Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
There is growing evidence that animal products like bacon and ham cured with nitrates and nitrites – which preserve the meat and give it its pink colouring – are carcinogenic, raising the risk of people developing cancers of the breast, prostate, and bowel. Yet 61 NHS trusts in England may be helping to create future cancer patients by serving chemical-cured meats to those in their care, including children, according to an investigation by the Guardian.
This is in spite of expert advice to the UK government that there needs to be a 30 percent reduction in meat consumption nationally by 2030 for public health and environmental reasons; the Hospital Caterers Association having pledged in 2020 to cut the amount of meat served by 20 percent; and there being new ‘National standards for healthcare food and drink’ that includes the NHS reducing its emissions through its supply chain. For food, the standards include the recommendation that hospitals serve fewer processed foods, a wider variety of protein sources including beans, pulses, nuts and soya, and more seasonal, locally sourced fruits and vegetables.
Given that eating a plant-based diet is healthier for us and the planet, and is far better for the billions of animals slaughtered for food every year, it’s shocking that so many NHS hospitals are failing to provide nutritious plant-based food for people whose health is already compromised. Vegans on social media also regularly share the poor quality of food served to them in hospitals, including failing to provide any vegan options at all.
But many other hospitals and public institutions are making moves in the right direction or actually taking meat off their menus altogether.
Though no NHS hospital seems to have committed to a meat reduction target, anecdotal evidence shows that some NHS hospitals are getting it right with their vegan options,
such as those in Croydon and Hammersmith, and Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth. University Hospital Southampton appointed a vegan head of sustainability in 2021, with a remit to reduce the amount of meat served in the hospital’s canteen.
Some local authorities are doing a little better, with Edinburgh City Council having become one of 21 cities around the world to endorse the Plant Based Treaty earlier this year, and a handful of English councils having adopted motions to make catering for their own events vegan. Some have also committed to increasing the proportion of plant-based meals served in school canteens.
In the US, the American Medical Association has called on hospitals to remove processed meat from their menus and provide more plant-based options. In January, healthcare provider NYC Health + Hospitals announced that plant-based food will be the primary dinner option for inpatients at all of its 11 public hospitals in New York. In Beirut, Lebanon, the private Hayek Hospital became the first in the world to serve only vegan meals to its patients, stating that “Our patients will no longer wake up from surgery to be greeted with ham, cheese, milk, and eggs. The very foods that may have contributed to their health problems in the first place.”
Aside from the increased risk of developing certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes from eating meat, there are other pressing public health reasons for hospitals and all public institutions to shift to plant-based food. Farming animals increasingly risks zoonotic disease outbreaks such as avian flu, about which health experts are growing worried. Industrial animal farming is also a leading cause of antimicrobial resistance due to the high levels of antibiotics used on farms globally. Given the devastating impact of the Covid pandemic on the NHS and other health systems, there is clearly a pressing need for the health service to do its part in helping to prevent future pandemics.
The public health case for ceasing to farm animals is already strong, and made more critical by the unnecessary suffering of billions of animals. As philosopher Jeff Sebo argues in his book Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves, human, planetary and animal health are deeply intertwined and should be addressed holistically. To do that, public institutions and political leaders need to reduce their support for the exploitation of animals and increase support for plant-based alternatives.
For the animals.