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Dr. David Acheson is the Founder and CEO of The Acheson Group
Beltway Beat

Panera Throws Down the Gauntlet by Removing Artificial Additives

By Dr. David Acheson
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Dr. David Acheson is the Founder and CEO of The Acheson Group

Earlier this month, Panera announced its intention to remove “artificial additives by publishing a list of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives that it has eliminated or intends to remove from its [menus] by the end of 2016.” The company’s position wasn’t a response to consumer demand but rather the latest step in its Food Policy of holding itself accountable.

Whether you think Panera’s move is good or unnecessary; whether or not your company plans to start removing additives (or GMOs), it’s important to understand that the food industry is truly driven by consumers. And consumers are all-to-often driven by consumer group and media hype, or by trends they don’t truly understand. It is just as important to understand that whether you are a foodservice provider, retailer, or anyone upstream in the supply chain, this movement impacts you.

Panera commented, “We are not scientists”. However, the company did consult with third-party scientists and experts to create a list of “common artificial additives” with a goal to “unengineer” its food menu and remove artificial additives “that have become prevalent across the industry’s supply chain.” Interestingly enough, Panera never directly states that these additives are bad—they’re just “artificial”. Panera did, however, allow others to say it for them in a series of quotes contained in the company’s press release.

According to the release, “The artificial additives on the No No List will be removed across the Company’s food menu, from bakery to soups to salads and sandwiches. The list also includes substances like high fructose corn syrup and artificial trans fats. There are more than 150 ingredients that will be impacted.”

Don’t believe all 150 ingredients are bad? Your product uses only “a little” high fructose corn syrup? You need to use an ingredient on EWG’s “dirty dozen” list (among the 150 to be discontinued)? You use antibiotics for your poultry? Too bad. If you want to supply Panera (or Chipotle or Whole Foods, etc.), you’ll be left with the option either following their limitations or not supplying them at all. Panera touts itself as the first national restaurant company to publicly share a comprehensive list of ingredients to be removed, but it’s not the first to begin banning ingredients. And with the vocal nature of the consumer groups and the media, it certainly won’t be the last.

If you are a retailer or foodservice provider yourself, be aware that Panera has just thrown down the gauntlet. Will you pick it up and join the fight? Will you publicly share your own list of ingredients in a very transparent way … can you? Now that one company has “shared,” we have to believe it’s going to start a wave of disclosure, either as a competitive tool or in response to public demand—or both.

What if you believe in “engineering”? You know your ingredients are beneficially engineered for health, productivity, or to feed the world in 2050. What are your options if you don’t intend to give into the pressure? You can try to fight transparency with transparency focused on science and communication. Consumers want to know what is in their food, and they have a right to know. They also have a right to understand what is in their food and why, but it is up to industry to be communicating that. But, and it is a huge but, there are many consumer organizations that strive to keep the general consumer off balance and continuing to not trust what the science is telling us. Those battles are very hard to fight let alone win. As soon as the food industry points out that “ingredients” are safe and approved for use, the consumer reaction is one of lack of trust.

Just as we are beginning to see global food safety standards being set (e.g., GFSI, FSMA, etc.), manufacturers and suppliers are being handed a whole new array of “clean” requirements (bringing new audits?) that varies from customer to customer. This adds to the complexity of food production. And if we are not careful, these changes will introduce risks to the food. As we use less preservatives and salt, the obvious concern is that the microbes will simply move in and grow.

Does it ever end? Not if you consider the implications of a comment by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a USA Today article that a greater nutritional problem with Panera’s menu items are their high-calorie counts, “wide use of white flour and excessive use of sugar.” Even if the additive-GMO-artificial ingredient issue gets solved or blows over, there will always be a new health-nutrition-safety-quality-trending issue or fad developing just over the horizon.

It seems you can’t win for losing, so your best bet is to do what you believe is best for your customer and your business, communicate what and why you do what you do, be as transparent as is practical, and keep an eye on the horizon for the next wave. Panera has done this; it has put its flag in the sand in order to enhance its brand and its business. There will be some in the food industry that look at these changes as a threat or a mistake. However, the reality is that it is the way of the future. Food companies make money by selling food, and consumers are the ones that ultimately put the money in the system that keeps it all going. So ignore consumers at your peril, but a huge challenge for much of the industry is that, at the retail and food service end it is easy to make quick changes – but in the manufacturing end it is often neither easy nor fast, and it will be costly.