Antibiotic-Free Movement Gaining Ground

By John Lovett
Times Record

There is a hearty movement within the largest health-care and nutrition services supplier to cut antibiotics out of the food chain as part of an effort to curb what have become known as “super bugs” in the health care world.

Sparks Health System in Fort Smith is one of 647 hospitals in the nation served by Morrison Healthcare. The Atlanta-based company, which is a subsidiary of the Compass Group USA, has been on a mission since 2009 to use its market influence to help change the long-running practice of using human-intended antibiotics in poultry.

Lisa Roberson, corporate director of wellness and sustainability at Morrison Healthcare, says while the company has been able to offer poultry raised without routine, non-therapeutic antibiotic use there simply is not enough supply of poultry that has been raised without any antibiotics. The cost of using those birds is up to 1.5 times more expensive also.

Up to 70 percent of U.S. antibiotics go to farm animals that are not sick, and that overuse of antibiotics leads to super bugs that infect humans, she points out.

Roberson said she has worked with Kerri McClimen of the PEW Charitable Trusts in the past to help broker a no-human-antibiotic-production deal between large food producers like Tyson and restaurants. Tyson Foods announced last April it would phase out the use of human antibiotics from its chicken supply by 2017, as the poultry industry at large shifts away from the practice.

Antibiotic resistance costs the United States an estimated $20 billion a year in direct health care expenses, Roberson adds, and $35 billion a year in lost productivity.

The flip side of that, of course, is just how much of a burden on the meat growers it would be to take non-therapeutic use of antibiotics out of their business plan. It was recently revealed that most of the world’s finished feed is tainted with some form of mycotoxin, or mold.

According to a Feb. 22 report at, the 2015 Biomin Mycotoxin Survey results show 84 percent of corn, wheat, soybean and finished feed samples taken worldwide contain at least one mycotoxin. Fumonisin levels in corn stand out and are in excess of maximum risk thresholds.

“There is probably no safe level of mycotoxins in livestock feed, yet most poultry diet components contain them,” the article states. “Recent scientific findings focusing on sub-clinical effects of fumonisins suggest that the intestinal tract of birds is very sensitive to fumonisin exposure.”

Roberson says to have poultry grown without any antibiotics from hatchery onward, on an industrial level, calls for extremely sanitary conditions. If one bird is infected with something, the growers have to treat the whole flock. The industry on a large scale simply has not been able to get up to that level yet.“

It’s incredibly expensive to convert a plant,” Roberson said. “It has to go through several generations, with super duty security measures.”

On the smaller level, as at Cedar Creek Farm and Hobbtown Grassfed at Cedarville, Jeremy Prater has also kept things controlled without use of antibiotics.

Mycotoxins are toxins produced by fungi, Prater explains, and they are prevalent in feed because once the grains are ground, it’s a “wonderful environment for fungi to thrive.” The toxins are a byproduct of the fungi feeding in the grains.“

Best practice for avoiding mycotoxins is to have fresh ground feed and only keep it on hand for less than 30 days, even less in warm humid weather,” Prater writes. “The next step is to clean all surfaces, storage facilities, feeders and augers between feed deliveries. … The toxins can produce all sorts of bad effects on livestock, most are related to some form of liver failure.”

Growers who buy feed by the sack have to rely on preservatives in the feed to keep it healthy, he adds. At a scale like Cedar Creek, he said he can work directly with a local feed mill, keep the feed fresh, and be watchful for cleanliness so he does not have to rely on preservatives or antibiotics.

Roberson comments in her blog at the Health Care Without Harm group’s site that Morrison Healthcare has been participating in meetings of the Market Transformation Group (MTG) for more than two years, since its inception. The group was created by Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth “to accelerate the transformation of the health-care supply chain towards more sustainable products, technologies and services.”

“The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal production is a growing public health concern because it decreases the effectiveness of antibiotics to treat diseases in humans,” Compass Group’s Core Value statement reads.

“We only serve chicken that has been produced with restricted use of these drugs, especially as a growth additive in feed. Our contracted suppliers are required to provide products which adhere to specific criteria developed in partnership with The Environmental Defense Fund.”Responsible Antibiotic Use.

Sparks Health Systems’ food supplier has been active in the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU) standard development and use as well.

In 2014, School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in Urban Schools) and PEW Charitable Trusts developed the Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use Standard to minimize the use of antibiotics in poultry production and offer schools a viable way to put poultry raised with responsible antibiotic use on the menu. CRAU is the first USDA-certified standard that allows for minimal use of medically important antibiotics in poultry production—but only when prescribed by a licensed veterinarian. Poultry companies interested in meeting CRAU must undergo regular USDA audits to verify conformance.

Plant-based diets are ultimately the best way to avoid antibiotics, Roberson adds, and Compass Group promotes the “flexitarian” lifestyle, to eat no meat at least once a week.

The “biggest win,” lately for Morrison Healthcare, Roberson said, was the commitment to offer 100 percent sustainable fish from the ocean by the end of 2017.Compass Group USA also made a major policy expansion to its already existing cage-free shell egg policy to include the purchase of liquid eggs from cage-free sources by the end of 2019.

By 2019, partners supplying Compass Group USA with cage-free shell and liquid eggs will also be required to adhere to Humane Farm Animal Care standards. Mercy Fort Smith released a statement saying it was dedicated to providing its patients well-balanced meals but would not comment on antibiotics in meats served in the hospital system.”

Currently, Compass Group purchases 30 million pounds of liquid eggs. The new policy will remove more than 1 million hens from battery cages per year and put them into cage-free settings, thus contributing to the improvement of farm animal welfare, food safety and sustainability, Roberson added.

By 2019, partners supplying Compass Group USA with cage-free shell and liquid eggs will also be required to adhere to Humane Farm Animal Care standards. Mercy Fort Smith released a statement saying it was dedicated to providing its patients well-balanced meals but would not comment on antibiotics in meats served in the hospital system.“

Mercy serves thousands of hospital patients every day in 45 hospitals across four states,” the release states. “We depend on large food-service vendors to source the quantity of food needed for such a large system. Our Food & Nutritional Services co-workers work diligently to provide our patients with well-balanced meals that are nutritionally appropriate for their medical condition.”

A spokesperson for Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville confirmed that chicken served at its facility is “not antibiotic free.” Tyson Foods has stated the company is “striving to eliminate human antibiotics” from its broiler chicken production by September 2017.

The company states that it has already stopped using them in 35 hatcheries and reduced the use of human antibiotics in its broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011. Only a small percentage of the broiler chickens ever receive human antibiotics, Tyson adds. The medicines are given only as needed and only as prescribed by a veterinarian.