Sustainability in Practice: Humane the Name of the Game

Bon Appétit is pushing animal producers toward responsible purchasing.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

In February Bon Appétit Management Co. announced the rollout of a comprehensive animal welfare policy to all of its more than 400 cafés nationwide. The new policy includes requirements such as all pork Bon Appétit serves must be produced without gestation crate confinement systems; all pre-cracked (liquid) eggs must come from hens living on cage-free farms—which the company already required for shell eggs; and eliminating foie gras and veal from calves confined in crates from its menus. The policy will be fully implemented by 2015.

The policy is the latest step in the company’s efforts to promote responsible purchasing. Bon Appétit works with producers to pursue Animal Welfare Approved, Food Alliance, Humane Farm Animal Care or Global Animal Partnership certification. Bon Appétit has pledged that by 2015, 25% or more of its meat, poultry and egg purchases companywide will be sourced from producers that meet at least one of these four certifications.

Integral to the development and implementation of this pledge is Helene York, director of strategic sourcing and research for the company. York has been responsible for working with suppliers to make sure they comply with the new policy.

“We don’t make commitments that we feel we can’t achieve,” York says. “We really did a lot of research. We met with a lot of companies. We talked to a lot of people in the industry before we made a commitment. We talk to some of the smaller producers who are considering certification and try to understand what the issues are. It’s an evolving field, and we hope to help catalyze it.”

York says the process of meeting with suppliers begins by determining what type of supplier they are. There are three types: large-scale suppliers who are nationally distributed, regional or mid-field producers and small-scale producers. There are also differences in suppliers based on what animal they focus on. Bon Appétit is working with all types of suppliers to get this pledge met, says York.

“What we’ve done in the last couple of years is really learn and understand the system,” York says. “In terms of the large-scale producers, we feel very strongly that they need to change their practices because they have a lot of market power. In terms of the regional and small-scale producers, we are sitting down with them and saying, ‘Here are four different credible certification schemes, how close are you? How close could you be to meeting the standard?’”

York says the pledge has allowed them more access to producers because of all the press associated with food issues of this type.

“They are much happier to sit down and talk to us than they were two years ago,” York says. “They know we are going to be pushing the envelope sooner so they want to know what will satisfy us. We’re beginning to discuss where some of the production systems could change to meet demand for what we buy and for what they believe others that follow behind us will want to buy.”

Distribution seems to be the biggest challenge for York and her team. The questions for large-scale distribution seems to be, how do you ensure traceability of product that’s grown in a responsible way through a slaughterhouse and processing facility when those facilities often handle more than one type of production? York says conversations she’s had with large-scale producers have come down to them pledging to concentrate their practices in a certain region of the country, which can then become the location from which national distribution springs.

“At the same time we’re also talking to regional producers,” York says. “We’ve gotten one regional producer of significant size looking to become certified humane. I’m confident they wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t asked them. We pick the responsible regional producers who grow a terrific product from a quality perspective, but they are big enough to handle a lot of needs and have been in business long enough to know what the challenges are. We are really pushing them to choose one of these certifications because that’s what’s going to distinguish them in the market, not only to us, but also to others in the market. We believe one of these standards will signal to consumers that these regional producers are worth supporting.”

York says her department has been working with suppliers who are in all stages of the certification process. The important thing York says to remember is that these certifications are not just pieces of paper.

“What the [certification] process has meant to these producers is a framework from which they can benchmark their activities and learn from them,” York says. “The producers have told us that their operations have improved because they went through the process. Having a third party come in and say what these suppliers could do better has improved the quality of their product and the distribution process.”

In terms of actually getting these certified suppliers’ products into Bon Appétit cafés, the process is in various stages, says York. Several regional producers are currently in Bon Appétit’s distribution network. However, the large-scale producers are still in the negotiation stage.

“We don’t want to say no to the national producers who aren’t completely certified or that haven’t changed all their operations yet because we understand it’s going to take time for them to change,” York says. “Every production system is different for each animal, so if they commit to us a process by which they are going to go from where they are now to where we’d like them to be then we’re happy to support them. The only way change is going to happen is if major buyers stick with producers who make commitments and ensure that their commitments are in progress.”

York says she thinks the most important thing operators should remember is to make sure to raise issues that are important to them during contract negotiations with suppliers.

“It’s not just about what the supplier has achieved today that is important, although that’s good,” York says. “It’s more important to discuss what the producer is going to achieve over the lifetime of this contract if the operator awards it to them. Can you get to a credible higher standard? Overall we’d like to see other major buyers put those ideas on the table and signal to producers that it really matters to them what the promises are and know that operators are going to follow up to make sure the producers are actually achieving what they say they will.”