The 2013 proxy shareholder season is over, resolutions debated into their respective win/loss columns and reports filed. This hasn’t stopped those shareholder Godflies – the clergy, nuns and other religious on the left – from firing the first salvos for 2014 corporate battles. Among the companies targeted for the initial fusillade is General Mills Inc., purveyor of such perceived market atrocities as the Cheerios breakfast cereal and Yoplait yogurt. Specifically, the company’s packaging practices and use of genetically modified organisms has come under fire
Mind you, your writer has nothing against reasonably priced foods as part of a healthy, affordable breakfast. In fact, Cheerios was a “get-up-and-go” staple of this former farm boy’s life. Continuing the trend, a bag of those little grainy nuggets of morning goodness served church going well by quieting my rambunctious toddlers during innumerable Sunday masses. I do, however, rankle when so-called “religious” activists employ bad science to drive up food prices for those least able to afford it, especially families with young children.
As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy group allied with such Godflies as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and “social responsibility investment” firms Walden Asset Management and Trillium Asset Management presented a resolution to General Mills this past month that would have required the company to implement “extended producer responsibility” for packaging waste. Apparently, it’s incumbent upon the company to ensure cereal boxes and yogurt cups are recycled once consumers empty them.
Additionally, AYS this week announced it is pressuring General Mills on behalf of its shareholders to label foods derived from GMOs. AYS and the Green America nonprofit environmental advocacy group want General Mills to sit out the November Washington state ballot referendum that would require companies label GMO foodstuffs. General Mills, based in a suburb of Minneapolis, reportedly spent $1 million to defeat a similar referendum in California in 2012.
Imagine, shareholders of a company pressuring that same company to stifle its voice in an election directly impacting its bottom line and negatively affecting the stock value of the majority of the company’s shareholders who don’t agree with AYS and Green America on the use of GMOs. General Mills Chief Executive Officer Ken Powell has surmised correctly that such labeling will frighten uneducated consumers from purchasing his company’s cereals.
As for the packaging kerfuffle, the AYS resolution reads: “BE IT RESOLVED THAT Shareholders of General Mills request that the board of directors issue a report, at reasonable cost and omitting confidential information, addressing company responsibility for post-consumer product packaging and a plan for developing and participating in a system that will greatly increase packaging recycling.” This resolution was introduced three years after General Mills launched a pilot program to educate consumers about recycling #5 plastic used in Yoplait yogurt packaging.
AYS quotes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as asserting only 15 percent of #5 plastic containers are recycled, with the remainder winding up in landfills. Why #5 plastic – also known as polypropylene – is perceived as a problem that must be solved by General Mills at its shareholders’ expense rather than by the households who purchase the product isn’t stated. Nor does AYS present any scientific evidence that use of corn, soybean and sugar beets grown from GMO seeds present health risks when federal regulators have determined them to be safe enough to use without special labeling.
But the Godflies at AYS will not be deterred. They continue to act on ill-informed impulses at the expense of companies such as General Mills, its shareholders and, most important, the pocketbooks of consumers who buy their products.