By Monica Eng, Tribune reporterThe evening's menu featured grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef over pasta, fresh seasonal vegetables and fresh organic peaches — items right at home in the city's finest restaurants.
Instead, the dishes were prepared for visitors, staff and bed-bound patients at Swedish Covenant Hospital.
The Northwest Side hospital is one of 300 across the nation that have pledged to improve the quality and sustainability of the food they serve, not just for the health of their patients but, they say, the health of the environment and the U.S. population.
For many of these institutions, the initiative includes buying antibiotic-free meats. Administrators say they hope increased demand for those products will reduce the use of antibiotics to treat cattle and other animals, which scientists believe helps pathogens become more resistant to drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that antibiotic-resistant infections kill 60,000 Americans a year.
Although the U.S. doesn't keep national records on antibiotic use in animals, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates 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.
Last week, as a congressional panel debated the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., presented a petition 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. Introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., it would phase out the nontherapeutic use in animals of seven types of medically important antibiotics.
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."
Meat producers respond that there is not enough evidence to definitively link human antibacterial-resistant infection to animal use.
"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?"
Hospital administrators who have signed on to buy antibiotic-free meat say they hope to use their purchasing power to discourage the use of antibiotics in agriculture. According to the Association for Healthcare Foodservice, the institutions spend about $9.6 billion on food and drink a year.
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