IN THIS EDITON
• Animal Welfare and the Fast Food Industry
• Mintel Report: Consumers Want Ethnic Authenticity
• “Back to Basics” Foods Star at the Natural Products Expo
Animal Welfare and the Fast Food Industry
Wendy’s made news on two fronts in recent days. First, it was reported this month that the Dublin, Ohio-based chain had finally slipped past Burger King in sales to take its place as the second biggest hamburger chain in the U.S. Wendy’s, of course, has a long way to go to catch up with industry leader McDonald’s.
Wendy’s also found its name in the headlines last week when the company announced it was changing the way it treats pork and poultry used in its food products. The chain is making an effort to ensure that pigs and chickens used to make its sandwiches are treated more humanely.
The burger chain’s animal welfare council said last week that O.K. Foods Inc., of Fort Smith, Ark., one of its chicken suppliers, is now using a low-atmospheric pressure system that causes the chickens to lose consciousness before slaughter. The LAPS process replaces the industry standard practice of stunning the birds with electricity.
Wendy’s says it is the first quick-service restaurant to back this system, which it called a major improvement to current industry practices.
On the pork side of the business, Wendy’s announced that it is working with its American and Canadian suppliers to begin phasing out the use of sow gestation stalls. Animal rights groups like PETA say the tightly packed pens are inhumane, while pork producers say larger stalls increase labor and food costs.
McDonald’s, the Big Cheese in the industry, had garnered praise from some animal welfare groups when the chain announced in February that would begin to phase out gestation crates for its pigs, which are used for pork products such as Sausage McMuffins and the McRib sandwich.
The team from the golden arches even brought on respected animal welfare activist Temple Grandin to tout McDonald’s animal welfare practices in a video released in February. Grandin gained notoriety after the HBO film on her life was broadcast, which highlighted her innovative efforts to bring about more humane treatment of animals at slaughterhouses.
Dr. Grandin has also served as an animal welfare consultant to Wendy’s and Burger King.
The McDonald’s pledge to begin banning the gestation pens marked “the most significant step” toward the humane treatment of animals to date, said noted New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, because the hamburger chain is the fourth largest pork buyer in the world. McDonald’s is requiring by May that its suppliers of pork provide plans for phasing out the confining pens.
Burger King has also followed suit in phasing out the gestation stalls, and now Wendy’s is on board as well. Whole Foods and Chipotle have banned use of the crates from their suppliers for some time.
It’s certainly welcome news for animal rights activists and for pigs, which will now be able to turn around and move about more freely. Pigs kept in the tiny metal pens are also more susceptible to diseases and infections, says a spokesman for the Humane Society of the U.S. This then leads to a need for additional antibiotics and medications.
It all comes back to the increasingly knowledgeable consumer, now armed with more powerful communication tactics afforded by social media. (The beef industry is still smarting after the viral firestorm created by the online petition against “pink slime.”)
People today want to know where their food comes from, whether it’s for the dinner table at home or while dining out. Increasingly, they want to know that the animals used to make meat products were treated humanely.
The standards of housing, handling, and humane slaughtering are routinely audited today by most of the leading fast food chains. Suppliers who do not meet standards will no longer be able to sell their product to these restaurants. While most suppliers pass the audits, those that do not are given 30 days to make the necessary changes to reach standards such as those set by McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and others in the industry.
In the fiercely competitive quick-service restaurant business, all the major players look for whatever edge they can get. Animal welfare is one more category in which they might find one. And that should benefit both human consumers and animals alike.
Mintel Report: Consumers Want Ethnic Authenticity
Americans continue to have a craving for ethnic foods. Consumption has increased in recent years, and market research firm Mintel International predicts that growth in this dining category will continue.
Mintel’s latest research shows that when it comes to ethnic fare, a cuisine’s authenticity has become paramount with consumers. In the Mintel survey, two-thirds of respondents who eat ethnic food at home say authentic or traditional flavors are the most important factor when buying or eating ethnic food.
“If flavor fanatics are going to spend their hard earned money and time visiting an ethnic restaurant or buying international foods to prepare at home, increasingly, they want it to be the real deal,” says David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel. “Therefore, products positioned as such have a greater likelihood of finding favor with consumers.”
Interest in genuine ethnic fare is part of an overarching consumer trend Mintel has called “The Real Thing,” a movement in which consumers continually set a higher bar for what they consider authentic.
Among the ethnic foods prepared in the prior month, 63% of survey respondents said they have made Mexican food, followed by 46% who say they have prepared a Chinese dish. Nearly 30% said they had prepared recipes that mixed elements from more than one ethnic tradition while not fitting specifically into any.
While dining away from home, more than 80% of those surveyed say they had eaten ethnic food in the month prior to the survey. That’s an increase of six percentage points from 2010, according to Mintel.
The most popular ethnic menu items in restaurants at the end of the fall quarter of 2011 were Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Pan-Asian, and Japanese, according to Mintel Menu Insights.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food saw robust growth in the past year and both are expected to continue to gain in popularity in the future, likely due to food provider Sabra, as well as a healthy and convenient positioning.
“Consumer interest in healthy eating and convenience food contributes to the growth seen in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern categories,” adds David Browne. “The growing popularity of pre-packaged hummus and Greek-style yogurt mixed with the deli salad case offering chickpea, tabbouleh and orzo salads is giving this cuisine a healthful and easy edge on the competition.”
“Back to Basics” Foods Star at the Natural Products Expo
Real, back-to-the-Earth foods are making a comeback. Well, they are if you go by what seemed to be the biggest hits at this year’s annual Natural Products Expo, held in Anaheim, Calif., last month. The confab is the biggest health food trade show in the world, and Shari Roan of the L.A. Times said the overarching theme of the show seemed to be: What’s old is new again.
Hot trends observed at the Expo included things like foods produced by local farmers, products in packages that can be recycled or composted, foods made with ancient grains…and chia seeds (photo, above).
On the other hand, Roan noticed a significant decrease at the show for anything synthetic. In recent years, the Expo was bursting with bottles of vitamin, mineral and herb supplements. Not so this year.
Ellen Kanner, writing for the Arizona Daily Sun noted it, too. “The supplements and powdered this-and-that of previous shows have given way to real food,” she wrote.
Top trends spotted at the Natural Products Expo
- Healthier snacks. More exotic flavored waters and chips. Mint flavored water by Metromint and Blackwater (pitch black, with a “black water” taste, says Roan). Also sweet potato chips, kale chips, bean chips, banana chips.
- Fruit and vegetable drinks in all flavors, shapes and sizes. A yoga drink called Bikram Balance is a blend of fruits and veggies which is said to restore electrolytes after a workout. Fruitasia, a fruit and veggie energy shot, claims to provide three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit in a three-ounce shot.
- Natural baby foods. Plum Organics presented grab & go fruit and vegetable squeeze packs of puréed food (such as a blend of blueberry, pear and purple carrot) that babies can drink or be spoon-fed from. Some of the ingredients include Greek yogurt and ancient grains such as quinoa. The idea here, according to the product’s maker: introduce babies to flavors so they grow up to be foodies.
- Nutty for coconut. Coconut flavor has made a comeback. Products featured included Coco’Mon, a coconut cooking oil from Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley’s collection of Ziggy Marley Organics. Also seen: coconut palm sugar, coconut water, and dehydrated coconut (for making your own coconut water at home).
- Chia seeds. Not to make a chia pet, but as an ingredient in a variety of food products. Chia seeds contain high levels of omega-3 fats. Observed at the show were FruitChia bars, Mamma Chia beverages, Coconut Chia granola, and Crunchy Flax with Chia cereal.
- Organic is in again. Lots of organic products on display, plus representatives from the Just Label It campaign (www.justlabelit.org) which aims to force products made with genetically modified corn or soy to put that information on the label.
- Ancient grains. Plenty of food products made with amaranth, quinoa, kamut, millet, hemp and buckwheat.
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