Where’s the beef … and pork too?

Practice Greenhealth members average more than 30 percent of their meat and poultry purchases raised without antibiotics, but that’s mostly poultry

Health system leaders toured a Maryland farm that grows for Perdue Farms. Health care can help inform and
influence how farm and food businesses produce food, the Perdue staff told the hospital representatives. (Perdue Farms)

By Hillary Greenwood, Health Care Without Harm Healthy Food in Health Care program national procurement director

Stepping into the dimly lit barn, several health system leaders and their supply chain vendors gazed across more than a football-field-length white-spotted floor hearing many faint chirps. It wasn’t until minutes later — when one of Perdue Farm’s grow-out managers increased the light level and explained the former lighting was the way they operated years ago — that the tour participants saw the birds come to life.

Nearly 50,000 birds were being raised in this test barn near Salisbury, Md. Late Start Farm raises chickens for Perdue Farms, the fourth-largest poultry producer in the United States and first major poultry company to transition all of their chicken production to No Antibiotics Ever, including the elimination of human and animal-only antibiotics.

“Although there’s more improvements to be made, my previous perception was that they were treated worse,” Matthew Eagens, Virginia Mason Memorial support services senior director, commented when stepping out of the first barn and into the second test barn, one of the more than 200 barns that now have windows and is being studied for the effects on flocks. Eagens, one of more than a dozen attendees, represented Virginia Mason Healthcare’s ongoing effort to serve more antibiotic-free meats.

Perdue demonstrated how they are raising chickens without antibiotics and how improving light leads to more active chickens (Perdue Farms)

The tour and a discussion took place as part of a Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth working group meeting of health system leaders, who are collaborating with supply chain representatives on identifying barriers and solutions to sourcing “Less Meat, Better Meat” while hearing from experts in the field and producers and manufacturers directly. The working group, along with several supply chain vendors, talked with Perdue Farms about their continued commitment to building a transparent and sustainable food system and provided input on the future of poultry production.

“We value the relationship with Health Care Without Harm and thank their members for taking the time to see firsthand what we do,” said Charlie Carrigan, Perdue Farms vice president of food service sales and marketing. “We appreciate Health Care Without Harm’s support in the marketplace for the changes we’ve made so far in no-antibiotics-ever production and elevated animal care, and their willingness work with us toward next steps that are both meaningful and sustainable.”

Chip Goyette, Inova Health System sustainability director asks to hold a chicken while touring Late Start Farm, which raises chickens without antibiotics for Perdue Farms. (Hillary Greenwood)

Attendees learned more about Perdue Farms’ progress on their 2016 Animal Care Commitment, which included improvements for chicken welfare, farmer relationships, transparency, and an overall continuous improvement plan. Specifically, attention was turned to highlights from their 2017 report including research on slower-growing breeds, the 17 farmer councils that have been formed to gather feedback and help with improvements, and a commitment to expand outdoor access by 210 additional houses in the next year.

Hospitals and the medical community have been making the connection between routine use of antibiotics in animal livestock and antibiotic resistance for the last several years. Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth found that more than half of hospitals surveyed in 2015 were purchasing products raised without routine antibiotic use. However, there were still significant challenges to overcome in transitioning all or even a majority of their purchases.

In 2016, the Health Care Without Harm working group, representing more than 300 hospitals, issued a statement ensuring food producers, manufacturers, and supply chain representatives heard their demand and offered more sustainably raised meat and poultry products, starting with those raised without routine antibiotics. Together with their vendors, like food service management companies and food distributors, many hospitals have been able to incorporate poultry raised without antibiotics into their menus.

Today, just over 30 percent of the food budget for health systems in our network goes toward products raised without routine antibiotics. Most of that money buys poultry products, thanks to the response by Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods, Foster Farms, Koch Turkey, and Jennie-O Turkey, which adhere to guidelines outlined by the USDA’s Process Verified program or Global Animal Partnership. The working group has also connected with regional verified producers like Mary’s Chicken, Miller Poultry, and Crystal Lake Farms over the last two years to help grow new opportunities for the food service sector.

Additionally, health care’s leadership on moving the market is evident in the new FDA report, which states sales of all antimicrobials used in 
food-producing animals decreased by 10 percent, while the the sales of medically important antimicrobials dropped by 14 percent. The report also provided sales numbers by kinds of animal for the first time and specifically calls out beef (43 percent) and pork (37 percent) producers as the heaviest antibiotic users of medically important antibiotics.

Hospitals are calling on more producers, especially those raising beef and pork, to follow suit in order eliminate the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and make more options available to the rest of the health care sector.

“NYU Langone Health’s meal program is approximately 60 percent antibiotic-free on its main campus, which is almost entirely made up of poultry purchases,” said Jeffrey Held, chef at the health system. “We are now looking at beef and pork markets, but we want to see more commitments and transition from producers.”

Health Care Without Harm has been compiling a directory of sustainably raised meat and poultry products over the last two years for health facilities to use when making purchasing decisions. Together with the facilities in their network, the organization calls on more beef and pork producers to help grow this list in quantity and variety so hospitals will be able to improve their food service while working within their missions to promote public health.

“As a health organization, Advocate Health Care understands how important it is to have antibiotics that work effectively. That’s why we’re committed to purchasing meat raised without routine antibiotics as well as to reduce the amount of meat we’re purchasing,” shared Katie Wickman, sustainability manager. “This is a component of our overall approach to health and antimicrobial stewardship. We are eager to work with producers and supply chain partners to find more sustainably raised products.”

The tour and a discussion took place as part of a Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth working group meeting of health system leaders, who are collaborating with supply chain representatives on identifying barriers and solutions to sourcing Less Meat, Better Meat. Representatives from several health systems were in attendance, including Advocate Health Care, Inova Health System, NYU Langone Health, and Virginia Mason Healthcare, along with food service management vendors and representatives from Global Animal Partnership. (Perdue Farms)

The working group intends to continue this dialogue with producers of all sizes to build a meat production system that benefits the health of farmworkers and the overall community. Reducing antibiotic use is the first step. They also call on more hospitals and other institutional food purchasers to contribute to the collective impact by talking with their vendors and establishing commitments to purchase over the next three years to give producers and the supply chain time to respond.

Using this momentum, everyone involved will improve the ability for all institutions and consumers to purchase these products, opening the door for important conversations about broader production practices and the costs of industrial agriculture on communities across the country.

Over time, health care’s leadership will help reshape the supply chain and make sustainable meat production a reality.