Healthcare News & Insights

More hospitals purchasing antibiotic-free meat

Hospitals have been tasked with limiting their antibiotic use because of the development of drug-resistant superbugs. While most facilities just cut back on prescriptions, some hospitals have gone the extra mile to expose patients to even fewer antibiotics by making changes with the meat they serve. 

ThinkstockPhotos-480299286Millions of Americans contract superbugs in hospitals each year. To fight the prevalence of these bacteria, the feds have told hospitals they need to create antibiotic stewardship programs and be more mindful of how they administer antibiotics to patients.

But the biggest source of antibiotics in the country isn’t hospitals, according to an NPR article. Rather, it’s the meat that many people eat every day.

Per data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a large portion of the antibiotics sold in America are given to livestock by food animal producers. And livestock farmers have been increasing the quantities of antibiotics they give to the animals they sell for meat production.

When people consume this meat, they inadvertently increase their antibiotic intake. So some conscientious hospitals have been looking at ways to reduce the amount of meat they serve that’s been raised with antibiotics.

Why cutting back helps

Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the healthcare industry become more eco-friendly, says that more than 400 hospitals in the U.S. are working toward making 20% of the meat they serve “antibiotic free.”

A dozen facilities have gone further – the majority of all their chicken purchases are from suppliers that sell antibiotic-free meat.

According to the NPR article, many hospitals who switch suppliers say that livestock producers should be doing more to stop the widespread use of antibiotics in their meat.

While antibiotics have been traditionally used to combat food-borne illnesses caused by consuming meat, they’ve started to contribute to the development of resistant bacteria. Researchers have actually found bacteria that’s unresponsive to antibiotics on various types of meat available commercially in supermarkets, including beef, chicken and pork.

These bacteria strains become problematic for hospitals if they sicken patients to the point that they need treatment. Facilities have few options to treat antibiotic-resistant infections. And, even worse: Critically ill patients who may be exposed to the bacteria from other patients are at risk of becoming sicker.

In response, hospitals have been calling on the livestock industry to decrease its use of antibiotics, and they’re speaking with their wallets by choosing antibiotic-free producers as suppliers.

Overcoming obstacles

This approach isn’t without its challenges, though. Many distributors don’t have enough supply on hand to meet the demands of a large facility. One hospital, Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, actually had to convince its distributor to increase its supply of antibiotic-meat solely for the hospital’s needs.

Purchasing antibiotic-free meat can also be more expensive for facilities than traditional meat products. In fact, Hackensack University Medical Center pays 30% more for its antibiotic-free chicken. However, the investment could pay off in the long run when considering the high cost of treating antibiotic-resistant superbugs – and the financial consequences to facilities for patients who have poor outcomes from hospital-acquired infections.

Other hospitals have problems with their supplier contracts, especially if they work with larger food-service providers. Bigger providers aren’t as focused on providing hospitals with the option to use antibiotic-free meat, and their contracts limit the vendors facilities can use for food purchases.

However, increasing demand from other large-scale purchasers, including retail chains and restaurants, may make more options available for healthcare facilities that want to cut back on their use of meat with antibiotics.

Takeaways for hospitals

Ultimately, looking into whether it’s feasible for your facility to start offering more antibiotic-free meat options could be beneficial.

At the very least, it’s a way to show you’re truly committed to reducing the overuse of antibiotics in all aspects of your hospital’s operations. And it could lead to better patient outcomes down the line.

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