Wonkbook: Why you should care that 70% of antibiotics go into animal feed

at 08:11 AM ET, 04/12/2012

I don't feel like talking about the election today. So let's talk about something else. On Wednesday, the FDA finalized a plan to ask drug companies to "voluntarily" limit the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed.


All your antibiotics are belong to us. (Mitchell Schmidt - AP)
This might not seem like a huge deal to you. But it is. And it gets to one of my favorite scary statistics: 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country -- 70 percent! -- go into livestock production. And that's before you even get to the antibiotics that are used on animals who actually fall ill.

The reason is simple enough: If we didn't pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick. They are, after all, packed into dim and dirty enclosures. They're stacked on top of one another. And they're being fed food they didn't evolve to eat. All of this makes animals sick. But rather than raise them in a way that doesn't make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant doses of antibiotics.

And then we eat them. Which means we get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. Which means common bacteria get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. And there's mounting evidence 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." (Full disclosure: I'm partially quoting from a column I wrote on this subject in 2009.)

As my colleague Dina ElBoghdady notes, these concerns aren't new. The FDA proposed banning penicillin and two forms of tetracycline for use on livestock in 1977. But industry opposition led to congressional oppositions, and the FDA backed down. Last year, the National Resources Defense Council, alongside a few other health and consumer-advocacy groups, sued to get those regulations back on track. Last month, a federal plaintiff court in Manhattan ruled that the FDA had to restart those proceeding. “The scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence that the FDA has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe,” Judge Theodore H. Katz wrote.

The FDA would prefer a voluntary approach. They're asking drug makers to reserve 200 antibiotics for humans because it's the right thing to do. If they fail to comply, they have to say, on their labels, that these drugs are also used for animals. But if you've ever read the label on an antibiotic, you know it's rather long. And if you have ever decided not to read the full label on an antibiotic than, well, you’re like most of us. And the drug companies know it. So that's not much of a sanction.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a former microbiologist, has introduced The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which takes a more aggressive approach: It reserves seven full classes of antibiotics for human use. If her legislation passed, those antibiotics couldn't be used for livestock.

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 about $5 to $10 per person per year. I'd pay that for a lower risk of super-staphylococcus.

This is the sort of issue that doesn't tend to get much attention in Washington. But it matters. To put it in the simplest terms, a drug-resistant superbug might kill me, or kill you. The budget deficit probably won't.

Top stories

1) Romney's proposed agenda for day one of his presidency would be...difficult. "It’s Jan. 20, 2013. This is the agenda for President Romney’s first day in office: Demand that Congress cut corporate income taxes. Demand that Congress slash $20 billion from the budget. Allow states to escape parts of the health-care law (if it still exists). Rewrite the way all federal regulations are issued. Call out China for cheating on international trade. And somewhere in there find time for all the solemn rigmarole that actually makes a president a president...Already, the candidate has laid out an ambitious 10-part to-do list for 'day one' in the White House -- a preview of the kind of president he wants to be. Romney imagines himself as a fast-moving executive, bold in his conservatism, with a businessman’s eye on the bottom line...Romney’s first-day agenda would not be as easily achieved as he suggests -- on day one or, perhaps, ever. Some of his ideas seem predestined to run aground on Capitol Hill. Others could unspool huge new hassles in the federal bureaucracy." David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

2) Don't look now, but the deficit is shrinking. "The federal budget deficit appears to be narrowing slowly but steadily, as corporate and individual income taxes rise thanks to the rebounding economy. The Treasury Department reported Wednesday that it collected $171 billion in taxes and other revenue last month, the highest March tally since 2008, when Bear Stearns was acquired at a government-run fire sale by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Individual income-tax revenue from October through March, the first half of the government's 2012 fiscal year, hit $484.1 billion, up from $475.6 billion in the year-earlier period. Corporate income taxes rose to $84.5 billion from $55.1 billion a year earlier. The higher tax revenue helped shrink the six-month deficit to $778.8 billion this year, $50 billion lower than the year before...The April data will prove a key indicator of the government's fiscal health since many Americans wait until the last minute to file their tax returns." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

3) A top Fed official said the bank might continue its stimulus past 2014. "Janet L. Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, said Wednesday that the lackluster trajectory of the economic recovery might require the Fed to continue its efforts to bolster growth even beyond the end of 2014. In a speech in Manhattan, Ms. Yellen offered a rejoinder to recent remarks by other Fed officials and investors warning that the Fed would need to raise interest rates well before the end of 2014 to prevent an increase in the rate of inflation. She indicated that the Fed’s leadership, including the chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, remained firmly committed to the central bank’s efforts to suppress interest rates and reduce the cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers...She did not call for a new round of stimulus, however, arguing instead that the shortfall might provide justification for extending current efforts." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

@Fullcarry: Of course a big risk is the Fed becomes hawkish sooner than current expectations.

@TheStalwart: I'm starting to lean more into the QE3 (defined liberally) in June camp.

4) The House GOP is planning for upcoming tax battles. "House Republicans, preparing for a year-end expiration of tax cuts, this week begin meetings within their caucus in hopes of building a strategy that can both garner significant GOP support and counter Democratic attacks on tax policy. The sessions are expected to pave the way for tax-related votes, possibly before the November elections, in order to shape the debate over Bush-era tax cuts and so-called tax extenders in an election season featuring sharp divides over tax policy...The Republican leadership also must deal with an unknown factor: 87 GOP lawmakers, or about one-third of the caucus, are from the freshman class and haven't been through votes to extend expiring tax breaks and cuts. An additional complication is that decisions made this year will feed into a corporate-tax overhaul planned for next year." Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

5) Why have women lost so many jobs in "the Obama economy"? Blame the government. "Mr. Romney has been pointing to the fact that 92.3 percent of the net total of jobs lost since President Obama took office in January 2009 belonged to women. The net number of jobs held by women has fallen by 683,000 since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, while those held by men have fallen by 57,000. But the statistic is misleading for several reasons...Women are disproportionately employed in government, typically as teachers or administrators of some kind. Government payrolls are generally not hit immediately when recession strikes, but several months or years afterward, when state and local governments are dealing with lower tax revenues from the suffering private sector. There’s therefore a lag between private-sector and public-sector layoffs. In fact, since President Obama took office, nearly four-fifths of all the jobs lost have been in the female-dominated government sector." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

@BetseyStevenson: The recovery would be much stronger for women w/out the large decline in govt jobs. 76% of the decline in empt in govt is in female empt

@justinwolfers: Employment by gender since January 2009. No evidence of a war on women. None. http://pic.twitter.com/6tlsyHVc

Top op-eds

1) KLEIN: Washington has an unhealthy consensus on taxes. "The two parties spent most of this week, as they tend to spend most of every week, arguing about taxes. Democrats are for ‘em. Republicans, against. Right? Wrong. These tiresome debates obscure the near-consensus in Washington on taxes: Republicans don’t want to raise taxes on anyone, and Democrats don’t want to raise taxes on almost anyone. The argument between the two parties rages over that sliver of territory between 'anyone' and 'almost anyone.'...In the long run, this anti-tax orthodoxy is likely to harm both parties. Democrats cannot, in the coming decades, pay for the social welfare state they say they support by raising taxes only on the rich. Yet sharply raising taxes only on the rich -- the most noxious and counterproductive kind of tax increase, according to Republicans -- is all but guaranteed if Republicans continue to oppose any and all attempts at revenue- raising tax reform and force future tax hikes to come entirely through Democratic votes." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

2) SOROS: The Eurozone's crisis isn't over. "Far from abating, the euro crisis has recently taken a turn for the worse. The European Central Bank relieved an incipient credit crunch through its longer-term refinancing operations. The resulting rally in financial markets hid an underlying deterioration; but that is unlikely to last much longer. The fundamental problems have not been resolved; indeed, the gap between creditor and debtor countries continues to widen. The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase." George Soros in the Financial Times.

3) GLAESER: Romney should detail his spending cuts. "Romney’s campaign website contains the high-sounding phrase 'We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in.' But while his economic plan clearly spells out the tax cuts that will let voters take home more cash, it is woefully lacking in details about who will pay for those lower taxes, beyond imposing block grants for Medicaid. The proposal calls for capping the federal budget at 20 percent of gross domestic product, but contains no discussion of how those funding cuts would materialize...The Republican Party lost its credibility on fiscal discipline decades ago, but Obama’s vast deficits (justifiable or not) have given his opponents an opportunity to regain the mantle of responsibility. To recapture that role, Romney needs to openly acknowledge that tax cuts only come from meaningful reductions in public services, and make the case that the cuts in services are worth the cuts in taxes." Edward Glaeser in Bloomberg.

4) MILBANK: Obama should tackle comprehensive tax reform. "Obama argued that his plan to make sure that those earning north of $1 million a year don’t pay a lower tax rate than average Americans -- although gimmicky and insufficient -- is an advance...That’s true, to a point. But Obama’s claim that the Buffett Rule 'is something that will get us moving in the right direction toward fairness' would be more convincing if he took other steps in that direction, too. Three years into his presidency, Obama has not introduced a plan for comprehensive tax reform -- arguably the most important vehicle for fixing the nation’s finances and boosting long-term economic growth. His opponents haven’t done much better, but that doesn’t excuse the president’s failures: appointing the Simpson-Bowles commission and then disregarding its findings, offering a plan for business tax reform only, and issuing a series of platitudes. The Buffett Rule, rather than overhauling the tax code, would simply add another layer." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

5) YGLESIAS: Obama's manufacturing push will make America poorer. "It is sensible for public policy to pay attention to the creation of great firms, to strength in specific sectors, and to the quality of the jobs generated by different economic models. But it should be obvious that the path forward for America is to focus on our strengths in information technology and media, and not compete with the Chinese for manufacturing supremacy...The scary thing about the factory-driven view of the American future is that it’s not totally implausible. The 'insourcing' trend where firms move production back to North America is real enough. The drivers are rising Chinese wages and falling 'unit labor costs' in the United States. But that’s just a way of saying that America can regain factory parity with China by eliminating the prosperity gap between our two countries--a very strange policy aspiration." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

Top long reads

Sasha Issenberg looks at the building bodo of evidence that our political opinions are nature rather than nurture: "Jost wanted to find out and, with a group of colleagues, set off to map the psychological infrastructure of politics. They didn’t bother asking people about cap-and-trade or gun control, but focused on jazz, masturbation, and gardening. What they discovered was a series of contrasts: Conservatives approved of documentaries and going to bars; liberals looked favorably upon motorcycles and singing songs. In earlier studies, liberals had been shown to be unpredictable and uncontrolled, conservatives conscientious and trustworthy. Jost found that liberals embraced those considered outside the social mainstream, like lesbians, “street people,” and atheists; conservatives approved of fraternities and sororities, politicians, and Caucasians. Conservatives were fonder of children, liberals of professors. Among women, conservatives were more into sex; among men, Jost and his colleagues found the opposite."

David Sedaris on health care in France: "Médioni works from an apartment on the third floor of a handsome nineteenth-century building, and, on leaving, I always think, Wait a minute. Did I see a diploma on his wall? Could Doctor possibly be the man’s first name? He’s not indifferent. It’s just that I expect a little something more than 'It’ll go away.' The thunderbolt cleared up, just as he said it would, and I’ve since met dozens of people who have fatty tumors and get along just fine. Maybe, being American, I want bigger names for things. I also expect a bit more gravity. 'I’ve run some tests,' I’d like to hear, 'and discovered that what you have is called a bilateral ganglial abasement, or, in layman’s terms, a cartoidal rupture of the venal septrumus. Dogs get these things all the time, and most often they die. That’s why I’d like us to proceed with the utmost caution.'"

Brooklyn rock interlude: Craig Finn plays "Apollo Bay" live on KEXP.

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Still to come: More people quit; healthcare costs grow a little slower; vouchers are gaining ground; regulators mull over natural gas exports; and cat scientists, just because.

Economy

More people are quitting their jobs -- and that's a good thing. "Friday’s jobs report was a disappointment, but here’s one sign the labor market may be improving: More people are quitting their jobs. More than two million Americans quit their jobs in February, the Labor Department said yesterday. That’s the most since November 2008. Strategists at ConvergEx Group pointed out in a note to clients that quits are a measure of economic confidence -- people don’t tend to quit their jobs in tough labor markets because they’re worried they won’t be able to find a new one. During the downturn, monthly quits plunged to a record low of 1.6 million in September 2009, down from more than three million per month before the recession began. The fact that they’re rising again suggests that workers may finally be seeing signs that the job market is improving. Quits matter for another reason, too: They’re a component of 'churn,' the regular comings and goings that are a critical element of any healthy job market." Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

Foreclosures fell to 2007 levels. "Foreclosure filings fell during the first quarter of 2012 to their lowest levels since the housing market began its collapse nearly five years ago, according to new data from the firm RealtyTrac. The number of foreclosures during the first three months of this year was the lowest quarterly total since the final quarter of 2007. The numbers show that, in March, foreclosures were filed on just fewer than 199,000 properties, a 17 percent decrease from a year earlier and the first time the monthly total has dipped below 200,000 since July 2007. While there have been recent signs of renewed life in the nation’s housing market, the declining number of foreclosure filings might not be as encouraging as the data might suggest...A coming flood of foreclosures is expected in part because some states -- such as Florida, California and New York -- have a long backlog. It sometimes can take three years to complete the foreclosure process." Brady Dennis in The Washington Post.

The Fed said there was moderate growth in March. "The Federal Reserve said the economy maintained its expansion in all 12 of its regions as manufacturing, hiring and retail sales showed signs of strength in the face of higher fuel prices. 'The economy continued to expand at a modest to moderate pace from mid-February through late March,' the Fed said Wednesday in its 'beige book' business survey, published two weeks before the Federal Open Market Committee meets to set monetary policy. 'Hiring was steady or showed a modest increase across many districts.' The beige book offers anecdotal evidence to help policymakers assess an economy that added 120,000 jobs in March, the fewest since October...The beige book’s depiction of hiring may 'discredit' the weaker jobs report from March, Michael Materasso, co-chairman of the fixed-income policy committee at Franklin Templeton Investments, told Bloomberg Television." Joshua Zumbrun in The Washington Post.

The government is trying to use tax refunds to promote savings. "For many Americans, Tax Day--April 17, this year--means writing a check. For most it means a refund. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service refunded $300 billion, or 25 cents for every $1 it collected. More than 80% of the 143 million returns filed resulted in a refund. Paying more in taxes during the year than one actually owes amounts to an interest-free loan to the government. Economists used to consider it irrational...But new evidence--and insights from behavioral economists--challenge that view and suggest that many people, particularly lower-income Americans, use the tax system to force themselves to save...Pushed by the Treasury and outside academics, the IRS has been experimenting with ways to nudge people to save at refund time. In the mid-2000s, it began allowing taxpayers to split tax refunds between, say, a checking account and a savings account or an Individual Retirement Account. Last year more than 750,000 people took the option, up 36% from 2010." David Wessel in The Wall Street Journal.

@justinwolfers: Threats to the recovery: 1. Hysteresis; 2. Europe; 3. Fiscal drag; 4. The fiscal cliff; 5. Oil; 6. Premature Fed tightening. 7. Other stuff.

Robots are cool interlude: Robot rings!

Health Care

Healthcare cost growth may be slowing. "Healthcare costs aren’t growing quite as rapidly as they have in the past, according to new research from Buck Consultants. The study predicts that health insurance costs will rise this year by less than 10 percent -- the first time growth has been that low in more than a decade. The findings could undermine Republicans' argument that President Obama’s healthcare law is driving costs higher. According to Buck’s research, the cost of employer-based health insurance will rise by 9.9 percent this year. That’s a full percentage point lower than last year’s increases, but it still outpaces inflation and average wage increases...The survey also confirms that Medicare helps constrain the growth in healthcare costs. Private plans that supplement Medicare coverage will get about 6 percent more expensive this year, compared with the 9.9 percent jump for employer-based policies, according to Buck." Sam Baker in The Hill.

The FDA wants to limit antibiotics in animal feed. "The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday finalized a plan that would ask drug companies to voluntarily limit the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed, citing long-held concerns that their overuse in livestock promotes the development of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people. Many antibiotics that are widely used to treat human illnesses, such as penicillin, are mixed with animal feed in part to promote rapid growth and weight gain in farm animals. The prevalence of antibiotics in livestock has been linked in several studies to the creation of drug-resistant 'superbugs' that can spread to humans who eat, or even work with, the animals. The FDA is asking drugmakers to stop using 200 products for growth promotion and instead to use them solely to treat and prevent diseases. Companies that opt to do so will be required to revise their product labels to reflect the change." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

@AnnieLowrey: If it had ended up being called "extreme sausage" as opposed to "pink slime," nobody would have cared.

Domestic Policy

The Justice Department sued publishers over price fixing. "The Justice Department on Wednesday accused five of the nation’s largest publishing houses and Apple of fixing prices on e-books, forcing consumers to pay tens of millions of dollars more for their favorite titles. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the government painted a portrait of an industry desperately trying to turn a profit amid rapid changes in technology and aggressive competition from online retailers. In phone conversations, e-mails and dinners at exclusive New York restaurants, the companies’ top executives colluded to wrest control of the market from Amazon.com and raise prices on e-books, according to the complaint...None of the firms have admitted wrongdoing, but three publishers -- Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster -- have agreed to settle the case. Apple is contesting the charges, embarking on its most prominent fight with Washington. Macmillan and Penguin Group have declined to settle as well." Ylan Mui and Hayley Tsukayama in The Washington Post.

School vouchers are becoming more widespread. "Louisiana is poised to establish the nation's most expansive system of school choice by adopting a package of vouchers and other tools that would give many parents control over the use of tax dollars to educate their children. The initiative would effectively redefine vouchers, which have typically helped lower-income public-school students pay for private schools. Vouchers could now also be used by students to pay for state-approved apprenticeships at local businesses, as well as college courses and private online classes, while they are still in public schools...The use of vouchers has expanded rapidly in the last 18 months, as lawmakers in states including Virginia, Florida and Indiana created or expanded voucher or scholarship programs. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice--an organization founded by the late Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, who helped develop the idea of vouchers--estimates that about 220,000 students are currently enrolled in the programs." Stephanie Banchero in The Wall Street Journal.

Activists are targeting a cybersecurity bill. "Cyber activists are looking to write a sequel to their takedown of SOPA with a 'week of action' aimed at killing the new Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. But the sequel's seldom as good as the original. And supporters say CISPA ain't SOPA. SOPA, backed by the movie and music industries, would have cracked down on online piracy, making it harder for users to get cheap entertainment online. CISPA is aimed at combatting cyberattacks by encouraging private companies to share information about cyberthreats with the government. More important, the tech companies that battled against SOPA and helped foster protests through their social media platforms aren’t up in arms about CISPA...Advocacy groups will be rolling out the 'Stop Cyberspying Week' campaign next Monday. Their target is the bill sponsored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) that is expected to go to the House floor in two weeks." Jennifer Martinez in Politico.

Tumblr interlude: Cat scientists.

Energy

Gas prices may have hit their peak. "Gasoline prices, which have vexed President Obama politically in recent months, may have reached their peak, according to energy analysts. Prices at the pump reached nearly $3.94 last Friday, the highest point this year, according to AAA. But prices have decreased slightly over the last five days, reversing increases that began in December of last year. Analysts say prices could continue to decline...But a report released Tuesday by the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that the president may not want to get his hopes up that prices will tumble just yet...Gasoline prices have defied seasonal trends in recent years. While average nationwide prices peaked at nearly $4 per gallon in May 2011, in 2010 prices topped out at just over $3 per gallon in late December, and 2009 saw its highest prices in the fall, according to Energy Information Administration data." Andrew Restuccia in The Hill.

The U.S. is considering allowing natural gas exports. "Low natural-gas prices are helping U.S. manufacturers gain an edge over foreign competitors, but the Obama administration has to consider a lot of other factors when determining whether to approve proposals to export U.S. natural gas that are likely to raise the prices, a top Energy Department official said Wednesday...More than a half-dozen companies have submitted applications to export U.S. natural gas, which is being produced in far greater quantities than it was in the past. With natural gas trading in the U.S. for about $2 per million British thermal unit, energy companies want to start shipping natural gas to countries that will pay five to eight times that amount...Before moving forward with their export plans, energy companies need to obtain permits from the Energy Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission." Tennille Tracy in The Wall Street Journal.

Natural gas prices dropped below $2 for the first time in a decade. "The US shale boom has pushed natural gas markets below $2 per million British thermal units for the first time in a decade as new supplies overwhelm consumption. The price is now almost 90 per cent below the all-time high of $15.78 per mBtu set in 2005, and a fraction of oil on an energy-equivalent basis. US gas costs far less than supplies in Asia and Europe, as limited export capacity has penned most of the hard-to-ship fuel inside domestic borders...Benchmark gas is less than half the price of a year ago as drillers have used horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to release the fuel from previously uneconomic shale rocks. Last year production grew by 4.8bn cubic feet per day, the biggest annual increase ever, the US Energy Information Administration said in a report this week. US marketed gas production in 2011 was the highest ever, surpassing a peak set in 1973." Gregory Meyer in The Financial Times.

@Ben_Geman: Chu, asked what he learned from Solyndra, sighs, quips “Many things. I can tell you over a beer.”

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
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