falls into. Price-to-book ratios will broadly rise when markets are doing well (because rising stock prices increase the numerator—“price”—of price-to-book) and fall during market downturns.

    Although price-to-book is the primary metric that separates growth stocks from value stocks, the fund rating agency Morningstar looks at other common ratios, including price-to-sales and price-to-cash flow. It also considers a stock’s dividend yield to determine whether it is more value oriented. It looks at earnings growth, sales growth, cash flow growth, and book value growth to determine which companies are more growth oriented. Using those measurements, very few stocks turn out to be purely growth or value. Most have characteristics of both.

    Looking at commission-free growth or value exchange-traded funds? Consider the costs.

    While those kinds of metrics are useful in determining whether a stock is more growth oriented or more value oriented, there are certain types of companies that will always be pegged one way or the other. Among big value stocks are AT&T, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and Wells Fargo—which are the 10 largest holdings of the iShares Russell 1000 Value exchange-traded fund. Those stocks tend to belong to mature companies, and their shares pay higher-than-average dividends—the yields of those five stocks currently range from about 2.5 to 5.6 percent. The average price-to-earnings ratio of stocks in the Russell 1000 Value index is 17.8—lower than that of the overall market of 19. The price-to-book ratio is also lower: 1.9, compared with that of 2.9 for the broader market.

    Meanwhile, growth companies include the likes of Apple, Coca-Cola, Google, and Verizon, which are among the 10 largest holdings in the iShares Russell 1000 Growth ETF. The dividend yields of those kinds of firms tend to be lower than those of growth companies (and in the case of Google, nonexistent). And the price-to-earnings and price-to-book ratios are significantly higher as well. 

    Market leaders

    Based on those metrics, one might conclude that value stocks are the smart way to go and that growth stocks are overpriced, faddish things cruising for a bruising. But that’s not always the case.

    Although growth stocks will almost always seem more expensive than value stocks, the two take turns leading the market. Since the end of the 2009 recession, for example, growth stocks have decidedly outperformed value stocks, returning 15.5 percent annually, as measured by the Russell 1000 Growth index. Over the same time, value stocks have returned less—13.4 percent annually as measured by the Russell 1000 Value index. But in the prior decade, value stocks trounced growth stocks, returning 2.5 percent annually from 2000 through 2009, and growth stocks lost 4 percent annually.

    Going back even further, in the 1990s many investors were falling over themselves to buy more shares of growth stocks such as Microsoft and Motorola and questioning whether famed value investor Warren Buffett, who avoided such companies, had lost his edge. But if you look back over the very long term—at least 40 years— value stocks have been the bigger winners.

    Consider the costs

    Given that both kinds of stocks can have long winning runs, how should you choose what kind of stocks are best for your portfolio? Consider the costs of value and growth ETFs as well as the cost of just buying the broader index. The iShares Russell 1000 Growth ETF and iShares Russell 1000 Value ETF, for example, each sport an expense of 0.20 percent annually. Though that’s cheap, it’s not as cheap as the plain ol’ iShares Russell 1000 ETF (ticker IWB), which tracks the index and costs investors only 0.15 percent annually.

    If you invest in actively managed funds, there are more distinctions to make. Value stock funds generally cost less than growth stock funds. The primary reason: turnover. Growth-fund managers generally hold stocks for a shorter period of time than those of value investors, some of which, like Bruce Berkowitz’s Fairholme Fund, have incredibly low turnover. Ultimately, the costs of the additional buying and selling of shares gets passed on to fund shareholders in the form of a higher expense ratio. According to Morningstar data, the average actively managed large-cap growth stock fund cost investors 1.21 percent annually, more than the 1.14 percent average of an actively managed large-cap value stock fund.

    Our suggestion: Don’t make a choice. To give your portfolio the greatest chance of high returns, you don’t need to be either a value investor or a growth investor. A better strategy is to buy both kinds of stocks. Also, be sure to keep the stock portion of your investments as diversified as possible. The best way to accomplish that is to simply purchase a broad-based index fund. By doing that, you’ll get both value and growth while incurring the least cost. 

    This article also appeared in the August 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

     

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    Why grass-fed beef costs more

    You're likely seeing more packages of grass-fed beef in grocery stores, and you may have noticed that it's more expensive than standard supermarket beef. But recent results from Consumer Reports' tests on the prevalance and types of bacteria in ground beef suggest that beef from cattle that are raised sustainably—that is, beef labeled without antibiotics, organic, or grass-fed is worth the extra money. Sustainable beef—especially grass-fed beef—is less likely to harbor superbugs—bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics.

    Read about our special report, "How Safe Is Your Ground Beef," and find information on shrimp safety, arsenic in foods, pesticides, and other food safety issues in our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide.

    We purchased 300 packages of ground beef in 103 stores in 26 cities across the United States. We paid an average of about $2.50 more for grass-fed beef and $3 more for grass-fed organic beef per pound than we did for conventional supermarket beef. (See below for the average prices we paid for each type of beef in our tests.) According to those figures, if you bought 2 pounds of ground beef each week, it would cost you an additional $260 to $310 per year to switch to grass-fed.

    The reason grass-fed beef is pricier has to do with beef producers’ profit margin: It can take a farmer up to a year longer (and an extra year’s worth of food, care, and labor) to get a grass-fed animal to reach slaughter weight than for a conventionally raised one. Grass-fed cattle also tend to be smaller at slaughter, so there’s less meat to sell per head. “Using antibiotics, hormones, and feedlots produces obscenely cheap beef,” says grass-fed rancher Will Harris, who owns White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. “When you don’t use them, your production costs are higher, so your prices need to be higher, too.” So when you shop and spend, consider the benefits of supporting sustainable methods in place of conventional ones.

    Conventional $4.95 per pound
    Without antibiotics $6.55 per pound
    Organic $5.62 per pound
    Grass-fed $7.38 per pound
    Grass-fed organic $7.83 per pound

    We urge you to #BuyBetterBeef and continue the conversation with us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Vine.

    Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
     

    This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Consumer Reports’ Tests: Conventional Ground Beef Twice As Likely To Contain Superbugs as Sustainable Beef

    What consumers can do to make better beef choices and to lower their risk of getting sick; 
    What the government can do to help improve the way beef is labeled, processed, and inspected

    CR October 2015 CoverYONKERS, NY — In Consumer Reports new tests of ground beef, 18 percent of the beef samples from conventionally-raised cows contained dangerous superbugs resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics used to treat illness in humans compared with just 9 percent of beef from samples that were sustainably produced.

    Consumer Reports’ investigation comes as food poisonings are striking an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year with beef being a top cause of outbreaks. Compounding the issue, Americans often prefer their beef on the rare side. The grinding process used to produce ground beef can distribute bacteria throughout the meat and if it’s not cooked properly through to the center, the potential for getting sick increases. 

    The full article, “How Safe is Your Beef,” which includes the complete test findings, food labels to look for when shopping for beef, and more, is available at ConsumerReports.org/cro/beefsafety and in the October issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands September 3rd.

    For its investigation, Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages – 458 pounds – of conventionally and sustainably produced ground beef from grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. The samples were tested for five common types of bacteria associated with beef—Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), Enterococcus, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus.

    This testing, which is among the largest conducted to date, found bacteria on all of the beef samples. However, ground beef from cows raised more sustainably was significantly less likely to have two potentially harmful bacteria (S. aureus and E.coli) than those from cows raised conventionally. In our analysis, the sustainably-produced beef came from cows that were raised without antibiotics and in some cases were either organic, grass-fed, or both. Beef from grass-fed and organic cows have access to pasture, are fed a grass-based diet, and are treated more humanely. Conventional cows can live on feedlots, be regularly fed antibiotics, as well as animal waste and other by-products.

    “Better ways of producing beef from farm to fork have real impact on the health and safety of our food and the animals themselves,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Farming animals without antibiotics is the first step toward a more sustainable system. Grassfed animals and good welfare practices produce fewer public health risks.”

    Other significant findings from Consumer Reports tests include:

    • More than 80 percent of the conventional beef samples contained two types of bacteria.

    • Nearly 20 percent of the beef samples contained C. perfringens, bacteria that causes almost a million cases of food poisoning annually.

    • Ten percent of the beef samples contained a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make people sick – and cannot be destroyed even with proper cooking.

    Consumer Reports’ findings demonstrate that there are better choices for consumers and sustainable options were available in all but one city in which the beef samples used for testing were purchased. Consumers should read labels to guide their purchases.  Meaningful labels include “no antibiotics,” “grass-fed,” “organic,” and “American Grassfed Association.”  Among the best options to choose are beef products labeled “grass-fed organic,” which ensures the cattle have not been fed grain and eat only organically grown grass and forage and have not received any antibiotics or hormones. There are also meaningful animal welfare labels available to consumers.

    No matter what ground beef consumers buy, cooking it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit should kill harmful bacteria. Meat should be stored properly before and after cooking since bacteria can multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees. If you’re reheating leftover burgers or a casserole with ground beef, get it to 165 degrees.

    Consumer Reports says the federal government needs to take action to help protect public health and is urging the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to do the following:

    • Ban the use of daily antibiotics in healthy animals.

    • Ensure that meaningful labels are not undermined by labels like “natural” which have nothing to do with how animals are raised, what they ate or if they were confined.

    • Adopt recommendations to expand animal welfare standards for organic beef.

    • Beef up inspections, including having an inspector at every slaughter and processing plant.

    • Ban the sale of beef containing disease-causing, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and prohibit chicken waste in cattle feed.

    The full article, “How Safe is Your Beef,” is available at ConsumerReports.org/cro/beefsafety and in the October issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands September 3rd. A more detailed scientific report can also be accessed at www.greenerchoices.org/beef.

    Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

    About Consumer Reports
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization working to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports tests and rates thousands of products and services in its 50-plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications, Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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    How Safe Is Your Ground Beef?

    The American love affair with ground beef endures. We put it between buns. Tuck it inside burritos. Stir it into chili. Even as U.S. red meat consumption has dropped overall in recent years, we still bought 4.6 billion pounds of beef in grocery and big-box stores over the past year. And more of the beef we buy today is in the ground form—about 50 percent vs. 42 percent a decade ago. We like its convenience, and often its price.

    The appetite persists despite solid evidence—including new test results here at Consumer Reports—that ground beef can make you seriously sick, particularly when it’s cooked at rare or medium-rare temperatures under 160° F. “Up to 28 percent of Americans eat ground beef that’s raw or undercooked,” says Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    All meat potentially contains bacteria that—if not destroyed by proper cooking—can cause food poisoning, but some meats are more risky than others. Beef, and especially ground beef, has a combination of qualities that can make it particularly problematic—and the consequences of eating tainted beef can be severe.

    Indeed, food poisoning outbreaks and recalls of bacteria-tainted ground beef are all too frequent. Just before the July 4 holiday this year, 13.5 tons of ground beef and steak destined for restaurants and other food-service operations were recalled on a single day because of possible contamination with a dangerous bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7. That particular bacterial strain can release a toxin that damages the lining of the intestine, often leading to abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, life-threatening kidney damage. Though the contaminated meat was discovered by the meat-packing company’s inspectors before any cases of food poisoning were reported, we haven’t always been so lucky.

    Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 due to tainted beef, sickening 1,144 people, putting 316 in the hospital, and killing five. Ground beef was the source of the majority of those outbreaks. And incidences of food poisoning are vastly underreported. “For every case of E. coli O157 that we hear about, we estimate that another 26 cases actually occur,” Gould says. She also reports that beef is the fourth most common cause of salmonella outbreaks—one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S.—and for each reported illness caused by that bacteria, an estimated 29 other people are infected.

    Will you change how you cook beef based on this information? Let us know by adding a comment at the end of this article.

     

    Watch: Veggie Burgers Put to the Taste Test

     

     

    The Risks of Going Rare

    It’s not surprising to find bacteria on favorite foods such as chicken, turkey, and pork. But we usually choose to consume those meats well-cooked, which makes them safer to eat. Americans, however, often prefer their beef on the rare side. Undercooking steaks may increase your risk of food poisoning, but ground beef is more problematic. Bacteria can get on the meat during slaughter or processing. In whole cuts such as steak or roasts, the bacteria tend to stay on the surface, so when you cook them, the outside is likely to get hot enough to kill any bugs. But when beef is ground up, the bacteria get mixed throughout, contaminating all of the meat—including what’s in the middle of your hamburger. (Find out what happened when our Consumerist colleagues tried four ways to cook a burger that’s safe to eat but doesn’t taste like leather.)

    Also contributing to ground beef’s bacteria level: The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef. Ground beef (like other ground meats) can also go through several grinding steps at processing plants and in stores, providing more opportunities for cross-contamination to occur. And then there’s the way home cooks handle raw ground beef: kneading it with bare hands to form burger patties or a meatloaf. Unless you’re scrupulous about washing your hands thoroughly afterward, bacteria can remain and contaminate everything you touch—from the surfaces in your kitchen to other foods you are preparing.

    “There’s no way to tell by looking at a package of meat or smelling it whether it has harmful bacteria or not,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. (Download a PDF of the center's full report on beef.) “You have to be on guard every time.” That means keeping any raw meat on your countertop from touching other foods nearby and cooking ground beef to at least medium, which is 160° F. Eating a burger that’s rarer can be risky. In one 2014 E. coli outbreak, five of the 12 people who got sick had eaten a burger at one of the locations of an Ohio pub chain called Bar 145°, which was named for the temperature “of a perfectly cooked medium-rare burger,” according to the company’s website.

    We urge you to #BuyBetterBeef and continue the conversation with us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Vine.

    Putting Beef to the Test

    Given those concerns about the safety of ground beef, Consumer Reports decided to test for the prevalence and types of bacteria in ground beef. We purchased 300 packages—a total of 458 pounds (the equivalent of 1,832 quarter-pounders)—from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. We bought all types of ground beef: conventional—the most common type of beef sold, in which cattle are typically fattened up with grain and soy in feedlots and fed antibiotics and other drugs to promote growth and prevent disease—as well as beef that was raised in more sustainable ways, which have important implications for food safety and animal welfare. At a minimum, sustainably produced beef was raised without antibiotics. Even better are organic and grass-fed methods. Organic cattle are not given antibiotics or other drugs, and they are fed organic feed. Grass-fed cattle usually don’t get antibiotics, and they spend their lives on pasture, not feedlots.

    We analyzed the samples for five common types of bacteria found on beef—clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), enterococcus, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus.

    The routine use of antibiotics in farming has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so once-easy-to-treat infections are becoming more serious and even deadly. We put the bacteria we found through an additional round of testing to see whether they were resistant to antibiotics in the same classes that are commonly used to treat infections in people. Last, we compared the results of samples from conventionally raised beef with the sustainably raised beef to see whether there were differences in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria between the products.

    The results were sobering. All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli), which can cause blood or urinary tract infections. Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick. That toxin can’t be destroyed—even with proper cooking.

    Just 1 percent of our samples contained salmonella. That may not sound worrisome, but, says Rangan, “extrapolate that to the billions of pounds of ground beef we eat every year, and that’s a lot of burgers with the potential to make you sick.” Indeed, salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the U.S. each year.

    One of the most significant findings of our research is that beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, than beef from sustainably raised cows. We found a type of antibiotic-resistant S. aureus bacteria called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. every year, on three conventional samples (and none on sustainable samples). And 18 percent of conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs—the dangerous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—compared with just 9 percent of beef from samples that were sustainably produced. “We know that sustainable methods are better for the environment and more humane to animals. But our tests also show that these methods can produce ground beef that poses fewer public health risks,” Rangan says.

    Cows: They Are What They Eat

    The majority of beef (about 97 percent) for sale comes from “conventionally raised” cattle that begin their lives grazing in grassy pastures but are then shipped to and packed into feedlots and fed mostly corn and soybeans for three months to almost a year. The animals may also be given antibiotics and hormones. That practice is considered to be the most cost-efficient way to fatten up cattle: It takes less time, labor, and land for conventionally raised cattle to reach their slaughter weight compared with those that feed on grass their whole lives. “The high-carbohydrate corn and soy diet causes cattle to become unnaturally obese creatures that would never exist in nature,” says farmer Will Harris, who decided 20 years ago to switch to raising grass-fed cattle at White Oak Pastures, his 2,500-acre fifth-generation family farm in Bluffton, Ga. “Conventional cattle reach 1,200-plus pounds in 16 to 18 months. On our farm, it takes 20 to 22 months to raise an 1,100-pound animal, which is what we consider slaughter weight.”

    Cows’ digestive systems aren’t designed to easily process high-starch foods such as corn and soy. Cattle will gain weight faster on a grain-based diet than on a grass-based one. But it also creates an acidic environment in the cows’ digestive tract, which can lead to ulcers and infection. Research shows that this unnatural diet may also cause the cattle to shed more E. coli in their manure. In addition, cattle may be fed a variety of other substances to fatten them up. They include candy (such as gummy bears, lemon drops, and chocolate) to boost their sugar intake and plastic pellets to substitute for the fiber they would otherwise get from grass. Cattle feed can also contain parts of slaughtered hogs and chickens that are not used in food production, and dried manure and litter from chicken barns.

    Conventional cattle farmers defend their methods, however. “If all cattle were grass-fed, we’d have less beef, and it would be less affordable,” says Mike Apley, Ph.D., a veterinarian, professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and chair of the Antibiotic Resistance Working Group at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group. “Since grass doesn’t grow on pasture year-round in many parts of the country,” he says, “feedlots evolved to make the most efficient use of land, water, fuel, labor, and feed.”

    Life on the Feedlot

    Farmers such as Will Harris are also concerned about the humaneness of crowding cows into feedlots. “Animals that have never been off grass are put into a two-story truck and transported for 20-plus hours with no food, water, or rest,” Harris says. The animals are crowded into pens; the average feedlot in the U.S. houses about 4,300 head of cattle, according to Food & Water Watch’s 2015 Factory Farm Nation Report. On some of the country’s biggest feedlots, the cattle population averages 18,000.

    “You always know when you’re approaching a feedlot. The unmistakable stench hits you first, then you see the hovering fecal dust cloud, followed by the sight of thousands of cattle packed into pens standing in their own waste as far as you can see,” says Don Davis, a cattle farmer in Texas and president of the Grassfed Livestock Alliance. The manure contains potentially dangerous bacteria that gets on the cattle’s hides and can be transferred to the meat during slaughter. The conditions also stress the cattle, which makes them more susceptible to disease, and any illness that develops can quickly spread from animal to animal.

    To control for that, cattle are often fed daily low doses of antibiotics to prevent disease. According to Apley, cattle in feedlots are given antibiotics to prevent coccidiosis, a common intestinal infection, but he notes that those drugs aren’t medically important for people. He also said that cattle are given an antibiotic called tylosin to ward off liver abscesses. That drug is in a class of antibiotics that the World Health Organization categorizes as “critically important” for human medicine. What’s more, in our tests we found that resistance to classes of antibiotics used to treat people was widespread. Three-quarters of the samples contained bacteria that were immune to at least one class of those drugs.

    Antibiotics were also given to cattle to promote weight gain (although just how the drugs do that is unknown), but in 2013 the Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary guidelines to stop that practice. Previously, ranchers could buy those drugs over-the-counter and give them to their animals, but the FDA has proposed that antibiotics be used only under the supervision of a veterinarian. “That doesn’t mean, though, that anti­biotics can’t be used for disease prevention anymore,” says Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumer Reports. “Vets can still authorize their use to ‘ensure animal health,’ so the status quo of feeding healthy animals antibiotics every day can continue.” Widespread daily and unnecessary use of antibiotics in healthy animals in turn fuels the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has become a serious public-health threat.

    Meat Monopoly

    More than 80 percent of beef produced in the U.S. is processed by four companies. Cattle can be slaughtered at high-speed rates—as many as 400 head per hour. Those slaughterhouses use a variety of methods to destroy bacteria on the carcass after the hide has been removed, such as hot water, chlorine-based, or lactic acid washes. But when so many cattle are being processed, sanitary practices may get short shrift. The result is that bacteria from cattle’s hides or digestive tracts can be transferred to the meat. “USDA has a presence in these plants to do inspections—though it’s against the companies’ wishes,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. “The economic power of the Big Four gives them a lot of political weight to push back against USDA inspectors’ efforts to enforce existing rules and to fight against any tighter safety standards being enacted.” And, she adds, “the sheer volume of beef that big-company plants crank out means that a quality control mistake at a single plant can lead to packages of contaminated beef ending up in stores and restaurants across 20 or 30 states.”

    The Better Burger Starts Here

    Cattle can have a healthier (and more humane) upbringing if they graze in pastures for most—if not all—of their lives. “The most sustainable beef-production systems don’t rely on any daily drugs, don’t confine animals, and do allow them to eat a natural diet,” Rangan says. And what’s good for cows is good for people, too. “Our findings show that more sustainable can mean safer meat.” That’s why Consumer Reports recommends that you buy sustainably raised beef whenever possible. Sustainable methods run the gamut from the very basic ‘raised without antibiotics’ to the most sustainable, which is grass-fed organic. (Find out which labels to look for when shopping for beef.)

    “We suggest that you choose what’s labeled ‘grass-fed organic beef’ whenever you can,” Rangan says. Aside from the animal welfare and environmental benefits, grass-fed cattle also need fewer antibiotics or other drugs to treat disease, and organic standards and many verified grass-fed label programs prohibit anti­biotics. Sustainably raised beef does cost more (learn why grass-fed beef costs more), but it’s the safest—and most humane—way for Americans to enjoy our beloved burgers . . . cooked to medium, of course.

    We urge you to #BuyBetterBeef and continue the conversation with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine.

    How Much Bacteria Is in Beef?

    We tested 300 samples of conventional (181 samples) and more sustainably produced (119 samples) of raw ground beef purchased at supermarkets, big-box, and “natural” food stores in 26 metropolitan areas across the country. We classified beef as being more sustainably produced if it had one or more of the following characteristics: no antibiotics, organic, or grass-fed. Here are the percentages of samples in each type that contained each of the five bacteria we tested for and the samples that contained two or more types of bacteria.

    Where Superbugs Lurk

    Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, making infections caused by them difficult if not impossible to treat. In our tests of 300 samples of raw ground beef, we found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with superbugs than was all types of sustainably produced beef. But the biggest difference we found was between conventional and grass-fed beef. Just 6 percent of those samples contained superbugs.

    Editor's Note: Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its policy and advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

    This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't panic when stocks are falling

    Even before today's stock market plunge—and partial recovery—there was a growing chorus of professionals cautioning individual investors about selling. 

    Investing is inherently a long-term process and strategic decisions should never be made on singular news or market events. And while we (or anyone else) can't tell you whether stocks will continue to tumble in the weeks ahead, we can safely say that they're still the foundation for any long-term investing strategy.

    Even if stocks fall an additional 10 percent next month—they're already down more than 10 percent from their May high—investors in a S&P 500 index fund will earn more than 12 percent annually over the past five years.

    Explanations for the current decline center around the sell-off of stocks in China, softening oil prices, and fears the the Federal Reserve will raise rates in September.

    But often investors are looking for singular reasons for market declines when, perhaps disappointingly, there often isn't one. Even much larger market crashes, like the 22 percent one-day drop of the October 1987 crash, don't often leave behind a "smoking gun."

    What's perhaps more surprising is why this particular sell-off took so long. Stocks haven't been in a correction—in other words, a 10 percent or greater decline from their high water mark—in nearly four years, according to Bespoke Investment Group. That's the third longest such period in history.

    And U.S. stock markets have been abnormally calm this year. Market observers note that stock markets haven't been this flat—neither up nor down any appreciable amount—since 1904. So against this placid backdrop after the slow, steady ascent since 2009, even a more modest drop probably would have resulted in trending #blackmonday Twitter hashtags, and more than the usual number of photos of traders with heads in their hands.

    Related: 5 good tools for 401(k) investors

    Chris Horymski

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    3 Upgrades to See on the Next Apple TV

    We've been saying for more than a year that Apple TV is due for a major makeover; compared to competitors such as Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV, the streaming media player is clearly dated—the last refresh appeared in 2013. Apple fans need not worry, though. It sounds like that overhaul will finally arrive in about two weeks, in the form of a fresher look, a new operating system, and some enhanced features.

    The timing—linked to the Sept. 9 press event for the new iPhone 6—couldn't be better. A survey released last week by market research firm Parks Associates has revealed that, based on 2014 sales, Apple has slipped to number four in the streaming media player market, trailing not only Roku and Chromecast, but also Amazon Fire TV.

    Over the past few weeks there have been a number of leaks about what new features the revamped Apple TV will get. Do not expect the launch of the long-rumored skinny TV service aimed at cord-cutters and cost-cutters. But, according to the Apple-focused website 9to5Mac, the new player will have a slimmer, sleeker design than the old Apple TV, with a faster processor, a redesigned remote control, and more internal storage.

    Here's a quick look at the three new features we think will have the biggest impact.

     

    Apple iOS9. By some accounts, Apple TV will now run a special TV-optimized version of the company's new operating system. One of the main benefits of this OS is the Proactive search feature, which lets you hunt for content across many different apps and services. It may also help Apple TV offer personalized recommendations for apps, TV shows, movies, and games.  

    Siri Voice. According to BuzzFeed, which first reported that Siri was coming to Apple TV, the system's new remote control (see below) may have a microphone for relaying your search and voice commands to the personal assistant. By sparing you the hassle of the virtual keyboard, Apple TV will make life easier and move more into line with its competitors. Some people believe a Siri-armed Apple TV might even serve as a home automation hub, letting users control Apple HomeKit-enabled devices such as lights, locks, and thermostats.

    New and improved remote. Reports say the remote will be bigger and feature both touch input and gesture support, perhaps as a way to make Apple TV more game-friendly. The device allegedly has IR (infrared) and Bluetooth technology, too, the latter possibly for private listening via Bluetooth headphones.

    Apple is also expected to unveil a software developer's kit and a store, both devoted to apps and games created for Apple TV.

    We'll share more news on the Apple TV after the Sept. 9 product announcement. In the meantime, feel free to check out our streaming media player buying guide and Ratings for information on other devices.

    What do you watch most with your streaming media player? Let us know by adding a comment below.

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How Recalls Impact Used-Car Buyers

    Federal law explicitly prohibits dealerships from selling a new car if a pending recall hasn’t been performed, but used-car buyers aren’t protected the same way.

    Consequently, used-car buyers need to add an item to the pre-purchase checklist that already should include: focus on reliable cars; test drive them; research pricing; get pre-approved financing; check the cars repair history; and negotiate the deal. In addition, buyers should check if all recalls have been performed.  

    Dealerships and recalls

    Despite not being mandated by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, manufacturer-backed certified pre-owned programs generally include checking for and performing any open recall as part of the certification process. In fact, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) advises its member dealerships to periodically verify the recall status of vehicles in inventory and to perform recall work on used-cars for the brands the dealer represents.

    However, non-manufacturer certification or inspection programs may not include checking for and addressing open recalls and retailers selling vehicles from a different brand, or a corner-lot-type used-car dealer, may not address recalls. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility rests with the consumer to verify their car has had all applicable recall work performed. 

    The bumpy recall road for used cars

    As automaker recalls continue to make news, from General Motors ignition switch issues to potentially faulty Takata airbags, owners of recalled vehicles are naturally asking how these campaigns impact them.

    Several legislators have taken on the issue of how recalls are handled for used cars and who is responsible for seeing that the work is done, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He has most recently focused on CarMax, the large used-car chain that has been the subject of an investigation by the non-profit group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS).

    According to Blumenthal, “CarMax advertises that all its vehicles must pass a rigorous ‘125-point inspection,’ but no inspection that routinely ignores outstanding safety recalls can be called ‘rigorous.’” Blumenthal urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on “CarMax’s dangerously deceptive marketing of used cars with lethal safety defects.” He called for enactment of a bill that he sponsored to make it illegal for dealers to sell or lease recalled used cars that haven’t been repaired.

    CarMax can’t perform recall work because, under federal law, auto manufacturers are responsible for performing safety recalls and work closely with their franchised dealers to oversee the repair process, often including providing specialized training for their dealers’ auto technicians. However, CarMax can have recalled cars repaired free of charge by authorized franchised car dealers.

    Until the FTC takes action, or there is a change in the law, used-car buyers are left holding the bag. That’s why Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supported a June 2014 petition (pdf) asking the FTC to put a stop to deceptive claims by CarMax. Consumers Union and 10 other groups argued that these claims “tend to lull car buyers into a false sense of security regarding the safety of used vehicles CarMax is offering for sale to consumers.” Consumers Union also supports Senator Blumenthal’s bill, S. 900, the Used Car Safety Recall Repair Act, because auto dealers shouldn’t be allowed to sell defective used cars to consumers before they are fixed.

    What can consumers do to protect themselves?

    If you are ready to buy a used car from CarMax, another used-car dealer, or even a private party, ask the seller for the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and use it to check for any open recalls via any of the following methods:

    • Check for vehicle recalls by accessing the Consumer Reports recall database.
    • Visit the recalls page at SaferCar.gov.
    • Visit the manufacturer's website and look for up-to-date recall information.
    • Call the service department at the local dealer and ask them if there are any open recalls on the car you are planning to buy.
    • Go to the CarFax car history reporting service and use the free recall check service.

    While the thought of buying—or having just bought—a car with an outstanding recall may be worrisome or scary, remember that a recall means that a problem has been identified and a solution made available. The corrective action will be made for free, even after the sale, so long as you bring the car to the local franchised dealer to have the work performed.

    CarMax says it advises its customers to register vehicles with the manufacturer after they buy so that they can they obtain up-to-date information about open and future recalls. The company also says it supports legislation that would require automakers to provide used car retailers with the same recall notices, diagnostic and repair information, and the tools and parts that they give to their franchised dealers.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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