Ethical treatment of animals, environmental impact, carbon footprint: These are all hot button issues in the forefront of public awareness, putting increased pressure on quick-serves and others in the food chain to take a more informed and active role in how commodities such as beef, chicken and eggs are procured.

Activists, corporate shareholders and others often isolate issues related to these topics and push hard for agendas that are not always fully informed, making it tempting for operators to react quickly with short-term solutions.

Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of the department of animal science at Michigan State University, calls for a more judicious approach. Speaking on Saturday at an National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show session “It’s All About Results: Sustainability in the Food Chain – Emphasis on Animal Products
Saturday,” Armstrong urged restaurant operators to weigh all sides of these issues and opt for comprehensive, long-term solutions.

“My take home point to you is that the best way to deal with this is by taking a holistic approach,” Armstrong says. “Think about food safety, animal welfare and environment in a bigger picture. There are consequences and interactions of these different areas.”

Public perception and reality don’t often mesh, he says. To illustrate this, Armstrong pointed to some of the issues faced by the egg industry, where public attention of late has focused on the egg-laying environment of hens. There has been much pressure to transition to cage-free and free-range environments.

While Armstrong said there are some benefits to moving birds outside, there are also downsides that can harm the birds and potentially put the general public at risk. For one, certain types of pecking can occur in noncage environments, he says, sometimes to the point where birds may actually kill each other.

From a public health standpoint, he adds, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that one of the best ways to limit the spread of avian influenza is to prohibit contact of wild and domestic birds.

“There are a lot of advantages of noncage,” he says. “From a scientific perspective there are clear disadvantages.”

Public sway over these types of issues is growing, he says, noting that the restaurant and food industries have to take a more proactive approach to ensure that the public is informed about all sides of a debate.

So how do industry players get ahead of the public curve and ensure that a balanced approach prevails? Armstrong offered no easy solutions, but stressed that the restaurant industry, its suppliers and researchers must act more quickly–and in tandem–to affect viable, long-term changes.

“What we’re proposing is really new model,” he said. “We need the food chain and universities to partner in a way that we haven’t in the past.”

By Deb Cohen

Deb Cohen is QSR‘s monthly Finance columnist and is reporting straight from the floor of this year’s NRA Show in Chicago.

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