Updated: UK hospitals to remove meat from menus

In a move that is generating a good bit of buzz across the Atlantic, Britain's National Health Service today issued new guidelines to the country's hospitals, pushing them to adopt many measures to reduce the industry's carbon emissions.

Along with suggesting more phone consultations instead of in-office visits and encouraging staff to turn off machiney when not in use, one proposal is getting especial attention: Meatless menus. According to the Guardian, "the plan to offer patients menus that would have no meat option" is one aspect of the overall strategy sure to be "controversial with patients' groups." But David Pencheon, director of the NHS sustainable devlopment unit, stands firm: "We should not expect to see meat on every menu. We'd like [to see] higher levels of fresh fruit and veg."

The link between animal agriculture and increased carbon emissions is best documented in the United Nations report Livestock's Long Shadow, which showed that worldwide, animals raised for food are contributing more to global warming than all of human transport. Since then, official recommendations for the public to reduce meat consumption have come from various quarters. The UN's climate chief suggested that going vegetarian, even for one day a week, was the biggest single contribution people could make in their daily lives to fight climate change. And just last week, Germany's federal environment agency issued a "strong advisory" that its citizens eat meat "only on special occasions" as a way to reduce the nation's carbon footprint.

When you add in the various disease triggers associated with animal protein, it's almost surprising meat is still a mainstay on most hospital menus, so the British guidelines would seem to fit both aspects of "Saving Carbon, Improving Health," the title of the position paper.

I asked around among Philadelphia hospitals whether there were any plans similar plans in place in our neck of the woods, or even other plans for increasing sustainability, and have yet to hear about any. But I'm sure they're out there, and will update this post (or you can, in comments) with any pertinent information that comes our way.

UPDATE 2/2: Of all the major local hospitals I contacted, Jefferson - AKA Thomas Jefferson University Hospital -  takes the prize for responsiveness: Their PR staff called me right back and said that while they couldn't get me an answer that day, Shelley Chamberlain, Assistant  Director for Dining at the hospital would be in touch to answer my questions. And today she did.

"At Jefferson we have taken an approach of trying to educate and do things in a systematic way and provide choices for people, but not say OK, Tuesday, no meat," she says. "We have been reducing some of our meat items and doing a lot more with vegetables and whole grains." Chamberlain also mentioned that the hospital had hosted a farmers' market for several months last year, and plans to do it again. "Right on 10th street east of Chestnut, literally right on the sidewalk," she says, "we had three farmers and a couple other vendors - we're trying to make fruits and vegetables easily available. The more you do that, the more people try things - and with the taste of fresh produce and the nurtitive value of fresh produce ... your habits change without you even realizing it."

The hospital is going eco-conscious in other ways too, though: "The [Dorrance J.] Hamilton building that was just built," she notes, "is a green building." And in overseeing the cafeteria she has instituted changes to eliminated styrofoam cups. But she points out that it's not always a simple matter for large institutions to institute 'green' policies. "Slowly products are becoming available," she says, "And as they do, it's up to us to do the research: Is this just a gimmick or is this the right thing to do? For instance lately they've come out with paper products and utensils that are compostable. That's great but we're not composting [at Jefferson]. If and when we start to compost then I'll go back to my supplier and say now how can we work this into the system?"