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Overlake Hospital chef moves meals toward antibiotic-free meat

Chris Linaman prepares a cut of salmon in Overlake Medical Center’s kitchen. The executive chef has worked to increase the kitchen’s usage of antibiotic-free meat, achieving a rate of 45 percent in the third quarter of 2013. - Daniel Nash
Chris Linaman prepares a cut of salmon in Overlake Medical Center’s kitchen. The executive chef has worked to increase the kitchen’s usage of antibiotic-free meat, achieving a rate of 45 percent in the third quarter of 2013.
— image credit: Daniel Nash

At Overlake Hospital Medical Center, Executive Chef Chris Linaman has succeeded in making nearly half of his kitchen's meats antibiotic free by the second half of 2013.

The effort gained significance as the Food and Drug Administration took steps toward phasing out the use of some antibiotics in animals processed for meat, citing a potential threat to public health.

Antibiotic resistance in humans has been a growing concern in the medical community for years. While antibiotics’ efficacy in fighting formerly fatal infections earned them a reputation as “miracle drugs” in the 20th century — indeed, the safety of chemotherapy and many surgeries depends on them — they’ve always come with a measure of risk.

Bacteria reproduce rapidly. Biologist Richard Lenski’s long-term evolution experiment with E. coli, begun in 1988, counted 50,000 generations by its anniversary in 2010. Such a high rate of reproduction means the life forms evolve rapidly — cultures that survive treatment from antibiotics can become resistant.

Linaman knows the consequences of antibiotic resistance firsthand. Seven years ago, he fell ill to a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection. He was treated with several rounds of antibiotics, most of which were ineffective, and one of which he had an allergic reaction.

“I spent a better part of a year sick,” he said. “They started me out on an easy (antibiotic) that the infection was resistant to. … I believe I went through three to four steps before they found one that made me better.”

The experience made him conscious of the potential contributors to resistance, one of which is the popular use of antibiotics on livestock. In addition to their intended use to treat existing infections, regular subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics have the secondary effect of promoting growth, thus leading to a greater yield of meat. Critics of the practice are concerned people could eat an under-cooked meal and contract, for example, a drug-resistant strain of salmonella or E. coli.

The FDA made steps earlier in December to move the industry away from non-prescripted antibiotic use, asking drug companies to voluntarily stop labeling such drugs as promoters of animal growth.

“I’m all for (antibiotic use on livestock) if people want to take care of sick animals,” Linaman said. “But their use as a preemptive strike is where you get into trouble.”

Starting nine months ago, Linaman had already begun moving Overlake Hospital toward greater use of antibiotic-free meat. As the hospital’s executive chef, he oversees all the food that comes into and out of a kitchen that produces roughly 2,500 to 3,000 meals and meal equivalents per day. Linaman started by substituting in only USDA organic patties into his hamburgers, and raised prices by the amount of the extra cost — less than a dime per patty.

He set a goal to make his kitchen’s meats 30 percent antibiotic-free by June 2014. While reviewing the vendor reports for the third quarter of this year, he found the kitchen’s meats had already achieved 45 percent freedom from antibiotic use.

Linaman said vendors were more than willing to help Overlake find sources of antibiotic-free meat.

“It’s easier, first, once you find them and once, in terms of expense, you decide to take the plunge to find them,” he said.

The chef said consumers concerned about resistant infections in meat can look for antibiotic-free labeling at their grocery store. Labels such as “raised without antibiotics,” “no antibiotics administered,” “Organic” and “animal welfare approved” indicate antibiotic-free meat, he said.

Linaman is awaiting his fourth quarter 2013 vendor reports, which arrive in January, to determine if Overlake has continued to use a significant percentage of antibiotic-free meat. He would like to maintain levels of 30- to 45 percent, he said.

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