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September 16, 2009

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Food animal production accounts for 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S.'

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But wait — there's more.

"That doesn't even include the antibiotics used for animals that actually get sick. That figure is for 'non-therapeutic use' such as growth promotion and disease prevention," wrote Ezra Klein in an eye-opening, gut-churning story appearing on the front page of today's Washington Post Food section.

Read it below but fair warning: you may never eat fast food again.

Or at least not anymore today....

How was lunch, anyway?

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Just Say No To Antibacterial Burgers

When I was a kid, my mother was a bit obsessive about making sure I finished my antibiotics. Even if I was feeling better. That didn't make a lot of sense to me. You take medicine until you're not sick anymore. But when I got a bit older, she explained: If you don't kill off the bacteria, you could be left with only the strongest bits, which then multiply and mount a counterattack. That made sense. I'd watched enough slasher flicks to know that you don't turn your back just because the killer is down. You make sure he's dead.

But leaving a capsule of Zithromax behind, it seems, was the least of my problems. This column is based on a single and quite extraordinary statistic: Food animal production accounts for 70 percent -- 70 percent! -- of the antibiotics used in the United States. That doesn't even include the antibiotics used for animals that actually get sick. That figure is for "non-therapeutic use" such as growth promotion and disease prevention.

The heavy reliance on routine antibiotic use is a byproduct of the way we raise animals for food: packed into dim and dirty enclosures where they live amid their own filth, eat food that they haven't evolved to digest, and are pretty much stacked atop one another. Most human beings I know can hardly spend three hours on a plane without contracting a case of the sniffles.

When you give antibiotics to animals meant to become food, however, you're ensuring that antibiotics end up in the food in low but constant doses. That means bacteria are getting more accustomed to the antibiotics. There's good reason to think that this background exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the startling rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Everything from staph to strep to salmonella is exhibiting uncommon resilience in the face of our latest drugs. A 2003 World Health Organization study (PDF) put it pretty starkly: "There is clear evidence of the human health consequences [from agricultural use of antibiotics, including] infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections." Even stronger was the title of a 2001 New England Journal of Medicine editorial: "Antimicrobial Use in Animal Feed -- Time to Stop."

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is a former microbiologist who has a master's degree in public health. She also happens to chair the powerful House Committee on Rules. "This is terribly important," she says. "If people don't believe in evolution, they should look at staphylococcus. Your body used to be able to take care of it. But now it can kill you. It's evolved." Her answer is H.R. 1549: the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009. The legislation's approach is very simple, Slaughter says: "The bill preserves the seven most effective classes of antibiotics for human use only. They can be used to treat sick animals, but they can't be used to simply raise animals."

The industry's objection to this is that it will make meat -- delicious, delicious meat -- unaffordable for the average consumer. When I pose this to Slaughter, she laughs mirthlessly. "That really is a strange defense," she says. "We keep animals in such deplorable conditions that they'll become sick as a dog if we don't dose them?"

There's also the argument that the pennies we're saving on each burger are being spent in our hospitals. A 2005 study out of Tufts University estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections add $50 billion to the annual cost of American health care. On the other side of the coin, a National Academy of Sciences study found that eliminating non-therapeutic antibiotics from animals would cost only about $5 to $10 per person per year. I'd pay that for a lower risk of super-staphylococcus.

There's also a trade angle to the issue: In 1986, Sweden banned the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in their meat. In 1998, Denmark, the largest swine-producing nation in Europe, did the same. In 2006, the whole European Union outlawed growth-promoting antibiotics in its meat, and it's likely that other countries will follow suit. That could begin shutting down foreign markets for our livestock exports, or at least embroil us in nasty trade wars. And for what? A practice that's making us sicker, that obscures the horrible way we raise our animals and that even my mother would have warned against 20 years ago?

September 16, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'Square the Block' — by Richard Wilson

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Pictured above and below, it's at the corner of Kingsway and Sardinia Street in London where it graces the northwest corner of the London School of Economics' New Academic Building.

Wrote Edwin Heathcote in a review in today's Financial Times, "What Wilson has done is to 'finish off' the architecture.... There is an intimation of disaster — an earthquake, a bomb, a moment of collapse captured."

Said Wilson to Heathcote, "There can be something beautiful... about destruction."

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Continued Wilson, "I don't feel the building is exploding... but it's revealing itself, existing in these two states simultaneously."

Erwin, call the vet: your cat's ready to go home.

September 16, 2009 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Inside the Mind of Mischa Barton'

New York Times TV critic Ginia Bellafante's suggested alternative title for "The Beautiful Life," a series debuting tonight on CW starring Ms. Barton.

Wrote Bellafante in a review of the show in today's Times, "As Sonja, she is playing some less compelling version of herself. 'Inside the Mind of Mischa Barton' would have been a much better bet than 'The Beautiful Life.'"

Concur.

FunFact: The Washington Post featured the new show in its TV Highlights section today, with a picture of Ms. Barton captioned "Mischa Barton as a past-her-prime model (ew, gross, she's like, 23 or something) in 'The Beautiful Life.'"

Meow.

September 16, 2009 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'How the world was connected'

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Superb interactive visual here, captioned "Ten years ago, there were just over four million broadband subscribers. In 2009, more than 400 million people are connected to high-speed internet."

[via Milena]

September 16, 2009 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'How do you know you're the world's most popular blogging anesthesiologist?'

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I get all mannner of skeptics and haters dissing me for that claim.

Well, guess what?

See above.

September 16, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What's in your coffee? D-Caf Test Strips

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Wrote The Food Section, "If you insist on drinking decaffeinated coffee, but you find yourself deeply suspicious of what you are really being served, you may be in the market for D-Caf Test Strips. Drop a strip into a sample of your drink to find out for certain whether you've been served decaf or been duped."

From the Spoon Sisters website: "Studies have shown that up to 30% of decaf coffees ordered at coffee houses and restaurants contain unacceptably high levels of caffeine, or are not decaf at all."

File under "Won't get fooled again."

20 for $9.95.

September 16, 2009 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Which is your panic finger?

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You probably don't have a clue.

I didn't even know what a panic finger was until I read a July 10, 2008 story in The Economist about the new new thing in biometrics; the article follows.

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Bodily Functions: Can Biometrics Make Banking More Secure?

Villains, beware. The fight against online fraud has a new weapon—the panic finger. Banks in Europe and South Africa are testing a device [below]

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that authenticates online transactions by asking customers to run their fingerprint over a reader. If the print matches a stored copy, the device, which is made by Siemens, a German firm, and AXSionics, a Swiss firm, shows a PIN code that can then confirm the transaction.

Consumers can enrol more than one finger when they start using the scanner. That adds yet another layer of security: worrywarts can set the device to require a concerto’s worth of fingerprints before it gives out the PIN code.

It also allows people to designate a panic finger, for use if fraudsters are forcing customers to use the device. Swipe the said digit across the scanner and the transaction will appear to go through as normal even as the bank is alerted that something fishy is going on. For the truly neurotic, there is yet more reassurance. Criminals who are tempted to hack off customers’ fingers will be disappointed: the scanner has to detect circulating blood to work.

All very ingenious, but will it take off? The technology is fast improving and the algorithms used to read fingerprints are more reliable than ever. Consumers value security. According to a survey of American bank customers in 2007 by Gartner, a research firm, more than half rate security features as extremely important when deciding whether to go online. Banks gain too. It is harder for customers to repudiate transactions when their fingerprints are all over them.

But two big hurdles remain—convenience and cost. Training customers to use something new is never easy. Scanning fingerprints adds time as well as security. And the device is another thing to lose or break. Systems based on voice biometrics look more user-friendly: people already use telephones, and can do so on the move. Voice signatures can also make transactions swifter, by cutting out the need to enter account details.

The economics are an even bigger barrier. The costs of the technology are coming down, but the device is still more expensive than other systems. Creating passwords costs virtually nothing and smart-card readers for use at home are much cheaper too.

Fingerprint scanners are not for the mass market, says Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner, who does think that voice biometrics will be in widespread use in America within three years. Siemens says that banks serving affluent customers are most likely to use its technology—fingers firmly crossed, that is.

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"Criminals who are tempted to hack off customers’ fingers will be disappointed: the scanner has to detect circulating blood to work."

Huh.

Why doesn't that make me feel better?

September 16, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Floor to Ceiling Sisal Cat Tower

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Instantly went to the top of Gray Cat's Christmas wish list.

From the website:

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Floor to Ceiling Sisal Cat Tower

Features

14" diameter tower with 7" x 9" entry holes is designed to fit 8-foot ceilings or ceilings within a few inches of 8 feet.

Anchors securely between your floor and ceiling to provide a stable climbing, scratching and lounging tower for your cat or group of cats.

The outside is carpeted completely in extremely durable, high quality residential sisal carpet in a variety of colors (below), allowing cats (claws required!) to climb up and down and scratch to their heart's content.

The interior is carpeted in a traditional non-looped carpet.

On the inside levels, the bottom two lounge shelves are solid, and the top two lounge shelves are "half" shelves, allowing the cats to climb between those two levels on the inside.

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$599 + $115 shipping = $714.

[via Super Cool Pets]

September 16, 2009 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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