McDonald’s Corp. responded to critics at its annual shareholder meeting Thursday, defending its right to market to children and deflecting consumer groups’ calls to retire spokesclown Ronald McDonald and to alter its egg sourcing.
The Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain repeated its long-held position that it has the right to advertise Happy Meals to children and that whether kids or their parents eat at McDonald’s “is all about choice.”
On Wednesday a consumer advocacy group called Corporate Accountability International took out a full-page ad in several major newspapers calling on McDonald’s to halt advertising geared toward children.
The ad carried the headline, “Doctors’ orders: Stop marketing junk food to kids.” Representatives from the group attended Thursday’s meeting to press the issue in person with McDonald’s chief executive Jim Skinner during a question-and-answer session.
Skinner responded that the issue was a matter of protecting people’s individual rights and the company’s responsibilities.
“Just as we defended your right of free speech yesterday concerning the newspaper ads, we would like you to respect our rights to advertise freely,” Skinner said. He added that people contacted McDonald’s Wednesday after the publication of the newspaper ads requesting that the company stand up for parents’ right to choose the foods their children eat.
“We’ll continue to advertise to our customers responsibly about our menu and about lifestyle choices and leave the personal responsibility up to them,” he added. “We take responsible advertising very seriously.”
Another meeting participant asked when the chain would retire Ronald McDonald from all advertisements and appearances.
“Ronald McDonald is an ambassador for good,” Skinner said. “He’s the face of Ronald McDonald House Charities. … Tonight and every night 7,200 families are going to spend a night in a Ronald McDonald House near a sick loved one. Ronald isn’t going anywhere.”
Critics beaten with ballots
Corporate Accountability International also had attempted to influence McDonald’s marketing strategy by working with institutional investor The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia to craft a shareholder proposal put to a vote Thursday. The proposal would have required McDonald’s to conduct a study of its “health footprint,” or effect on childhood obesity and related health problems.
Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability, said in a statement that the shareholder proposal was meant to compel McDonald’s to illuminate “the contribution of the fast-food industry to the global epidemic of childhood obesity and diet-related disease.”
“McDonald’s has long left a critical element of its annual earning reports off the books — the spiraling costs to our children’s health and the health care system from its business practices,” Louaillier said.
Shareholders roundly rejected the proposal, which won only 6 percent of the vote.
Only 3 percent of shareholders voted to adopt a resolution calling for McDonald’s and its suppliers to use controlled-atmosphere stunning in its sourcing of chicken products, a proposal put forth by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as a more humane way to source the protein.
McDonald’s chief operating officer Don Thompson said during the question-and-answer session that the company takes seriously the humane treatment of animals, adding that it has commissioned research testing the viability of sourcing cage-free eggs.
“This summer, McDonald’s USA will start purchasing from cage-free and enriched-housing methods,” Thompson said. “We’ll source about 1 million eggs from each type, and many of our competitors’ mentioned today are nowhere near that number of eggs. We’ll get a chance to see which one will be more beneficial.”
As of 2:30 p.m. EST, McDonald’s stock price had risen 95 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $82.45 per share.