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Panera's Wholesome Food Policy Promises 'Clean Ingredients'

Panera Bread (PNRA) issued a new outline of its food policies (PDF) to remind consumers of its philosophy, which is all about “clean ingredients,” transparent menu,” and “positive impact.” Great! But what exactly are clean ingredients—and would the alternative be to serve, well, unclean ingredients?

“Clean” in the Panera sense means simple, not the opposite of dirty. Panera describes it as food free of artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives. All but one menu item—the Cobblestone muffin—is also free of ”artificial trans-fats.” Asked about this peculiar choice in language, Panera Chief Executive Ron Shaich tells Bloomberg Businessweek: “I think people get what it means, and I don’t think there’s a pejorative element to it.”

A “transparent menu” is one that discloses calorie counts and ingredients. And as for “positive impact,” Panera purchases meat from animals that have been “fed vegetarian-based and customized diets without the use of antibiotics, and raised in reduced-stress environments.” So far, all its chicken, ham, roasted turkey, and breakfast sausage in salads and sandwiches meet this standard.

“It’s been broad in the ways we’ve approached it. We don’t believe it’s just about one ingredient, we don’t believe it’s just about sourcing or animal welfare. It’s the totality of it,” says Shaich. Panera, he acknowledges, has struggled for a long time to forcefully communicate its commitment to serving worthy food.

Chipotle (CMG) has gone the “food with integrity” route—naturally raised meat and local produce when possible—while McDonald’s (MCD) is trying to sort out how it wants to define “sustainable beef” so it can work it into its giant supply chain by 2016.

Fast food remains in the early stages of making concrete promises about food quality; social responsibility in the restaurant industry has been evolving. With Panera’s roughly 1,800 restaurants and Chipotle’s 1,600 outlets joined by McDonald’s 35,500 global stores, it’s likely that additional chains will soon be searching to say something wholesome about their menus, too.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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