Why Our Voices DO Matter — And Big Food Has To Listen


Early this March, McDonald’s and Costco both announced that they would limit the use of human antibiotics in poultry (a practice that facilitates increased growth, but contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria). This marks a small but significant shift in Big Food’s negative impact on the health of our nation. Citing consumer pressure as one of the main reasons for these changes, we are beginning to see the breakdown of Big Food's headlock on our health.

Could we actually change our food system and our nation’s health if we all made more conscious purchasing choices? Yes! News of other changes in Big Food companies offer even more hope.

As a direct result of the McDonald’s announcement, Tyson, one of the largest poultry suppliers, recently announced that it would phase out the use of human antibiotics by 2017. Although two years seems like a long time, this is actually an aggressive plan according to The Guardian. Tyson has already done some work to curtail their use of antibiotics, and seeks to do something similar with its other livestock operations:

Tyson said it is also forming working groups with independent farmers, company suppliers, veterinarians and others to talk about how to develop ideas to cut the use of antibiotics vital to fighting human infections in its US beef, pork and turkey supply chains."

Tyson’s goal to expand beyond poultry is yet another indicator of the ripple effect that these business decisions can have throughout our food supply. Once one company receives praise and boosted sales by offering a safer, more sustainable product, the incentive for other companies to follow suit is even greater. And the demand for these products is there. In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, Cristina Maza explains that much of this trend is being driven by millennials who are willing to put their money where their mouths are:

In January, the Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Survey offered compelling statistical evidence that younger consumers are much more concerned than their parents and grandparents about everything from food ingredients to genetically modified food to organic foods, and they are willing to pay more for premium products. Nearly a third of Millennial respondents said they were willing to pay higher prices for sustainable products; only their younger counterparts (Generation Z) reported placing such value on sustainable food."

In the more controversial GMO debate, Chipotle has recently announced that it will stop using genetically altered ingredients. This burrito behemoth has been on the cutting edge of the “fast casual” dining revolution, catering to a more conscious audience. The simplicity of their ingredients is perhaps partly responsible for their agility. Referring to Chipotle founder Steve Ells, Stephanie Strom of the New York Times writes:

Eliminating genetically engineered ingredients is easier for Chipotle, where the entire menu uses just 68 ingredients, including salt and pepper, while one of its competitors uses 81 just to make a burrito. "The vast majority of our ingredients don’t come in a GMO variety, and we use lots of whole, unprocessed foods, so it was easier for us to do," Mr. Ells said.

Complexity of ingredients, however, does not necessarily mean that a company cannot make big changes. In the realm of additive safety, Panera Bread (which uses over 450 ingredients in its foods) has just committed to ridding their products of a long list of questionable chemicals. Interestingly, Ron Shaich, CEO, has been blunt about not making any value judgments on the products, and rather making decisions based on what is selling. Again, Stephanie Strom from the New York Times writes:

Mr. Shaich said Panera’s decision to come up with what it calls “The No No List” had more to do with protecting the sales it has. The list is based on research and standards developed by Johns Hopkins, the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council and various European governments.

I’m not a scientist and I’m not wading into the debate over whether any of these things cause cancer or are otherwise bad for you,” he said. “I just think this is where the consumer’s head is right now.”

What’s next? McDonald’s offering kale?! Oh wait . . that is happening. We’ve mentioned before that while these moves are exciting, they are by no means the last of the changes that we would like to see in our food system. It is exciting to know that those of us who are economically capable of making food choices can have some control over our nation’s health just by shopping more consciously.  

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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