On Wednesday, the fast-casual chain announced it recently began serving "clean" bacon that's 25% thicker, a press release stated. In 2015, the company served 2 million pounds of bacon, aka 115 million slices, in dishes like the Bacon Turkey Bravo and the Bacon Egg and Cheese.
The term "clean" evokes virtuousness. But what does so-called clean bacon actually entail? And is it any healthier?
Panera's new bacon is cured with all-natural ingredients, as opposed to additives like sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate and sodium erythorbate. Nitrates have been hotly debated in the food and nutrition industry. While the Environmental Working Group asserts that nitrates are a dangerous food additive, roughly 80% of the nitrates in our diet come from vegetables, and other scientists say nitrates' avoid-at-all costs reputation is overblown, Prevention reported.
Panera's new bacon is also sourced with animal welfare in mind, the company noted. Pigs are fed a vegetarian diet and they aren't given antibiotics — Panera has followed these standards since 2015. Its commitment to using antibiotic-free meat earned the company an "A" grade from a recent report conducted by Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, Mic previously reported.
The clean bacon announcement came the same day as the historic agreement made by the UN to fight the impending antimicrobial resistance. The agreement stipulates that all countries monitor the use of antibiotics in humans and livestock.
But not everyone is hog wild about Panera's announcement.
"Fear sells and marketers know it," Alison Van Eenennaam, professor of animal genomics and biotechnology at UC Davis who has studied livestock for 30 years, said in an email. She noted the decision to serve and market "clean" bacon implies that other forms of meat are "dirty," which she says isn't true.
The Food and Drug Adminstrated mandated that starting January 1, 2017, livestock farmers in the U.S. will only be able to use antibiotics similar to ones used in humans for treating disease, Hannah Thompson, a spokesperson for Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit connecting consumers to the farm industry, said in an email.
Current regulations protect consumers from antibiotics, too. "If an animal is treated with an antibiotic, it must go through a strict withdrawal period regulated by the FDA to ensure the antibiotic is out of the animal's system before it is processed," Thompson said. Meat and milk are also thoroughly tested for residual antibiotics before they reach consumers and restaurants.
"We have an welfare obligation to treat [animals] with effective therapies," Van Eenennaam said, noting that animals get sick despite farmers' best efforts just like kids get sick from time to time despite parents' best efforts.
Panera did not immediately respond to Mic's request for comment.
"[Antibiotic] programs that are "never ever" are [still] legally and ethically required to treat their animals and then they have to market them into the conventional food supply chain," she said. One 2011 study found that "never ever" programs aren't much more sustainable than conventional therapeutic programs.
Spoiler alert: The "clean" bacon isn't any healthier than regular bacon, either.
"Bacon will be same nutrient-wise," Van Eennaam said. "... the more you eat more calories you take on board irrespective of production methods."
Clean bacon may bring home the bacon for Panera's bottom line, but it's not necessarily much better for you or the animals. Don't let the health halo fool you — sizzling "clean" bacon will deliver the same delicious calories and saturated fat as regular bacon.