United Fresh: Confusion, Sometimes Distrust Around ‘Sustainable’

DALLAS — Like “organic” and “local,” the word “sustainable” appeals to many restaurant-goers. However, the term can be difficult for people to understand, or in some cases, even accept, according to presenters here at the United Fresh Produce Show on Wednesday.

When used to describe produce on menus, the descriptor “local” draws consumers the most, but they are also drawn to organic and sustainable menu items, according to Maeve Webster, director of market intelligence at Dataessential at the “Restaurant Trends: What’s on the Plate for Foodservice?” session. In fact, 55% percent of consumers said they were likely to order a menu option that included sustainable fruits or vegetables.

Despite interest in sustainable menu items, Webster noted that few consumers can define what sustainability means.

“For a consumer it means next to nothing," Webster said, adding that maybe 2% of the population can define the term.

Sustainable is most often used to describe fish on menus, in part due to the concept of sustainability being easier to understand with the limited supply of wild-caught fish, Webster said.

Mitch Smith, director of U.S. quality systems agricultural products at McDonald’s Corp. and chairman of the United Fresh Retail-Foodservice board, noted that there can be many focuses of sustainability programs — including agriculture, energy management, waste management and social accountability. 

“I know that we struggle a lot with just getting acceptance of what we tell people that we are doing or that has been done,” Smith said, pointing to the McDonald’s advertising campaign featuring commercials of potato growers and ranchers.

“The first thing that came back was ‘Well, that’s not true.’ Well it is true. I mean everything that was on those commercials is true. We’re viewed as greenwashing. So it’s a very difficult situation.”