Three of the most confounding issues challenging the U.S. health care system today are food related: the increase in obesity and diabetes among Americans and the startling proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In Hospitals & Health Networks and here in H&HN Daily, we’ve reported on just how serious those threats are to the health of millions of Americans, as well as the burden on the health care system and on the nation’s economy. We’ve also spotlighted many innovative tactics hospitals and others have developed to confront each of these problems. For obesity and diabetes, for instance, providers have gone into schools to teach kids that good nutrition can be tasty as well as healthful, they’ve sponsored fitness challenges in their communities, and they’ve set up farmers markets in so-called food deserts. To fight antibiotic resistance, they’ve implemented stringent protocols for antibiotic use and some have begun to pay more attention to where they buy the food they serve patients and visitors.
But these problems are far too big for hospitals and other providers to solve alone. Happily, the government and private industry are joining the effort.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported earlier this month that 16 leading food and beverage companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than they did in 2007. That amounts to 78 calories per American per day. The companies are part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, launched by 40 of the nation’s largest retailers, nonprofit organizations, food and beverage manufacturers and trade associations with the goal of helping to reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity, by 2015.
As RWJF reported, “together, the 16 companies produced 36 percent of the calories from all packaged foods and beverages, items such as cereals, snacks, canned soups and bottled beverages, sold in the United States in 2007.” In 2010, these companies pledged to reduce calories in their products by 1 trillion in 2012 and 1.5 trillion in 2015. Amazingly, they’ve exceeded the goal by more than 400 percent. To do so, they introduced lower-calorie options, reduced the calorie count in existing products and changed portion sizes in certain products.
Late last year, I wrote back-to-back blogs in which experts warned of the frightening consequences of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Drugs are not being developed fast enough to replace those to which bacteria become resistant. And antibiotics are being overprescribed, sometimes against ailments for which they aren’t even effective.
In December, the Food and Drug Administration issued a new policy in which it asks drug companies to change antibiotic labels so they don’t indicate that the drugs promote growth in livestock. As an editorial in The New York Times noted, “such a labeling change would make it illegal to use antibiotics for that purpose. Companies that comply will also have to ensure that the use of drugs to treat, control or prevent disease in animals is overseen by veterinarians.”
The policy is voluntary. Drug-makers will have three months from its introduction to tell the FDA if they will comply and up to three years to carry out the policy. Two manufacturers already have signed on.
Although the Times and others applaud the move, they urge the FDA to go a step further and “limit antibiotic use to treating animals that are already sick or in special circumstances where a healthy animal is likely to become sick.”