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Keeping Panera in Perspective


Panera Bread is just the latest food retailer to take cheap shots at American farmers. The restaurant chain launched a marketing campaign that puts forth the notion that farmers who employ the use of antibiotics are taking the “easy” and less ethical path to raising healthy food.  In addition, the campaign implied that food bought at other restaurants was not as healthy and perhaps not even safe.  Panera, of course, claims its food is all natural, antibiotic free, and better to eat.  While these kinds of claims about food produced with certain production systems is not new, what set the ag community on edge was the implication that farmers who use methods Panera does not approve of are “lazy.”  The ag advocate community went into action and began blasting Panera in blogs and social media channels.  Some even called on farmers to drive their tractors to Panera in protest.  But, before you fire up the John Deere and go in search of a Panera, you may want to sit back and get some perspective.


First of all, we should not be surprised by this kind of stuff. It is not the first time a large retail chain that caters to food elitists has launched this kind of campaign.  The Chipotle chain created an anti-farmer television commercial a year ago that caused a similar uproar. Second, we need to consider the source. Is this a mainstream, well-known brand that suddenly turns on American agriculture, or it is a niche franchise, marketing their products to a particular segment of society in a specific geographic region?  Panera is only located in urban areas populated by higher level, working professionals, who have the money and desire to pay for highly specialized food products.  You won’t find Panera stores in low income neighborhoods or small towns.  In other words, Panera does not really care what farmers think of them or if they don’t buy their food.


Next we should consider: are their claims true? Of course they are not true. Farmers are not lazy, and the use of antibiotics in livestock production is legal and is acceptable to most consumers.  There is no credible proof that meat produced with these methods is any less safe, nutritious, or healthy.  So we can rest assured the charges are baseless.  Thus, we can assume that the reason for the charge was to falsely inflate the image of the food products.  Let’s face it, when you bite into a Panera chicken sandwich, you cannot tell if that chicken ever had a shot of penicillin. So Panera’s claims are nothing more than an attempt to justify the exorbitant prices it charges for food that is no better than you can buy at the sub shop down the street.


So, is it worth mounting a national campaign to punish Panera for its transgression? Probably not.  It is not likely to change Panera’s mind and, in fact, may even help its cause.   I am not suggesting that we ignore such egregious insults, but let’s choose our battles.  Let us take on those issues we stand a chance of winning and those situations where a significant portion of the food consuming population is involved.


Recently, the leader of a livestock organization told me, “The amount of energy that is spent within agriculture fighting back the activists is completely disproportional to what the real concern of the general public is.”   We need to focus more on winning the war and not winning every battle.


Let’s not let our egos get too easily bruised by people who are only trying to further their own causes at agriculture’s expense. We must stand ready to counter false claims keep but our perspective.  Write your blog posts, sign your facebook petitions, cut up your Panera loyalty cards, but let us not be distracted from the ultimate goal of protecting and maintaining livestock production with safe and approved technology.


by Gary Truitt