A resolution at the McDonald's annual shareholder meeting today will seek to prevent the fast food giant from marketing unhealthy food to children.
The resolution demands that McDonald's "stop substituting PR for genuine change - namely ending its marketing to kids - when it comes to its staggering impact on public health," according to Corporate Accountability International (CAI), the advocacy group spearheading the campaign.
"The resolution requires McDonald’s to examine and report on how its efforts to address its public health impacts are keeping pace with increasing public pressure and efforts to limit the fast food environment," Sara Deon, director of CAI's "Value [the] Meal" campaign, tells TriplePundit in an email.
"What McDonald’s is attempting to pass off as nutritional initiatives, slick nutri-washing campaigns, and ineffectual voluntary initiatives, are nowhere near enough to address the public health impacts of its business operations nor is it enough to protect shareholders from increasing financial risk," says Deon.
In recent years, the nutritional content of McDonald's food has been the target of at least two shareholder resolutions, both of which have failed to pass.
In 2011, a proposal demanding McDonald's cease marketing to children by retiring its iconic Ronald McDonald mascot garnered only 6 percent of the shareholder vote. Likewise, resolutions in 2009 and 2010 asking McDonald's to buy at least five percent of its eggs from cage-free facilities also failed to pass.
While the majority of McDonald’s shareholders will likely reject the resolution when they vote at the company’s annual meeting today, Deon insists that whether or not the resolution passes is of little consequence.
“The success of shareholder resolutions, especially those opposed by the Board and the largest institutional shareowners, can't be measured in the same way as a vote of Congress or a public opinion poll,” says Deon, noting that resolutions receiving just six to eight percent of the vote can influence a company’s behavior.
"Such votes... send a strong message to the corporation’s executives, while meaningfully educating shareholders about the liabilities associated with the business they're investing in," she says.
Deon says that failed shareholder resolutions have also compelled McDonald's to improve the health content of the food it markets to kids, as evidenced by its Happy Meal reformulation in the wake of the 2011 shareholder resolution. Despite opposing the cage-free eggs resolutions, McDonald's has since taken steps to source eggs from cage-free farms.
The obesity rate among U.S. children has escalated alarmingly in recent decades. More than one-third of Americans ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, a near threefold increase since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP).
Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are among the risks obese children face -- risks that tend not to diminish with age as 70 percent of obese children become obese adults, according to CDCP.
“Childhood obesity affects every organ system in the body,” Dr. Seema Kumar, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Program at Mayo Clinic, told ABC News.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood health a cornerstone of her White House tenure, and the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and CDCP have entreated fast food chains to stop marketing junk food to kids.
"When McDonald's spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to market to children (not adults) online, in schools, on the way to school, in community centers, with role models and more, they're creating an environment that undermines parental choice," says Deon.
Deon says that by targeting McDonald’s, CAI is taking aim at the industry leader, hoping that changes made by McDonald’s will set an example for Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, and the country’s other fast food peddlers.
“McDonald's is the industry leader and has set the standard for the rest of the industry on everything from marketing to kids to how food is sourced, grown, and processed,” she says. “It’s not soon after McDonald's takes action that its competitors see the wisdom in following suit.”
Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens