More hospitals have worked to eliminate antibiotics in the meat they serve in patient meals in an effort to address concerns about the rise of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens.
But making the transition to serving only meat from animals that have not been fed antibiotics can be challenging in terms of sourcing an available supply and getting it at a reasonable price.
“We had tried in the past to go antibiotic-free, but between the price and the availability, it was tough for us to make the switch,” said Kyle Tafuri, senior sustainability adviser at New Jersey-based Hackensack University Medical Center. Tafuri said the hospital ran into difficulty a few years ago when it first attempted to switch to serving antibiotic-free chicken.
“The food vendor we were working with didn't have enough supply, and the pricing wasn't good,” he said.
Last year, Hackensack decided to make a stronger commitment toward its goal of making its meat servings 100% free of antibiotics. The hospital notified its group purchasing organization that it planned to break its contract with its vendor to find one that could provide more affordable antibiotic-free meat.
“After we did that, that company was actually much more receptive,” Tafuri said. “Once they saw we were willing to move our dollars elsewhere, they started working with us a little bit more.”
Soon, all of Hackensack's chicken and turkey meals were antibiotic-free, which required a retail price increase of 25 cents per meal to help offset the 30% increase in food cost. Roughly 85% of all meat served at Hackensack now is sourced from antibiotic-free livestock. The goal is to hit 100% by the end of the year.
Despite the challenges, Tafuri said the hospital has made switching over to antibiotic-free meat a priority in light of the impact antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, or superbugs, has had on healthcare over the past decade.
But as demand grows among healthcare providers, more opportunities are becoming available for collaborations among hospitals, food producers and vendors to find viable solutions, said Hillary Bisnett, national procurement director for the not-for-profit coalition Health Care Without Harm's Healthy Food in Health Care program. Health Care Without Harm worked with Hackensack to aid the hospital in finding meat suppliers.
In August, Health Care Without Harm announced nine health systems—Advocate Health Care, Catholic Health Initiatives, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Gundersen Health System, Hackensack, Kaiser Permanente, Partners HealthCare, University Hospitals Health System, and the Veterans Health Administration—purchased up to 60% of their meat and poultry from producers who did not routinely use antibiotics.
“Health systems have been demanding these products for several years,” Bisnett said. “We see an opportunity for healthcare to partner with their vendors, like food service management companies, food distributors and group purchasing organizations, to incorporate these producers and tip the scale around antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture.”
Each year, more than 2 million antimicrobial-resistant infections occur in the U.S. resulting in 23,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials have identified antibiotic overuse by providers as a major driver for an increase in both the number and the severity of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, with some infections now resistant to several medications considered to be the last line of defense.
The development of antibiotic stewardship programs within clinical settings has played a powerful role in combating the risk posed by antimicrobial resistance, but the majority of such medications sold in the U.S. are purchased by livestock producers.
In 2014, 62% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. that are deemed medically important to humans were sold to food-animal producers, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The report found antibiotic sales for livestock had increased by 3% between 2013 and 2014 despite efforts in recent years to limit their use. In 2013, the FDA issued a rule asking drug companies to voluntarily revise labeling of antibiotics to remove references that promoted the use of such drugs for enhancing growth in meat-producing animals.