The Northwest Side hospital in Chicago is one of 300 across the nation that have pledged to improve the quality and sustainability of the food served for the health of patients and the health of the environment and the U.S. population, reported the Chicago Tribune.
For many of these hospitals, the initiative includes buying antibiotic-free meat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections kill 60,000 Americans a year. The hospital administrators hope the increased demand of antibiotic-free meats will reduce the use of antibiotics to treat cattle and other animals, which scientists believe helps pathogens become more resistant to drugs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts estimate that up to 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are administered to healthy animals to speed growth and compensate for crowded living conditions. Some of these drugs, such as penicillin and tetracycline, are also used to treat sick people.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., presented a petition last week as a congressional panel debated the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture. The petition was organized by the nonprofit coalition Health Care Without Harm and signed by more than 1,000 health care professionals supporting the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.
Last month the Food and Drug Administration also released draft guidelines for the “judicious use” of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals. The CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture support the FDA’s guidance, which states that “using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production or growth enhancing purposes … in food-producing animals is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.”
Some meat producers believe there is not enough evidence to definitively link human antibacterial-resistant infection to the use of antibiotics in animals.
“The CDC, FDA, and USDA all say that they believe there is a link, but we don’t know,” said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. “They believe it, so they are going to ban these products because of a belief and not a scientific fact?”
According to the Association for Healthcare Foodservice, the institutions spend about $9.6 billion on food and drink a year. Hospital administrators are trying to use their buying power to discourage the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
An early adopter of healthier hospital menus, Swedish Covenant’s director of nutrition, Maria Simmons, started serving grass-fed antibiotic- and hormone-free Tallgrass beef nearly five years ago. While the hospital’s purchases of other sustainable foods have fluctuated with budgets and availability, this item has been a constant.
Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont, also started serving antibiotic-free beef at the hospital in recent years.
“When we started a sustainability council at the hospital a few years ago, antibiotic reduction was one of the first things on my list,” she said. “I think it has the most impact on farming, the environment, and public health.”
Imrie estimated that her food costs rose about $67,000 last year when she switched from conventional chicken to antibiotic-free chicken. “But that’s also about the same cost as treating a single MRSA infection,” she said, referring to drug-resistant staphylococcus bacteria.
Carolyn Lammersfeld, national director of nutrition at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, oversees a menu full of organic, antibiotic-free chicken, beef and dairy at the organization’s facilities across the country.
Lammersfeld said using the ingredients is primarily a response to patient demand, but the centers are also “watching the controversy over the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics and their potential to cause resistant strains of bacteria.”
The issue is of particular concern for cancer patients, who have compromised immune systems, she noted. “Many also might already being taking antibiotics, so they don’t want additional ones in food if they can avoid it,” Lammersfeld said.
Simmons said she buys the Tallgrass beef “not only because is it antibiotic- and hormone-free but it’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acids and lower in saturated fats.” She is also aware of the effects that creating a demand for the meat may have on animal raising practices.
“The push was for healthier food all around and the fact that it was antibiotic and hormone-free and could support the new legislation on antibiotic resistance just worked well together,” Simmons said. “It’s a natural progression.”