Seven Questions with Sara Burnett, Director of Wellness and Food Policy at Panera Bread

From by Lani Furbank
Seven Questions with Sara Burnett, Director of Wellness and Food Policy at Panera Bread

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016. 

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more. 

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Sara Burnett, the Director of Wellness and Food Policy at Panera Bread. Panera is one of the sponsors of the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What initiatives have you launched recently, or are planning to launch, that will further your company’s sustainability efforts?

Sara Burnett (SB): By the end of this year, we’ll have removed all artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives from our food menu items. We analyzed more than 450 ingredients and reformulated almost 150 items to remove ‘No No List’ ingredients from our food menu. I believe the end result will be worth it, both in terms of taste and quality. And we will be able to source and serve the kind of food we want to serve to our own families.

Our most recent commitment is to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for our United States Panera Bread and Saint Louis Bread Co. bakery-cafes by 2020. This goal builds on our long-standing commitment to reduce the use of antibiotics and confinement, because we believe those are among the most critical animal welfare issues we can impact today.

FT: What drives you and your company to push for sustainability?

SB: At Panera, we strongly believe that our purpose goes beyond serving our guests. We see that, by using both our voice and purchasing power, we can have a powerful and positive impact on the food system. Our initiatives, like removing ‘No No List’ ingredients from our food menu and reducing the use of antibiotics and confinement in the animal proteins we source and serve, have given us a deeper understanding of our own supply chain and the scope of larger food system challenges.

FT: What is the biggest food related issue facing our planet right now? How is your company working to solve that problem?

SB: Globally, our biggest challenge is feeding a growing population in a way that’s socially responsible and sustainable. For our part, we’re working to use our scale and reach to make a positive impact. We’re increasing the number of options on our menu that include plant-based proteins instead of meat, which has both health and environmental benefits. Each day, we donate all of our baked goods to organizations that provide hunger relief in their local communities, which not only helps feed people in need but eliminates food waste. We’re also looking at how we can better source certain ingredients—from animal proteins to palm oil—to improve the agricultural supply chain.

FT: Do you have any enlightening stories to share of collaboration between your business and other businesses or organizations that have changed your business practices?

SB: We know that we don’t have all of the answers and frequently seek input from outside experts. Before making our cage-free egg commitment, a group from Panera toured farms to better understand the different on-farm practices. We also consulted with a number of other leading animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming, the Humane Society of the United States, World Animal Protection, and the Humane League, as well as our suppliers, in order to make an informed decision about the best path forward.

FT: What changes would you like to see from the U.S. government to support sustainability in the food system?

SB: We, along with other stakeholders and the government, each have a responsibility and role to play in fixing a broken food system. Legislation alone will not solve the breadth of food and wellness issues in America.

FT: What was a turning point in your company and why?

SB: A major turning point in our company was the introduction of raised without antibiotics (RWA) chicken in 2004. While our original decision was based on a taste panel and the quality of that product, in the process, we became better educated on animal husbandry, supply chain efficiencies, and the benefit of strong farm partnerships. We use this single product as a model for much of our supply chain today.

We saw that by deeply understanding and investing in a supply chain, we can create not only economic advantages for the farmer and ourselves but also better react to issues from marketplace disruptions to disease pressures.

And most importantly, many of the animal husbandry practices from this supply chain have become the model for our other animal proteins. These learnings from our original RWA chicken farm partners have been invaluable and have enabled us to extend our RWA and vegetarian-fed commitments out to our roasted turkey, smoked chicken, ham, bacon, and breakfast sausage.

FT: What three things do you want your customers to know about your company?

SB: Thirty years ago, at a time when quick service meant low quality, Panera set out to challenge this expectation.

We believed that food that was good and that you could feel good about, served in a warm and welcoming environment by people who cared, could bring out the best in all of us. To us, that is food as it should be and that is why we exist.

So we began with a simple commitment: to bake fresh bread from fresh dough in every bakery-cafe, every day. No short cuts, just bakers with simple ingredients and hot ovens. Each night, any unsold bread and baked goods were shared with neighbors in need.

These traditions carry on today, as we have continued to find ways to be an ally to our guests. That means crafting a menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches that we are proud to feed our families. Like poultry and pork raised without antibiotics on our salads, broth bowls, and sandwiches. A commitment to transparency and options that empower our guests to eat the way they want. And a commitment to removing artificial additives (flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives) from the food in our bakery-cafes. Why? Because we think that simpler is better and we believe in serving food as it should be. Because when you don’t have to compromise to eat well, all that is left is the joy of eating.

To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the livestream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's São Paulo, Brazil Summit in September 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Sacramento, CA Summit on September 22–23, 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Chicago, IL Summit on November 16–17, 2016, please click HERE

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Want to suggest a speaker for one of the Summits? Please click HERE

Want to watch videos from last year's Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll's, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

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