Goodbye to Meat with Antibiotics

In the health care sector, there’s a growing demand for meat raised without antibiotics.


Esmerada, a patient food server at Pomerado Hospital

Esmerada, a patient food server at Pomerado Hospital, prepares to serve organic salad and chicken raised without antibiotics (Courtesy of Barbara Hamilton).

What do McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Subway, Chick-fil-A and American hospitals have in common? They are all taking steps to serve meat and poultry raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

The retail and restaurant sectors have been vocal about these initiatives, releasing statements in national media outlets such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and they aren’t alone: Food service in every sector is demanding better meat. The health care sector is especially cognizant of the problems associated with the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat, and facilities across the nation are taking action to steward antibiotics through food service.

Significant health and environmental consequences are associated with industrialized meat and poultry production and distribution, including antibiotic resistances, and air and water contamination. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, around 90 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used in industrial animal agriculture.1 The majority of these are not used to treat sick animals, but instead are routinely administered in feed and water to compensate for unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions.

This subtherapeutic application of antibiotics is breeding antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains and contributing to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Every year, 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and 23,000 of them die as a result.2 Meanwhile, Americans eat more than twice the global average for meat consumption, and hospital food service operations often mirror this trend.

However, change is coming. In 2015, Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth found that more than half of hospitals surveyed3 were purchasing meat and poultry products raised without routine antibiotic use and were spending an average of nearly 15 percent of their food budget on local and sustainable foods. More than 400 hospitals are working toward a goal of sourcing 20 percent of their meat purchases from animals raised without routine antibiotic use.

Hackensack University Medical Center, interviewed by NPR earlier this year,4 has made sourcing meat produced without the use of routine antibiotics a priority. The health system has completely transitioned to serving poultry raised without routine antibiotics and is now tackling beef. Other hospitals, such as Overlake Medical Center in Washington and Palomar Health in California, are leading by example: 79 percent of Overlake’s and 65 percent of Palomar’s total meat purchases are from animals raised without routine antibiotics. Hospitals can make progress quickly, even if they are new to sustainable purchasing practices. In just over a year, the University Hospitals Health System in Ohio has been able to purchase 23 percent of its meat from sources that do not use antibiotics routinely.

By reducing the overall amount of meat served, hospitals can shift their spending toward foods that provide health, social and environmental benefits that are consistent with prevention-based medicine.

Group at Chef Training in San Diego

Food Forward Culinary Experience and Training co-hosted by the Humane Society of the United States and Palomar Health in San Diego, California. Foodservice staff from other health care and community health organizations in the region also attended (Courtesy of Barbara Hamilton).

A  Few Steps to Get Started

Reduce meat and poultry on menus
There are many strategies a hospital or health system can take to decrease the amount of meat served in their cafeterias as well as on patient menus. Many hospital chefs are already cooking more meals from scratch and incorporating seasonal foods, using recipes featuring health-promoting herbs, spices and flavorful sauces containing healthy oils, vinegars and other ingredients to decrease salt, sugar and unhealthy fats in meals. Other successful strategies to reduce animal protein have included reducing portion sizes; moving meat away from the center of the plate; increasing the amount of vegetables, whole grains and legumes; and substituting nutritionally balanced, whole vegetarian foods for meat.

Determine what is available and communicate preferences
Communicate your preferences to your representative and ask for a list of relevant products. See the Healthy Food in Health Care Meat & Poultry Product List5 to find products raised at a minimum without the routine use of antibiotics. If you have adopted a food policy that prioritizes sustainable, local or humane production methods, ensure your purchasing partners are aware of this. It can also be helpful to let them know your goals in advance. For instance, “Within one year, it is our goal to _____, and we hope you can help us with this.”

Encourage transparency and tracking
Food items are not always accurately labeled in distributor catalogs. Ask supply chain partners to adapt their catalogs to enable easy identification and tracking of items that meet your sustainability criteria.

Purchase from farmers, cooperatives and food hubs
Purchasing directly from farmers and ranchers is an effective way to guarantee that the food you’re buying meets your institution’s health, social and environmental goals. Buying from farmer cooperatives and food hubs can also be a more direct way to connect with local and regional producers.

Creating direct connections may also provide an opportunity to negotiate a better price for both the institution and the producer. Alternatively, farmers know their products and can work with you or your chef on using less expensive cuts. This cost savings can offset the time involved with ordering from a smaller supplier. But even more valuable are the relationships that can develop between the farmer, food service staff, other employees and your facility’s customers.

For more resources or guidance, see Practice Greenhealth’s Healthier Food: Less Meat, Better Meat section.6 There’s a how-to guide along with national benchmarks, case studies, educational posters and social media suggestions.


1. Pew Charitable Trusts. 2014. Antibiotics and Industrial Farming.
3. 2015 Practice Greenhealth Sustainability Benchmark Report