Timely Insights & Perspectives on Corporate Sustainability, Responsibility & Citizenship

2018 INVESTOR-CORPORATE DIALOGUE: Human Drugs In The Ag & Food Sectors. Rising Antibiotic Resistance. Factory Farming. “Food” Industry Issues Colliding in the 2018 Investor-Corporate Dialogue and Proxy Voting Season

December 13, 2017

Consumers are very interested in “what” is in their food (including additives); “how” it was prepared (“industrial farming” is a rising criticism message of activists); and “if” the food was genetically modified or pharmaceuticals were used all along the food value chain.

One issue coming into sharper focus is the use of antibiotics in the food supply– and what that means in terms of antibiotic resistance…and the rising threat to human health around the world.

“Food” is a complex subject and one of broader and fast-rising interest for consumers.  There many aspects of “food” and “farming” now in focus for investors and activists – and that poses both risk and expansion of opportunity for the private and public sectors.

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For example:  For several years The New York Times had a feature writer (and later editorial page columnist) focused on food and agriculture – Mark Bittman.  His original focus was  somewhat typical — “food” — but this is what he had to say as he bid farewell to the newspaper readers in September 2015 to enter private industry:

“When I began nearly five years ago (in 2010), food was not generally considered as a serious a topic as it is now. When I met with Andrew Rosenthal, The Times’s editorial page editor, he asked if there enough food issue to sustain a weekly column.  I laughed and promised him a list of 75 ideas the next morning.  I under delivered by a couple of dozen, but I gave him 50; both of us are happy it worked out.

“Mostly [in leaving] I believe that I’ve identified the major issues in the interwoven worlds of food, agriculture, nutrition and the environment. Food affects just about everything, and vice versa.

The world of food writing, reporting and broadcasting has changed.  Dozens if not scores of authors and media writers are now expressing opinions about food, often daily.

In closing, Bittman said:  “I promised my editors that I would not overstay my welcome; five years represented a sensible amount of time to rail against the injustices and praise the advances I was seeing in the world of food and things linked to it.”

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Investor Interest in Food Issues Has Been Rising – And Coalitions Forming Around Issues…

Investors are also interested in food and agriculture issues and trends (as individual consumers) and as fiduciaries in large investment institutions serving beneficiaries and asset owners.

An example is the FAIRR- Farm, Animal Investment Risk and Return [Initiative], claiming support of a coalition of investors with more than US$1 trillion in Assets Under Management.  The aim:  to put various “factory farming” issues on the ESG agenda for engagement with corporates.

These issues include the risk posed by Avian Flu; Swine Flu; inclusion of horsemeat in certain consumer foods, and other issues (these cited, says FAIRR, are just the tip of the iceberg).

Two issues are the subject of active engagement: the “ask” of companies is to take action on “the overuse” of antibiotics in their operations.  McDonald’s, Domino Pizza Group and Yum! Brands are in focus; FAIRR-affiliated investors want these firms to end the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in their food supply chain.

Another issue:  ending the use of “industrially-produced animal proteins”.   This involves engaging with numerous brand name “target” companies such as General Mills, Kraft Heinz Company, Mondelez International, Nestle SA, and Unilever.  Food retailers are also identified by the initiative, including Costco, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Kroger Company.

There is more information for you on these initiatives at:

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2018 Issues Arena for Food – From Farm-to-Consumer Table and Takeout — All Along the Value Chain

Note that Future of Food has many companies identified in the 22-page report, and, a comprehensive index of sources of value.

The Global Investor Statement on Antibiotic Stewardship” is being circulated among contacts in the investor community to generate support for the resolutions to come in the 2018 proxy season.

The argument is made that “AMR” (the emergence of anti-microbial resistance) is now worldwide.  This poses a systemic risk across multiple sectors such as for firms within pharmaceuticals, healthcare and insurance industries.

The rising resistance by implication is caused in part by non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in industrial farming.

Engagement, Discussion, Confrontation All Along the Value Chain

We should expect that this campaign and others will involve engagement and direct and indirect pressure on retailers, veterinarians, ag interests (farmers and ranchers), farm supply firms, insurance carriers and reinsurers, food service companies, food service vendors, fast & fast casual food retailers, schools & universities, restaurants, volume food users (such as cruise lines), the U.S. and other nations’ regulatory agencies, and more institutions involved in the food supply.

Related food & ag issues for 2018 investor dialogue are expected to include:

  • farmworker health and safety;
  • use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms);
  • food industry  lobbying / political expenditures;
  • company-franchisee relations (for fast food companies);
  • imported food safety standards;
  • water use and wastewater in agriculture and food manufacturing;
  • farm chemical use / overuse; chemicals used in food manufacturing;
  • farmer-community relations;
  • worker health beyond the farm (such as in large food processing plants);
  • advertising (especially of food quality, benefits, nutrition)… and more.

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Sustainable Accounting Standards Board – Evolving Standards

SASB has a draft out for organization’s provisional Standard for the Food and Beverage Sector.   (The Standards for a range of industries are scheduled for completion in 2018.)  Investors are advancing suggestions for inclusion in the Provisional Standards related to the food-related issues above.

An extensive document containing suggestions was provided to SASB by involved investors (led by As You Sow, Green Century Capital Management and Interfaith Center on Corporate Resonsibility/ICCR) on a number of topics.

Those in focus included suggestions for Agricultural Products; Meat, Poultry and Dairy Industries; Processed Food Industry; Food Retailers and Distributors; and, Restaurants.

This G&A Institute brief is an initial heads-up for public company managements as managements consider some of issues that will be front and center in the 2018 investor-company engagements and corporate proxy voting season.

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G&A Institute Team Comments

Members of the team were involved in a number of food industry issues identified in this brief, including the use of antibiotics in food animals (where the same drugs are used by humans and animals but in different formulations).

The New York Times in an editorial in May 2014 (“The Rise of Antibiotic Resistance”) said the World Health Organization (WHO) was calling the alarm on the growth of resistant germs around the world in a report.  This was a “problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine…a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy is a very real possibility for the 21st Century.”

That and many such news and opinion pieces over the years since the early-1990s have steadily raised the issue into public view and spurred the consumer activists and investor activists on, to focus on the issue of human drugs used in the agriculture and husbandry and fishing sectors.  Many other media have picked up on the Times’s theme:

“Antibiotics have transformed medicine and saved countless lives over the past seven decades. Now, rampant over-use and lack of new drugs in the pipeline threatens to undermine their effectiveness.”

We can tell you within the limits of our ability to disclose that major pharma firms have focused on the issue on and off and have to date tended to limit the cutting back on or ending the use of human antibiotics in the food chain.  The increasing public focus on the issue raises the reputation and valuation stakes for public companies.

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References

What investors are supporting the FAIRR initiatives?   You can check your company’s shareholder roster to see investors are represented – they are identified as part of the FAIRR network:

  • Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)
  • Actiam
  • Aegon Asset Management
  • Appleseed Capital
  • Auriel Equity Investors (AEI)
  • AustralianEthical
  • Aviva Investors
  • Boston Common (which owns Walden Asset Management)
  • Calvert
  • Christian Super
  • Coller Capital (FAIRR’s founding organization)
  • Cornerstone Capital
  • Cruelty Super
  • Dana Investment Advisors
  • Domini Asset Management
  • Etho Capital
  • Farmland LP
  • Green Century Funds
  • The Health Foundation
  • Hermes Investment Management
  • Humane Investing
  • IFM Investors
  • JPS Global Investments
  • Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
  • Kempen Quantum Financial Planning
  • Robeco
  • Sonen Capital
  • Strathmore Pension Fund
  • Stray Dog Capital
  • Swift Foundation
  • Trillium Asset Management
  • Triodos Investment Management
  • UFF/African Agri-Investments
  • University of California/Chief Investment Officer
  • Zevin Asset Management

These activist organizations are also identified:

  • Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics
  • Antibiotic Resistance Center at the George Washington University
  • Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
  • Compassion in World Farming

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