Serving meat in the hospital is sort of like serving Twinkies at a Weight Watchers meeting. It's counterproductive, to say the least. But at least patients at Chicago's Swedish Covenant Hospital will no longer be served meat from animals who were given antibiotics to speed their growth and keep them alive in filthy, extremely crowded conditions. The hospital is one of 300 medical facilities across the U.S. that have pledged to improve the quality and sustainability of the food that they serve, both for the health of the public and the health of the environment. For many hospitals, this includes buying antibiotic-free meats so that they won't contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
It's a positive step, but it still begs the question, "Why are hospitals serving meat in the first place?"
Antibiotic-free or not, meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fat. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians are less prone to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity than meat-eaters are. Research has shown that meat-eaters are a whopping nine times more likely to be obese than vegans are and that meat-eaters are 50 percent more likely to develop heart disease than vegetarians.
On second thought, if you're going to eat meat, you might as well be in the hospital. Doctors can just wheel you to the ER when you're ready for an angioplasty.
Seriously though, medical practitioners can better promote healthy living by encouraging people to eat meat-free meals. For one thing, plant-based foods are cholesterol-free--and they don't naturally harbor harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria. By confining animals to cramped, feces-filled factory farms, where these disease-causing bugs flourish, farmers are only increasing the chances that more people will have to endure hospital stays.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, up to 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to healthy farmed animals--not to sick people. Some of the antibiotics, including penicillin and tetracycline, are also used to treat people. As a result, when people get sick, the antibiotics they're prescribed don't always work because their overuse in farmed animals has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic-resistant infections kill approximately 60,000 Americans every year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently called antibiotic resistance an "urgent public health issue" and introduced new guidelines for the judicious use of antibiotics in farmed animals. According to Brad Spellberg, an infectious-disease specialist, "We're in an era where antibiotic resistance is out of control, and we're running out of drugs and new drugs are not being developed. We can't continue along the path we're on."
But the best way to stay healthy is to not eat meat in the first place, whether it's antibiotic-free or not. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is now encouraging people to eat a more plant-based diet to help prevent and reverse diet-related diseases. Hospitals should also advise people to make healthy plant-based choices--and they can start by serving wholesome vegan meals on hospital grounds.
Heather Moore is a research specialist for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.GoVeg.com.