September 24, 2015 / 10:04 AM / 2 years ago

Big food investors to meet on cage-free eggs, humane sourcing

3 Min Read

LOS ANGELES, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Cage-free eggs have come a long way.

Once considered niche issues, humane food-sourcing practices like cage-free egg buying and gestation crate bans have won headline-grabbing commitments from global companies such as McDonald's Corp, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Nestle.

On Thursday, BlackRock Inc will host investment fund managers at its New York City headquarters for a "Humane Economy" event focused on the financial impacts of social issues on restaurants, retailers and other consumer-focused companies.

BlackRock, Fidelity Investments, MFS Investment Management, Coller Capital and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are sponsoring the event, which is billed as a first of its kind. It is expected to draw more than 50 attendees from firms representing a combined $17 trillion in assets under management.

Sponsors say the success of companies such as burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc and specialty grocer Whole Foods Market Inc demonstrates the financial and social benefits of adopting humane sourcing policies.

The track records of those companies have investors weighing the risk of not getting on the humane-sourcing bandwagon against a tradition of avoiding social issues perceived to have little impact on share prices.

The issues also are grabbing attention in executive suites and boardrooms.

"Ten years ago, we were mostly engaging with quality assurance staff. Now we regularly engage at the CEO level, said Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director for HSUS, who is leading a discussion on industrial food production at the event.

HSUS has worked with dozens of food companies on humane sourcing practices, including McDonald's, which recently announced a North American switch to cage-free eggs by 2025.

"There is a lot more debate around these issues and it's across so many segments of society," said Michelle Edkins, a BlackRock managing director and global head of the firm's 22-member corporate governance and responsible investment team.

With consumer tastes changing quickly, companies may be best served by preempting or anticipating changing sentiment rather that waiting to be hurt by the shifting tide, said Edkins, who added that policy issues around antibiotic resistance and obesity also weigh on investors minds but are not the subject of the meeting.

Carol Geremia, co-head of global distribution at MFS, said environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics have gained traction with the Boston firm's mainstream clients in recent years.

"They want to know we're out there collecting information," said Geremia, who added that MFS tries to integrate ESG into many investment decisions. (Additional reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston; Editing by Ken Wills)

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