The growing popularity of restaurants and retailers specializing in organic produce and grass-fed meats is a testament to American consumers' increasing awareness of the way their food is produced. Demand for sustainable sourcing within the food industry has risen dramatically in recent years and now has arguably become mainstream.
In light of the trend, there is a real need for chefs and grocers to be forthright with customers about the practices that underlie their culinary supply chains: where the food comes from, how animals are raised and crops are grown, how energy efficient suppliers' operations are and what transportation methods their businesses use. Accordingly, efforts to make the necessary level of transparency more easily achievable have grown more popular.
According to Sustainable Business, the United States Healthful Food Council recently launched the Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL) certification program, which allows restaurants to increase visibility into their sourcing and food preparation practices. It also aims to help consumers make more informed decisions about where they eat.
Through third-party auditing services, the USHFC will give REAL certification to food services businesses - including both restaurants and caterers - that can demonstrate both the healthiness and sustainability of the food they serve.
What does REAL mean for the food supply chain?
The new initiative comes at an opportune time for the industry. In its 2014 Culinary Forecast, the National Restaurant Association cited locally sourced meats and seafood as well as locally grown produce as its No. 1 and No. 2 hot trends, respectively, for next year. Meanwhile, hyper-local food sourcing ranked No. 6, and sustainable seafood came in at No. 9.
But REAL certification is a double-edged sword for the food sector. On one hand, it makes it easier for restaurants of all sizes to be open about their practices. Yet at the same time, the greater consumer awareness the program promises to create will inevitably raise the bar on sustainability. Soon, competition in sustainable product sourcing may become stiffer than ever.
Ultimately, the network created by the REAL program may prove to be its most beneficial component. Sustainable Business noted that the USHFC is already attempting to orchestrate REAL-certified restaurants with approved suppliers that can offer them discounts.
"This will provide a net benefit to all involved: Restaurants will be able to access higher-quality ingredients at a discount, and suppliers can secure new business from REAL-certified restaurants," the organization said, according to the news source.
Hopefully, REAL can make good on its potential to create business-supplier relationships centered around sustainability.