Sustainable Food Sourcing: It’s Worth Yelling About

Over the last five years as I have worked to create—and yes, enforce—sustainable sourcing policies in my job, I’ve been publicly called a carbon cop, the food police, something I can’t print (my corporate Web browser even blocks access to the site) and, as of yesterday morning, an “eco-Nazi.” Most of my critics don’t know me and some of them don’t know what I do. It’s a good thing I don’t take name-calling personally!

A blogger thought yelling was an inappropriate reaction when I learned that one of our chefs posted a bluefin tuna recipe. (Yelling is bad, but calling someone an eco-Nazi isn’t?) Hey, I’m from Brooklyn. I’m not quiet and I’m going to let you know what I think. But there’s a method to my (loud-mouthed) madness.

Bon Appétit serves 120 million meals a year and our food purchasing policies can cause some big ripples in the supply chain. Lots of bloggers gripe that sustainable food tenets impinge upon their freedoms. They want to eat whatever they want. Fine. But don’t mistake a food company’s corporate purchasing policies as a judgment of individual behavior. That’s missing the point. The point is that it absolutely matters what 400 chefs serve and what foods they endorse.

Maybe one of our chefs, Thom Fox, said it best in his comment to blogger John Birdsall: 

No one should feel guilty about the occasional spicy tuna roll. But you’re responsible for one mouth; I’m responsible for thousands. And the economies of scale that Bon Appétit’s purchasing decisions create make it critical that we make the right decisions. One of my colleagues is the chef at University of San Francisco; he feeds around 8,000 people every day. See what I mean by impact?

Let’s agree that there are arguments at the margins about what “sustainable food” means, or how to measure progress toward that end. Legitimate disagreements. But no one who knows anything about ocean science can claim that bluefin tuna is sustainable in any way. Though don’t doubt for a minute that a seafood supplier once tried to argue with me on that one. And yes, I yelled at him too. The company I work for has had a very strict and very public sustainable seafood policy for eight years. Chefs work for us because they agree with our policies and know we stand by them.

A big part of my job is to educate new chefs about what sustainable seafood means, share new information with all chefs, and work with suppliers to make sure that what they’re selling meets our standards. I also review purchasing reports monthly and coach chefs whenever I see errors. Shouldn’t a credible policy be backed up with monitoring? Who needs policies that aren’t internally enforced?

With over 400 cafes served by more than 30 seafood suppliers, our company expects a few errors—suppliers have been known to mislabel and exaggerate from time to time, and Federal regulations concerning traceability in seafood are insufficient—but some errors are simply egregious. Bluefin tuna and shark fins are the apex of our unsustainable industrial fishing system. There’s just no excuse for serving them or even posting recipes for them.

I applaud individuals who take the time to learn about their food choices and make principled decisions. As our CEO Fedele Bauccio recently wrote for Huffington Post: “You get to vote with your fork three times a day. You either vote for filth and disease, or for clean animals and good health.” For us, take those three squares and multiply by tens of millions—then you’ll understand why strong purchasing policies, large-scale changes in supply chains, and adherence to good policies are the only way we’re going to move the needle toward a national sustainable food system that’s not a fringe concern. Policies matter. Credibility matters even more.

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