Visitors and patients at UCLA hospitals probably won’t notice what’s gone missing from the chili, hamburgers and chicken dishes they order for lunch.
But by putting antibiotic-free ground beef, ground beef patties and chicken breasts on the menus at the university’s Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, hospital officials hope to strike a blow against so-called superbugs.
Feeding antibiotics to cows, chicken and pigs is a common practice that enhances growth in the animals but also contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance: when microbes evolve to become impervious to attack, making it more and more difficult for physicians to treat infections.
Bacteria that are susceptible to treatment die off in the presence of antimicrobial medication, allowing other bacteria that are resistant to drugs to thrive -- and endanger patients. Scientists say the process is inevitable, but might be slowed by limiting antibiotic use. The more the drugs are used, the more opportunities arise for resistant bacteria to evolve.
According to a 2013 analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people in the U.S. suffer antibiotic-resistant infections every year; 23,000 of those people die from their illnesses. The CDC report, covered here by The Times, traced much of the danger to improper use of antibiotic drugs in human patients, who often take medication when it isn’t warranted, to treat a viral infection such as a cold, for instance, or who fail to take drugs as directed.
But the CDC also called out U.S. agriculture for overuse of antibiotics in farm animals. In both cases, “it’s two sides of the same coin,” said Dr. Daniel Uslan, director of the UCLA Antimicrobial Stewardship Program, which works to assure drugs are used properly in the university's health system.
The hospitals serve about 10,000 meals a day, but switching to antibiotic-free meat would mark just a small step toward solving the problem of antibiotic resistance, Uslan said. Nonetheless, he called the symbolic importance of the move “critically important.”
“It’s similar to a hospital having an obesity clinic and serving fried food in the cafeteria,” he said. “I view antibiotics as a resource like fisheries or a forest. If we don’t protect them, [they] will be gone just like our forests.”
In recent months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to make farmers phase out using antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals. Restaurants Panera Bread and Chipotle and grocer Whole Foods Market have already stopped serving meat from antibiotic-treated animals. Trader Joe's has come under pressure to follow suit.
UCLA Health director of nutrition Patricia Oliver said UCLA Medical Center, which plans to closely track sales of the new menu items, was also considering switching to antibiotic-free stew beef, tri-tip and chicken quarters. Diners had reacted positively to the changes thus far, she added.
“They want to know, ‘Can’t you get antibiotic-free sausage?’ ” she said.