Hospitals enter meat/climate change debate

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — There are proponents and opponents to every real and perceived issue imaginable. Take climate change, for example. Some experts believe the planet Earth is experiencing man-made global warming, which could be disastrous unless mankind changes its ways and adopts more sustainable practices and policies. Other experts scoff at the notion of man-made global warming and add the Earth has experienced warming periods since it was formed — and not due to any reasons brought about by its human inhabitants.

Most recently, this debate has taken another twist with the introduction of "Balanced Menus: A Pilot Evaluation of Implementation in Four San Francisco Bay Area Hospitals," which is being touted as the first U.S. examination of the impact that reduced-meat menus in hospital foodservice have on climate change. The study has been released by Health Care Without Harm and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study concludes that a pilot implementation of the Balanced Menus program across four participating hospitals yielded greenhouse gas emissions that exceeded the initial 20% reduction goal and substantial cost savings. Click here to see the report.

One meat industry executive questions the findings of this study. “It’s important that hospitals stay focused on helping people get well,” said Janet Riley, American Meat Institute (A.M.I.) senior vice-president of public affairs and member services, told MEATPOULTRY.com. “Part of helping people get well is providing a diet that is sufficient in protein to promote proper healing.

“The Center for a Livable Future grossly overstates Americans’ meat consumption by confusing production with consumption,” she added. “The Dietary Guidelines recommend 5 to 7 ounces from the meat and beans group per day. American men, on average, eat 6.9 ounces of meat and poultry and women consume 4.6 ounces of meat and poultry per day.

“Just this week, the British Journal of Nutrition published a study that documented animal-protein sources, such as lean beef, pork, fish, poultry and eggs may be beneficial in preventing the loss of muscle mass,” Ms. Riley continued. “It’s also important to note that recently the United Nations admitted that they made and error in attributing high levels of greenhouse gases to meat production and consumption.” (Click here for a related item.)

“We would like to know whether the Center for a Livable Future has factored this mistake into their program and their statements,” Ms. Riley concluded.

"One of the most compelling aspects of this evaluation is the greenhouse gas emissions reductions," said Roni Neff, Ph.D., MS, co-author of the report and research and policy director at the Center for a Livable Future and a faculty member at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "If the four included hospitals continued what they were doing for a year, they would collectively cut over 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from meat purchases. That's like saving over 100,000 gallons of gasoline or growing over 23,000 trees for 10 years."

Ms. Neff and doctoral student Lisa Lagasse, MHS, compared greenhouse gas emissions results using three different approaches and all yielded similar results, they claim. They note in this pilot study they did not have adequate data to characterize net impacts after accounting for replacement foods.

Since implementing Balanced Menus in January 2009, the four pilot hospitals - Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; the San Francisco VA Medical Center; the John Muir Health Medical Center; and one anonymous facility - have reduced meat offerings in their cafeterias and/or patient meal programs. These four San Francisco Bay Area hospitals have collectively reduced their meat purchasing by 28% and reduced what they call “the steep procurement costs associated with a high-meat diet.”

"Balanced Menus is designed as a flexible approach that prioritizes reduced-meat menus in hospitals and encourages purchasing the healthiest, most sustainably produced meat available," said Lena Brook, Health Care Without Harm national Balanced Menus coordinator, and senior program associate, San Francisco Bay chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“The Balanced Menus Challenge, launched nationally in September 2009, grew from concerns about the negative health and environmental impacts of industrialized meat production and a desire to support sustainable and grass-fed meat producers in the U.S.,” according to a news release. At present, 32 hospitals from across the country are committed to permanently reduce their meat purchasing by 20% in a year. Information on the Balanced Menus Program is available here.

“Encouraging a reduced and sustainable meat diet is part of a primary prevention agenda to reduce the nation's rates of diet-related disease, including diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers,” the news release added. Shifting meat consumption patterns would also contribute to larger climate mitigation efforts; promote cleaner air and water; and help protect the effectiveness of antibiotics, the news release continued.

There is about 50% more meat in the U.S. food supply than would be appropriate to consume based on dietary guidelines, according to U.S.D.A. statistics, the press releases claims. Almost 300 hospitals have taken the H.C.W.H. Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is an academic center focused on food systems, food security and the impact of industrial agriculture on public health. Health Care Without Harm “is an international coalition of more than 430 organizations in 52 countries, working to transform the health care industry worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable and no longer a source of harm to public health and the environment.”

H.C.W.H. said its “healthy food agenda,” includes buying fresh food locally and/or buying certified organic food; avoiding food raised with growth hormones and antibiotics; encouraging group purchasing organizations to support healthy food in healthcare; supporting local farmers and farming organizations; introducing farmers markets and on-site food box programs; reducing food waste; and establishing an overarching food policy at each health facility.

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