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Health Highlights: April 30, 2010

FDA Plans to Improve Food Safety During Transport Quality Lacking in Private Medicare Plans: Study Johnson & Johnson Subsidiaries Agree to $81 Million in Fines Hormone Boosts Men's Empathy: Study Many Obese Adults Don't Get Food Advice From Doctors

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

FDA Plans to Improve Food Safety During Transport

New guidance to improve the safety of foods during transport were issued today by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The standards are designed to reduce physical, chemical and biological risks during transportation of food products for people and animals while the FDA reviews current food safety transportation regulations.

Among the guidance measures: maintain foods at proper temperatures during transport and closely monitor food for pests; vehicles used to transport food should be sanitary and in proper working condition; sanitary measures should be followed during the loading and unloading of foods.

The FDA is accepting input on writing the new rules. After evaluating the input from interested parties, the agency will propose specific regulations.

"Our aim is to look at every component of the system to assess hazards, and to take science-based action where appropriate to maximize the safety of our food from farms all the way to consumers' tables," Jeff Farrar, FDAs associate commissioner for food protection, said in a news release. Although contamination of food product during commercial transport is relatively infrequent, the potential harm can be widespread and serious."


Quality Lacking in Private Medicare Plans: Study

Many American seniors are enrolled in Medicare Advantage insurance plans that offer only fair to medium quality, says a new study.

The study by consulting firm Avalere Health found that 47 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are in plans that scored two or three stars out of five on a federal government rating system for consumers, the Associated Press reported.

Only 23 percent of seniors are enrolled in plans with four or five stars -- meaning very good to excellent quality, according to Avalere.

"There is obviously a wide variance in performance," said company president Dan Mendelson, the AP reported. "These ratings are about to become much more important. When you start linking quality to payment, you can bet the plans are going to be very motivated to bring the scores up."

Under the new health care law, insurance plans will be paid according to the quality of service they provide to clients.


Johnson & Johnson Subsidiaries Agree to $81 Million in Fines

Two subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson will pay more than $81 million to settle charges of illegally promoting the epilepsy drug Topamax for treatment of psychiatric disorders, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.

The drug is approved in the United States for epilepsy and prevention of migraine headaches. Johnson & Johnson's Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit will pay more than $75 million. That unit's subsidiary, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, will plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and pay a $6.1 million criminal fine, the Associated Press reported.

More than $9 million of the settlement will go to private citizens who launched two lawsuits under the False Claims Act.

Earlier this week, the federal government announced a $520 million settlement with AstraZeneca to resolve allegations of illegal marketing of the antipsychotic drug Seroquel, the AP reported.


Hormone Boosts Men's Empathy: Study

Inhaling the hormone oxytocin makes men just as empathetic as women, according to a new study.

Men who were given a nasal spray with the so-called "cuddle hormone" showed increased levels of empathy compared to men who received a dummy spray, BBC News reported.

The study appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Oxytocin is a naturally produced hormone that's known to trigger labor pains and promote bonding between mothers and infants. It's also been shown to play a role in social relations, trust and sex, BBC News reported.

These new findings suggest oxytocin may help improve behavioral therapy for patients with conditions that cause reduced social withdrawal, such as schizophrenia and autism, said the study authors.


Many Obese Adults Don't Get Food Advice From Doctors

In 2006, only about half of obese adults in the United States were told by a doctor to reduce their consumption of fatty foods, according to an analysis of national data. That's about the same as in 2002.

The latest News and Numbers from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also found that only 43 percent of poor obese adults were advised to cut back on high-fat, high-calories foods, compared with 57 percent of obese adults with higher-incomes.

That advice was given to 46 percent of obese adults who didn't finish high school and 53 percent of those with a college education. Obese whites (52 percent) were more likely than obese blacks (45 percent) or Hispanics (42 percent) to receive a doctor's advice on food consumption.

Fatty foods contribute to weight gain and can lead to clogged arteries. Obesity rates are highest among poor adults, those with limited education, and blacks and Hispanics.

The AHRQ summary is based on data from the 2009 National Healthcare Disparities Report.

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