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Panera Bread is the primary nationwide chain to label starters as climate-friendly

A Panera Bread Shop displays a sign that they are open during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City on April 5, 2020.

John Lamparski | Getty Images

A decade ago, Panera Bread was the first national chain of restaurants to announce the caloric values ​​of their menu items.

As of Wednesday, it will also lead the fee for labeling items as climate-friendly.

Whenever the ingredients of the chain's salads, sandwiches and soups have a combined footprint of less than 5.38 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, the menu item bears a badge on which the main course is labeled "Cool Food Meal", the designation of the World Resources Institute .

Panera worked with the environmental think tank to calculate the menu's carbon footprint. 55% of the main courses received the badge. Excellent menu items include the broccoli and cheddar soup and the Mediterranean bowl.

CEO Niren Chaudhary said in an interview that the change is intended to raise awareness of the link between food and greenhouse gas emissions and enable customers to make an informed decision. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are at the lower end of the scale, while dairy and meat products are at the higher end.

A 2019 United Nations report found that the global food system accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, in response to research and growing public pressure, the hospitality industry has stepped up its engagement in the fight against climate change, pledging to limit waste and add more vegetable proteins to menus. One of the most ambitious proposals has come from Starbucks, the second largest restaurant chain by sales, which announced in January that it was striving to become "resource positive".

Panera, which has been privately owned for three years, committed in 2016 to reducing its CO2 emissions by 15% per square foot by 2022. Chaudhary said the company is on track to achieve that goal. The chain also plans to halve the number of plant-based offerings on its menu over the next few years.

Sara Burnett, Panera's vice president of wellness and food policy, said more than half of Panera's carbon footprint comes from the food it serves.

Just Salad, which has locations in six states, introduced carbon labeling earlier this year. In contrast to Panera, the labels give the exact CO2 footprint. A Buffalo Caesar salad, for example, has 0.77 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Burnett compared Panera's "Cool Food Meal" badge to the seal of approval from Good Housekeeping.

"Our minds didn't really care what that value was, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for consumers to get," she said.

Panera hopes that the use of the badge, as well as the disclosure of calorie counts, will set a new benchmark for the restaurant industry.

"This can be useful when it starts to multiply," said Chadhaury.

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