Puck ‘humane,’ ‘natural’ policy prods ethics trend

Puck ‘humane,’ ‘natural’ policy prods ethics trend

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Puck last month made national headlines with his commitment to use only meats from animals that have been humanely raised, organic and “all-natural” ingredients, and sustainably harvested seafood in his organization’s 14 fine-dining restaurants, 82 fast-casual Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express [3] units, 43 catering venues and retail grocery products. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Animal rights groups hailed the move as the most comprehensive by a company as large as Puck’s, a $300 million-a-year empire feeding an estimated 10 million people annually. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

However, industry-supported libertarian groups, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, have skewered Puck’s company for purportedly capitulating to “anti-meat zealots” in a way that would only embolden them to increase their demands. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Nonetheless, while many independent restaurateurs have been seeking out such products for years, Puck is among the most prominent of a growing number of multiunit operators that have taken steps to hold suppliers to higher moral standards. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill [4] for the past six years has been increasing its use of all-natural meats raised by farmers who follow certain animal-welfare standards. Similarly, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appetit Management Co. [5], a contract catering division of Compass Group PLC [6], limits its seafood use to only species deemed sustainable, and last month it enacted a natural-and humane-only policy for purchasing ground beef. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

McDonald’s [7], Burger King [8] and Wendy’s [9] have established in-house animal welfare audit systems. Starbucks Corp. [10] has increased dairy purchases from farms that do not treat cows with artificial growth hormones. Smaller regional chains such as Vancouver, Wash.-based Burgerville [11] and Auburndale, Mass.-based Finagle A Bagel have moved toward buying eggs from farmers that do not keep hens in cages. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

The growing demand for ethically produced foods, however, raises questions about who, quite literally, is watching the hen house. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

With a lack of federal and industry standards governing the claims that suppliers make about their products, many in the industry say it is increasingly difficult to know how to make responsible buying choices. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“People are seeing all these labels, like ‘naturally raised,’ ‘free-range,’ ‘cage-free’ and ‘humanely raised,’” said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “There’s a lot of confusion out there, and we have a long way to go to educate people about that.” —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

For Puck, the new commitment is a central theme for what the chef calls a “second act” as his company celebrates its 25th anniversary. As of February, foie gras was removed from all his menus. Puck has pledged that by the end of 2007 he will not buy eggs laid by hens confined in cages. He further vowed that no pork or veal would be purchased from producers that use gestation crates that prevent the animals from walking or turning around. Poultry will come only from farms audited by Puck’s buyers for compliance with welfare standards. In addition, Puck said, he has sent letters to meat suppliers supporting “controlled atmosphere killing”—a gas chamber technique that is often described as a more humane slaughter method. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Puck’s restaurants also will expand their use of organic and “all-natural” ingredients, and the company said it would follow the advice of the Monterey Bay Aquarium on seafood to avoid species deemed at risk. His menus also will include more meat-free dining options, Puck said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Such efforts would likely add to the cost of some menu items. A rotisserie beef sandwich at a Puck Gourmet Express outlet will cost $1.25 more using meat that meets the new standards, said Joe Essa, managing partner of finance and operations for the Puck division that oversees the fast-casual chain. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“We have budgeted a few percent more in food costs this year, but ultimately we feel this will bring an increase in traffic,” Essa said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

In the end, Puck said, “I think we’ll have even better food and healthier people, and that will be our goal for the next 20 years.” —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Gene Baur, president of Watkins Glen, N.Y.-based Farm Sanctuary, hailed Puck’s action as a victory. The farm-animal protection group had organized periodic foie gras protests in front of Spago [12] in Beverly Hills for more than a year, but was involved in helping Puck develop his new standards, along with the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“Wolfgang’s move is a strong indicator that there is growing societal concern and awareness” about farm-animal welfare, Baur said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society, agreed, describing Puck as a catalyst for change. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“This sends a strong message to the agribusiness industry that it needs to start phasing out its most abusive practices,” he said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

However, both Baur and Pacelle acknowledged that the complexities of the nation’s food supply system make it difficult for restaurant operators to know the truth about the ingredients they buy. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

While the term “organic” has a specific definition under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, the term generally does not address animal welfare practices. There are no legal definitions for the use on labels of phrases such as “cage free,” “free range” or “grass fed,” Baur said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“Sometimes they’re just marketing things that don’t really mean anything,” he said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Farm Sanctuary, for example, has petitioned the USDA to disallow the use of the term “natural” on meat from animals that have been given antibiotics and growth hormones. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Several animal rights groups are affiliated with certifying bodies that follow varying standards aimed at ending animal cruelty, some more stringent than others. The Humane Society is aligned with the Humane Farm Animal Care program, for example, which offers a “certified humane” label to products that meet specific standards. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Puck, however, is not limiting his suppliers to those with such certification. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

The National Council of Chain Restaurants [13] and the Food Marketing Institute have joined to create the Animal Welfare Audit Program to assess compliance with certain industry guidelines. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

However, Baur said such efforts fall far short of ideal standards. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“Getting accountability is one of the challenges,” he said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Pacelle noted that there are “certain basic choices that are pretty easy,” such as not serving foie gras, which he described as “morally wrong and ethically wrong.” —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

The production and sale of foie gras has been banned in California, beginning in 2012. Chicago imposed a ban last year, and similar moves are being considered statewide in Illinois, New Jersey and New York. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Both Pacelle and Baur, however, contend that efforts by companies like Puck’s help advance what is likely to be a slow revolution based on demand. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” program began when the company decided to use pork that was raised on an all-vegetarian diet without the use of hormones. Now all of the pork served at the chain’s more than 570 units meets those standards, as does 60 percent of its chicken and 40 percent of its beef. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

In addition to the “natural” designation, Chipotle buys only from farmers who agree to maintain certain animal welfare standards and are certified by any of the existing organizations that offer such third-party audits, Arnold said. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

The company looks for key practices, such as ensuring that pigs are not raised in gestation crates and that chickens are not kept in cages. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Chipotle, however, is still searching for suppliers that can meet the standards nationwide. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“Right now, pretty much all our units on the East Coast are serving naturally raised chicken, but we just haven’t found the right suppliers in the West,” Arnold said. “Our meat is never frozen, so it’s not practical to move supply across the country.” —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Arnold said he wished more restaurants would demand such products because that would increase supplies and lower prices. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Chipotle raised the price on pork items by about $1 and chicken and beef dishes by 20 cents to 30 cents following the move to all-natural sources. But Arnold said customers have been willing to pay. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Bon Appetit Management, which operates 400 restaurants and cafes at clients’ venues in 28 states, has been seeking hormone-free meat sources since 2003, when it announced it would only use chickens raised without antibiotics. In 2005, that policy was extended to turkey breast. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

Last month, the company moved to buy only all-natural ground chuck for burgers and require suppliers to meet standards for humane treatment the of cows. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

At some point, Bon Appetit will likely require humane treatment for chicken, said Maisie Greenawalt, its director of communications and strategic initiatives. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Center for Consumer Freedom joined in the media attention to Puck’s announcement with an opposing view. —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.

“It’s mind-boggling that Wolfgang Puck would take advice about veal, pork and eggs from animal rights activists who refuse to eat it themselves,” said David Martosko, the center’s director of research. “Puck will learn in time that his foray into faux ‘wellness’ menus will only keep vegetarian activists off his back for a short time.” —The activists who once picketed outside Wolfgang Puck’s flagship Spago restaurant here, protesting the foie gras on its menu, now sing the chef-restaurateur’s praises.