How Eco-Friendly is Your Food?

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By Staff Writer Susanna Kopecky.

french_friesMany a food joint talks big about being green and friend (not foe) to the environment, but which ones are truly pulling their green weight? Let us consider for a moment exactly what it means for a food chain to be eco-friendly in its start-to-finish production of food.

There are many steps on the journey to preparing food, and many chains should be lauded for their individual decisions as to food choice, packaging choice, process choice and presentation. Let us consider a few popular ‘green’ elements in the food production process: purchasing behavior/type of food sold (are vendors selected for their commitment to eco-friendly principles?), packaging containers (is it a Styrofoam delight?) and delivery options are but a few facets to consider.

In recent years, some individuals have fought back against the use of genetically altered foodstuffs. New York Green Party contender Howie Hawkins recently brought the issue of genetically modified organism (GMO) use to the table, contending that “Genetic engineering represents nothing less than a going-out-of-business sale on genetic diversity.” Hawkins has gone so far as to support legislation permanently outlawing certain types of modified seeds, seen by him as “a crime against nature and humanity.”

In California, a measure was presented in San Luis Obispo County in 2004, for the purpose of outlawing GMOs. Ironically, the introduction of the legislation itself, and the resulting publicity, was seen by many as ultimately responsible for the measure’s demise. The American Society of Plant Biologists urged voters to knock down the measure, as “genetically engineered foods are safe to eat” and “the progress of science using modern technologies, such as genetic engineering has lead to the reduction of pesticide usage and to less disease.” The growth and consumption of GMOs continues to be a hot button issue today.

Chipotle BurritoWhen you hear the name Chipotle, do you automatically think of sustainability?

If you’re not familiar with the restaurant, you may want to learn more about its rather strict dedication to sustainability when it comes to meat. From the farm to the consumer’s plate, Chipotle advertises its commitment to going green, by “working closely with farmers and ranchers to ensure their operations create as small an impact as possible on the environment” and exemplified in practice by the designation of a Gurnee, Illinois Chipotle restaurant as the “nation’s first ever Platinum LEED certified restaurant.”

Chipotle also sponsors organic farmers markets, and has brought educational programs on sustainability and healthy eating to such groups as the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association and charities such as the All Faiths Food Bank. When it comes time to food production, Chipotle’s policy is to (“whenever possible”) “use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones.” Favored are the sustainable farms, and local and organic foods are also favored. The milk used at Chipotle is also only from dairy cows “raised without the use of synthetic hormones.”

Chipotle sees itself as approaching food with a “holistic” viewpoint: how can we serve food that is both delicious and in some way, perhaps betters the environment in its creation? The company believes that “food that is more sustainably raised is also more healthful, better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for the farmers who raise the animals and grow the produce.” At the heart of this drive is the company’s idea of “Food with Integrity,” and is seen as “one of the ways we are changing the way people think about and eat fast food.”

“One of the ways we are changing the way people think about and eat fast food”

Chipotle’s dedication to sustainability continues, notably in its choice of meat selection and its strong preference for naturally raised and pasture-raised livestock. While still on the search for “pasture-raised poultry and pork,” this chain has quite a bit to be proud of. Chipotle officially has only used “naturally raised” pork since 2001, defining “naturally raised” as those animals which are “raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet, never given hormones and [are] allowed to display their natural tendencies.” The standards are just as high with beef, for which Chipotle also favors naturally raised. The brass at the chain claim to have helped increase the demand for naturally raised beef, and though 85 percent of beef sold at Chipotle is “from ranches that meet or exceed… [Chipotle’s] naturally raised standards,” the ultimate goal is to reach 100% naturally raised beef sold.

For poultry, Chipotle claims that “100% of our chickens are raised without the use of antibiotics” and there is a high level of sensitivity to what “additional additives” chickens are given. Chipotle also prides itself on being the “first national restaurant company to serve dairy products made with milk from cows that are not treated with the synthetic hormone rGBH.”

In 2010, about 35-40% of the black and pinto beans sold in Chipotle restaurants have also been organically grown, a fact the company has been happy to share, and to help illustrate its interest in the issue of pesticide usage (as illuminated in its January 2010 Position on Pesticide Use statement). The chain notes that it really has made an impact, and noticeably so: “In total, our efforts to use ingredients from more sustainable sources has led to a direct reduction of chemical pesticide use of nearly 100,000 pounds since 2005.”

It fires up the imagination to imagine how positively the environment could be further impacted, if small steps continue to be taken, not only by Chipotle, but by fellow chains. It is quite in vogue for restaurants, both new and fabled for their contribution to the modern fast-food chain stereotype, to claim to be on the side of healthy eating. However, restaurant chains like Chipotle really are comfortable promoting a certain type of ‘healthier’ and more sustainable eating.

styrofoam_cupLike Chipotle, other restaurants have also hopped on the more green-friendly bandwagon, such as McDonalds. After working in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund, McDonalds successfully began to use unbleached paper bags, “Reduced paper use by 21% in napkins, and incorporated 30% postconsumer recycled content” and “reduced 510 million kilowatt-hours through energy efficiency improvements in its stores.” In addition, it was found by the EDF that a decade after the collaboration, McDonalds has successfully “eliminated over 300 million pounds of packaging, enough to keep Peoria, Illinois trash-free for 10 years.” The Daily Green notes that McDonalds has two LEED-certified locations, and no longer uses Styrofoam in its food packaging. (One of the most maligned food packaging materials today is Styrofoam.) Consequently, many well-known food chains have relinquished that material as a packaging fall-back.

Today, it is popular to emphasize the “reuse” of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” And some major food chains are catching on, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. (KFC has an ultimate goal of entirely eliminating Styrofoam usage at its restaurants.) Just this month, KFC announced its intention to use multi-use packaging that is “reusable [and made out of] polypropylene.” And like those popular cloth shopping bags that aren’t meant to only be used once, KFC hopes that such a move will help encourage consumers to think of ways to adopt sustainable living practices in their everyday lives. (This will be the first time a reusable container will be introduced a major food chain, KFC points out.)

By phasing out single-use containers out in favor of the reusable container by the end of 2011, KFC hopes such goals will be reached as the replacement of “single-use, nonrecyclable expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) with a reusable and more widely recycled resin, polypropylene (PP)”; and an energy requirement decrease by 25% for the production of the PP over the “general-purpose polystyrene (PS)”; and the hope that the production and use of PP containers will help to cut down by “half the amount of greenhouse gases.”

KFC continues to set impressive sustainability goals, hoping that before 2012, the restaurant chain will “reduce its use of foam by 62% and total plastic use by 17%.” This chain is already on the right road, with its phasing out of plastic serving materials, in favor of paper materials.

Many food chains today have notable involvement and success in sustainable and green ventures. Some take more active and visible roles when it comes to addressing sustainability, resource allocation and the environment, while others support responsible resource use in subtle but useful ways. So perhaps next time you wonder just how sustainable that burger joint or fast food restaurant down the street is, you may be pleasantly surprised!

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