Many of the themes at the Menus of Change conference have been obvious issues for the restaurant industry, including antibiotic-treated protein, sustainable agriculture, and more nutritious plates among others.
But on the final day, Friday, presenters broached the important but less obvious topic of water. Will Sarni, a director with Deloitte Consulting, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, discussed how such a basic resource would figure into the future of foodservice.
Businesses and customers should not wait for the government to lead the discussion and set regulations around the water supply, Sarni said.
“Public policy is catching up; as a business, you can’t afford to do that,” Sarni said. “The strength comes from the foodservice, from the consumer, not from the regulatory agencies.”
A positive point of the severe drought in California is that it served as a conversation starter, Harter said. However, the sudden surge of attention typically ebbs once the immediate crisis is averted. Harter said that these episodic fits of panic, relaxation, panic, and so forth, have been detrimental to making real progress.
But companies should be working toward progress, especially considering the possible risks. The current drought has exacted a $3 billion toll on the California economy, Sarni said, and such a physical scarcity highlights the risks that foodservice companies could face again.
“The reality is that businesses are affected right now, and they’re making changes,” Sarni said. “Scarcity does drive innovation.”
The leaders will be the companies that integrate their water supply strategy as part of an overall business strategy, Sarni added.
To better illustrate the dynamic nature of water, Harter explained that there are two types of in agriculture: “Green” water is essentially rainfall or any other natural water activity that sustains agriculture, whereas “blue” water includes sources of irrigation, such as rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
Food producers and providers should be aware of the source and subsequent runoff associated with both types of water. E. Coli and antibiotic-resistant bacteria from antibiotic-treated livestock can contaminate natural reserves, while nitrite runoff from commercial fertilizers can cause a “dead zone” for fish and other aquatic life, as has occurred in parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
Understanding the difference between green and blue water and potential pitfalls of the modern water supply system can help operators determine their water footprint.
Just as a little bit of coffee residue in a mug can ruin the taste of tea, Harter said, so too can a small amount of pollution affect a water supply.
“A little bit of contamination is going a long way to make that water disgusting,” he said.
Harter recommended that restaurants begin understanding their “water footprint” by building relationships with the supplier and learning about the quantity and quality of the supply of their water.
By Nicole Duncan