Each year, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to animals in the U.S., four times the amount used in human medicines. Much of the agricultural use of antibiotics is to prevent disease in healthy animals that live in crowded conditions or promote growth.
“When we look at the fact that 80% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are being used in animal agriculture, we have to look at how we could be more responsible and judicious in their use,” said Kathy Pryor, program director for the Washington Healthy Food in Health Care program.
Hospitals interested in serving antibiotic-free or reduced-antibiotic meat have to decide which labels or designations to select. Many USDA-approved and third-party labels are used to indicate that antibiotics have not been used or have been used only for therapeutic purposes. Some hospitals prefer meat products from farms and ranches that never use antibiotics, while others are amenable to therapeutic-only use of antibiotics.
Physicians, nurses and other faculty members at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center spearheaded the passage of a 2013 resolution calling on the UCSF food service to phase out purchases of meat produced with the use of nontherapeutic antibiotics and urging all University of California campuses to follow its lead. That led to the UCLA Health System serving only antibiotic-free beef and chicken in its two biggest hospitals. “Since our mission is advancing health worldwide as a university and a health system, we decided to put our money where our mouth is,” said Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services and sustainability officer for UCSF Medical Center.
But one hurdle for hospitals that want to change their food-sourcing policy is that large suppliers do not always have antibiotic-free or reduced-antibiotic meat products available.
OHSU Hospital addressed that challenge by partnering with Carmen Ranch, a local producer that raises only antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef. The ranch was selling just 15 head of cattle wholesale in 2010 when the hospital approached its owners about buying antibiotic-free beef. Today, Carmen Ranch sells 400 cattle wholesale and supplies 45% of OHSU Hospital's beef each year.
“We were able to collaborate and construct the infrastructure that was needed to get locally grown grass-fed and grass-finished beef to our hospital here in Portland,” Copen said.
OHSU also worked with Carmen Ranch to find a butcher that would keep the antibiotic-free meat separate from meat from conventionally raised animals. The hospital's purchasing commitment to Carmen Ranch persuaded a local food distributor to carry the ranch's products, which increased its customer base and allowed it to expand production.
UCSF Medical Center took a different approach to create a reliable source of antibiotic-free beef. It collaborated with six health systems, representing eight hospitals, to agree on specifications for three products—beef patties, bulk ground beef and stew meat. The six organizations have a combined annual demand of 80,500 pounds for the three products. That pooled purchasing convinced a major distributor, U.S. Foods, to start carrying products from Estancia Beef, an antibiotic-free meat producer based in South America.