By Nathan Owens || Arkansas Online || July 4, 2017

As a way to make healthful and sustainable foods more profitable for producers and to give consumers peace-of-mind about what they’re eating, the U.S. Healthful Food Council developed Eat REAL, a nonprofit group designed to improve the quality of restaurant fare and treatment of farm animals.

With the help of industry professionals, the nonprofit developed REAL, a voluntary nutrition and sustainability certification program.

Modeled after LEED Green Building Certification, the REAL program grades restaurants, food brands and other food-service companies on various standards, including: menu design, food sourcing, supply-chain efficiency, front and back of house operations and the newest addition — animal welfare.

The goal with REAL, like LEED, is to provide marketplace incentives to promote social change, said Lawrence Williams, founder and president of the U.S. Healthful Food Council and CEO of Eat REAL.

For decades, corporate interests have put an “emphasis on price rather than quality,” Williams said.

To counter this, REAL — Responsible, Epicurean, Agricultural, Leadership — awards points based on factors including whether the animals on a restaurant’s menu are treated humanely or the eggs used are locally sourced by a welfare-approved farm. In the program’s early development, Eat REAL focused more on fried foods and soft drink sales and not on the distance between the hamburger meat on a restaurant plate and the cattle ranch.

Since its inception five years ago, REAL certification has been given to 500 food-service companies, including school cafeterias, food brands, and fine-dining and fast-casual restaurants.

Williams began developing the program with a small team in 2012 and spent that year gathering information and interviewing leaders in the food industry about the creation of a grading system, he said.

“We worked with them for what the certification should look like,” he said. “Not as something that’s unattainable, but as something that can cater to restaurants in the top 20-25 percent, when it comes to nutrition and sustainable practices.”

Initial guidelines rewarded businesses that maximized fruit and vegetable offerings, moderated portion sizes and minimized sugar and soft drinks. After rigorous interviews and audits, they’re rewarded with an 11-inch green plate inscribed with “REAL Certified.”

Soon they hope to have a developed ranking system, where groups can be bronze, silver, gold or platinum certified, Williams said.

In Arkansas, Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe is the only restaurant chain with REAL certification.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently began working with REAL to develop animal welfare standards for the program.

Nancy Roulston, director of corporate engagement for Farm Animal Welfare for the society, said her organization’s values were in sync with REAL. The society works with corporations and small-scale farmers to bring them in line with independent welfare certifications.

“[REAL] already had healthful, nutritional, and environmental standards and was interested in further building out its animal welfare requirements,” Roulston said in an email. “For many people, eating out is like dining in the dark. At many establishments, there’s very little information shared about the source of the food — including animal welfare and sustainability — or how it’s prepared.”

After a year of research and interviews with REAL certified restaurants and food-service operators the animal welfare component was finalized. By 2021, REAL certified restaurants will be required to source a significant amount of animal products from farms or ranches that are approved by animal welfare groups. Local welfare-approved meat products, while maybe more costly, are luxury items that people are willing to pay more for, Roulston said.

“Consumers are given information at grocery stores but receive almost no information while dining outside the home,” she said. “We know from research that consumers are eager for more information and assurances … while eating out and are willing to pay more for the knowledge that their meal meets certain standards.”

According to research, consumer health and animal welfare are closely related.

“Surveys show that no matter what they eat, consumers have no appetite for animal cruelty — and they instinctively understand that raising animals in unhealthy, stressful and filthy environments may pose health risks.”