UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, May 2013

UCSF Academic Senate Approves Resolution to Phase Out Meat Raised with Non-Therapeutic Antibiotics

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The topic of non-therapeutic antibiotics in meat is a hot topic in the mainstream press right now:  recent pieces by the Huffington Post, Consumer Reports and Environmental Working Group all stress concerns over the use of antibiotics by the United States meat industry.

There is strong consensus among independent experts that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture poses a threat to human health by contributing to increasing rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Acting on that concern, UCSF’s Academic Senate Coordinating Committee, the School of Pharmacy Faculty Council and the School of Medicine Faculty Council unanimously approved a resolution in April calling on UCSF food services to phase out procurement of meat produced with the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics and urging all University of California campuses to do the same.

The resolution also urges UCSF students, faculty and staff and the larger community to reduce or eliminate their own purchases of meat raised with non-therapeutic antibiotics and calls on the UCSF community to help educate decision makers regarding the importance of reserving antibiotics for therapeutic use.

“There is overwhelming scientific consensus that overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a health hazard to people. It’s time for hospitals, universities and other consumers to stop buying meat raised with non-therapeutic antibiotics,” said Dr. Thomas Newman, the Chair of the Academic Senate Sustainability Task Force at UCSF that originally spearheaded the resolution, and a member of the faculty at the School of Medicine at UCSF. Dr. Newman also sits on the Board of the San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility (SF PSR), which assisted in drafting the resolution. SF PSR coordinates Health Care Without Harm’s (HCWH) Healthy Food in Health Care program in California.

Antibiotics Used for Non-Therapeutic Uses

PillEighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agriculture, primarily for non-therapeutic purposes of growth promotion and to compensate for unsanitary living conditions. Two-thirds of antibiotics used for livestock are directly relevant to human medicine, including penicillins, cephalosporins, sulfas and tetracyclines. Experience in Europe demonstrates that this routine use of antibiotics in feed is unnecessary for the health of animals or for economically-viable meat production; the practice has been banned in the European Union since 2006.

Health Care Sector Responds

In the United States, over 300 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics have advocated ending the practice. The non-profit organization Health Care Without Harm is leading efforts to leverage the purchasing power and expertise of the health care sector to address this important issue.

“We believe that healthcare is best positioned to lead our society away from its addiction to antibiotics in animal agriculture,” said Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm. “Hospitals have both the mission-critical rationale and the economic clout to transform the animal supply chain to become more environmentally sustainable and healthier for everyone.”

Health Care Without Harm currently works with over 93 hospitals across the country that are taking a “less meat, better meat” approach by reducing the amount of meat and poultry they serve in their facilities and/or procuring more sustainably-produced meat and poultry.

UCSF Takes a Leadership Role

Serving over 650,000 meals per year to patients, staff and the community, UCSF Medical Center is poised to make a significant contribution in this arena. The hospital is taking a two-pronged approach.

“First, we have reduced the amount of red meat being served,” states Jack Henderson, Associate Director of Nutrition and Food Services, “And secondly, we are pursuing a source of beef that is grass-fed, raised without non-therapeutic antibiotics and still fits within our budget. Although it is a complex maneuver, we believe it is the right thing to do for our patients, our staff, and our visitors.”

Serious supply chain challenges must be addressed before UCSF can ensure that all of the meat and poultry it serves are raised without the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics. To date, the market for these products has been small in the United States, making them scarce and costly. Increased demand from large institutional purchasers like hospitals and schools will hopefully expand that market.

What You Can Do:  Take Action Today

Be part of the solution and consider taking action today: 

Ask the President to take action and sign Health Care Without Harm’s letter to President Obama by May 31:  With pressure from the President, the FDA may quickly move forward with protecting antibiotics and our health. Ask the President to ensure that the FDA moves immediately to use its regulatory authority to withdraw approvals for the non-therapeutic use of all medically-important antibiotics from food animal production, thus preserving their use for treating sick people.

Shop organic:  One easy way to avoid antibiotics in your meat is to buy organic.  Adherence to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic rules prohibit antibiotic use on livestock and must be verified on-site by an independent accredited certifier, providing a high level of confidence that any meat or poultry labeled “USDA Organic” comes from animals that never have been given any antibiotics.