Panera Wants You to Eat More Plants

November 5, 2015, 12:00 PM UTC

Restaurant chain Panera Bread (PNRA) is usually ahead of the pack when it comes to its food policies. The St. Louis-based chain started serving chicken raised without antibiotics more than a decade ago, long before the issue hit most consumers’ radars. Or take the company’s announcement last year when it committed to “clean ingredients,” meaning no artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives.

The chain’s actions around food policy, such as antibiotic use, tend to be a barometer of what’s to come in the industry. So what was most telling in its animal welfare update this morning was its mention of plant-based proteins.

“We know that guests are increasingly seeking plant-based proteins for personal health reasons and/or to reduce their environmental impact,” said Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy, in the release. “To that end, we have been adding plant-based proteins like edamame and organic quinoa to our pantry of ingredients.”

Touting plant-based protein at a mainstream restaurant chain is a big deal. “It’s the first national chain that I’m aware of that’s ever said that,” said Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s hugely significant.”

Plant-based proteins are gaining steam as consumers try to cut down on meat for health reasons as well as to lighten their impact on the environment. Last year Chipotle (CMG) added “sofritas”—shredded organic tofu—to its menu. White Castle has added a veggie slider into the mix, and Wendy’s is offering up a black bean burger.

The fact that Panera has come forward and made a statement about plant-based protein means we’ll likely soon see other chains added to the list. “Plant-based is the next big issue,” Balk said. “We’re at a tipping-point for plant-based foods.”

Panera also said in its animal-welfare update that 21% of its eggs are now cage-free and that it will be completely cage-free by 2020. The company noted that its entire pork supply, about seven million pounds worth, is raised without antibiotics and fed a vegetarian-only diet. All of the company’s chicken and roasted turkey served this year will be raised without antibiotics and fed a vegetarian-only diet, and 89% of its beef is grass fed and free range.

“Our guests want to understand where food comes from,” Burnett told Fortune. “Animal welfare is a huge focus for us, and our guests believe we need to be part of the solution to the food system.”

It’s not a bad marketing move either. “It’s a competitive advantage to be seen as more pro-animal,” Balk said.

For more about Panera, watch this Fortune video:

Update: An earlier version of this story said that Panera is based in Boston. The company’s East Coast office is based outside of Boston. The company is headquartered in St. Louis.

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