October 15, 2013

The Power of Large-Scale Sustainable Meat Procurement

By Sapna Thottathil, Senior Program Associate with SF Bay Area PSR, and Kathy Lawrence, Director of Strategic Development at School Food FOCUS.

In the past year and a half, several institutions across the nation have made announcements about meat. Whole Foods Market now boasts only selling meat that is produced without antibiotics. Chipotle advertises that it will only use beef raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

Board Member Dr. Tom Newman speaking at the October 7-8 event

Board Member Dr. Tom Newman speaking at the Balanced Menus event

Sandwiches with Marin Sun Farms beef and chicken, raised without nontherapeutic antibiotics on pasture

Sandwiches with Marin Sun Farms beef and chicken, raised without nontherapeutic antibiotics on pasture, were served at the October 7-8 event

These two are not alone.

Hospitals and schools around the country are taking similar steps. We represent two non-profits – Health Care Without Harm and School Food FOCUS – that are collaborating with the health care and educational sectors on sustainable meat procurement.

In the Spring of 2013, the University of California at San Francisco’s (UCSF) Academic Senate passed a resolution to phase out the procurement of meat produced with non-therapeutic antibiotics. UCSF is just one of over 460 hospitals in Health Care Without Harm’s network that have pledged to source sustainable, local, and healthy foods. School Food FOCUS is helping 36 of the nation’s largest public school districts to leverage their knowledge and procurement power for more healthful, regional, and sustainable school food. Fifteen of those districts, with combined annual poultry purchasing budgets of $28 million, have come together to increase their access to chickens raised only with the minimal, safe, and sustainable use of antibiotics.

On October 7-8, we gathered together in the San Francisco Bay Area with hospital and school food service directors, meat producers, and other supply chain representatives to discuss scaling up the procurement of meat produced without the routine use of antibiotics. The long-lasting result, we hope, is to increase the production and supply of sustainable meat in the state of California and nation-wide.

Why all the attention around meat and antibiotics? As government data shows, close to 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to animals in our food chain, often for non-therapeutic purposes. For example, conventionally-raised cows are routinely fed antibiotics in their feed and water, to promote faster growth and to compensate for unsanitary living conditions. Many of these antibiotics are important in human medicine and critical in the treatment of infections. This practice of regularly feeding animals low doses of antibiotics is increasingly linked to antibiotic-resistant infections in people, threatening the efficacy of antibiotics. Children are especially imperiled.

Should we be serving meat produced this way to our patients and children? We at Health Care Without Harm and School Food FOCUS think not. Unfortunately, change has been slow at the federal level. While some encouraging progress has been made at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in creating guidance for voluntary action around antibiotic use, two bills in Congress that would ban the practice of routinely feeding eight classes of medically-important antibiotics to animals for non-therapeutic purposes are unlikely to pass into law this year.

As such, hospitals and schools are taking matters into their own hands, and are likely to make significant ripples in the marketplace. These institutions purchase large volumes of meat on an annual basis. For example, aggregate data compiled by Health Care Without Harm found that 45 hospitals in California purchased 1,164,900 pounds of beef and 1,280,352 pounds of poultry in 2012 alone.

Imagine if all of that meat was produced sustainably? In California, 78% of hospitals surveyed by Health Care Without Harm have meat reduction and sustainable meat procurement programs in place. Twenty-two of the facilities spent a combined total of over $3.5 million on local and/or sustainable food and beverages in 2012.[i] The three California school districts (Oakland, San Diego, and Riverside) working with School Food FOCUS collectively spend $3 million a year on poultry products alone. These numbers represent enormous purchasing power.

At Health Care Without Harm and School Food FOCUS, in collaboration with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, we are using this market power to shift animal production practices and eventually eliminate the misuse and abuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture in this country. We believe that if enough school districts, hospitals, universities, prisons, municipalities, and large food-service companies demand these changes, the market will deliver. And federal policy will hopefully meet this shift with public health regulations that require all meat producers to reduce antibiotic use to safe, minimal, and sustainable levels under veterinarian supervision, while verifying their practices.

This is the second in a 3-part series on the health care sector’s efforts to protect antibiotics for human medicine by building a more sustainable agricultural system through policy advocacy and procurement strategies.

Our next blog post will address the outcomes of the October 7-8 meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area of stakeholders interested in sustainable meat procurement.

A version of this blog first appeared on Health Care Without Harm’s website.

[i] These results are based on a 2013 survey of 85 hospitals in California, conducted by the San Francisco Bay Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Health Care Without Harm. Detailed results will be released in a report later this Fall, California Healthy Food in Health Care: Harnessing the purchasing power and expertise of health care to build a sustainable food system, Kendra Klein and Lucia Sayre, forthcoming at: http://cahealthyfoodinhealthcare.org/