Monday, July 6, 2015

Food + Money + "Ethics" + Marketing = Betrayal

I probably eat in Panera more than any other restaurant--not because it is my favorite place, but because I meet my father there every Sunday morning.  I also don't eat all that much when I'm there, occasionally a pastry or a bagel with my ubiquitous cup of coffee.

And because people are so calorie conscious these days, what slows me when I do order food are the calorie listings that go with all of the breakfast items on the menu.

We eat lunch there sometimes, too, especially if we're out at the mall and want something that is quick and relatively healthy, or, even more so, if we are on the road and want the same thing.  Panera has always seemed safe, reliable, one of the "good guys" when it comes to restaurants.

So it is with some disgust that I react to the new signs that hang all over Panera locations, signs like the one above that proclaim the restaurant chain's new initiative to get all of the artificial ingredients out of its food by 2016.

This is marketing.  This is a trend.  Other chains from Chipotle to McDonald's are doing the same thing.  And I'm not naive; it is effective marketing in 2015. But it is not just marketing; it is expense. The fact that Panera reminds us that they can't fully make the transition until 2016 is an indication that they are having to "retool" parts of their operation and that, until then, they are perfectly happy to continue serving us the ingredients that they feel it necessary to remove.

I am a label reader.  When I buy products in a supermarket, I look to see what is in them, and if there are a number of ingredients aka chemicals in there that I don't recognize (or that I do recognize and fear), then I don't buy the product.  Some food additives are scary; some are just scary-sounding.  for example, you probably don't want to eat any form of aluminum, but you probably do.

So if you look to the left (chart courtesy of foodbabe.com), you can see the additions to your food that Panera is taking away.  I don't know all of those, obviously, but there is some pretty bad stuff on there, things that you would not willingly put into your body if you knew what they were.

And that raises the question.  Since Panera knows what those ingredients are, since Panera knows that they can positively market the fact that they are removing these additives, why did they ever use them in the first place?  It is not like these 150 additives were suddenly discovered to be bad for us in the last week.

Why was it okay to sneak all of this into their food before, but it is not okay now?  Is Panera more ethical now, or did they just get caught?  Or, why announce that you are removing them before you remove them, leaving us to know that they are still in there?

The simple answer to any question we can think of is money.  Panera could make more money by using these chemicals.  Most of them preserve, stabilize, or maintain the consistency of the food they are added to and that means longer shelf life and that means less waste and that means more profit.

I'm not so naive as to deny a company's right/need to make money, but I don't find it unrealistic for them to do so in responsible ways.  The reasons I focus on Panera are a) no one expects this kind of ethical activity from McDonald's, b) Chattanooga does not have Chipotle, and c) well, Panera.

Panera promotes the freshness of its menu, even changing it to reflect the season, is extremely open about its caloric content, and even markets itself as something of a "healthy" place to eat-- with nutritious power sandwiches for breakfast, smoothies, and a variety of teas and drinks that reflect latest healthy trends like mango or acai berry.  Sure, they've got pastries, but they are clearly catering to fitness-conscious eaters as well.

And that's why I feel betrayed, a betrayal that isn't mitigated by the menu and food preparation changes they are in the midst of.  Panera may be doing something "right," but they aren't doing it for the right reasons.  They are doing it for marketing (to suggest that now they are even healthier), and they are doing it in full awareness of American consumer amnesia.  People forget.

And what about item 151?  150 is such a nice, easy to remember, round number, isn't it?  Do you think that by some coincidence that is exactly how many things needed to go?  Or are there other things still in the food that, at least for the moment, they know that they can still get away with?

Food production companies rely on an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) called GRAS, which means "generally regarded as safe."  If you're an English teacher like I am, ponder the diction of that least common denominator for a second.  You probably think I'm paranoid, but for someone like me who watches what is in food, Panera's actions, paradoxically, make me feel less safe, not more so.

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