From Dow to Dunkin' Donuts, shareholders compel action on chemicals

Box of Dunkin' Donuts
Flickr José Tomás Albornoz
As You Sow withdrew a shareholder resolution after Dunkin' Donuts agreed to remove titanium dioxide from its powdered sugar.

Food security and safety is bound to be a fraught subject as climate change and natural resource scarcity become increasingly critical.

The question is, how do we go about addressing it? Do we align ourselves with the corporates that contend their profit margins justify the release of laboratory experiments, or do we find a pathway that the same corporates disdain at the risk of irrelevancy in a sustainable economy? 

Sustainability advocates have long since concluded that a natural approach to agriculture is the best hope for feeding a global population projected to reach nine billion people by 2050, as a 2013 UN report insisted.

Some corporations may have other ideas — genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and nanomaterials among them — but sustainable investors and other activists are doing what they can to hold the line. Recent withdrawals of shareowner resolutions suggest that a measure of success has been accomplished. 

Consumers in the DARK?

More than 60 countries require some form of labeling of food products that contain GMOs. Yet the same multinational corporations that label their genetically engineered food products overseas — or in some cases even reformulate them to exclude GMOs — spend millions of dollars to prevent labeling from becoming law in the U.S. 

Dow Chemical is one company that has been identified as lobbying for a new federal law, known as the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act, which if passed by Congress would prevent states from adopting their own labeling laws. The law would even prevent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from requiring GMO labeling. 

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved with some restrictions the Enlist Duo herbicide manufactured by Dow's AgroScience business unit. The herbicide, which contains a component found in Agent Orange, will be used with genetically-engineered corn and soy seeds. 

Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) filed a shareowner resolution with Dow, expressing concern over “adverse human health impacts, including cancers; to environmental impacts including crop damage from off-target drift; and to increased weed resistance leading to the use of even more potent pesticides.” The organization's shareowner activists requested that Dow report on its management of the environmental and social impact of its products. 

“The company agreed to monitor and report annually on grower compliance with protocols for the use of its Enlist Weed Control System,” ICCR recently reported, and the Adrian Dominican Sisters, the lead filer, withdrew the resolution. 

“This commitment by Dow Chemical is a major achievement — the first such commitment by any major producer of genetically-engineered seed,” said Margaret Weber of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. “We are hopeful other seed companies we engage, such as DuPont, come to see the importance of monitoring and public reporting in helping to build a safer and more sustainable food system.” 

One donut, hold the titanium dioxide

The potential adverse impacts of nanomaterials in food products may be less clearly understood at present, but “nanomaterials such as silver and titanium dioxide have been found to be highly toxic to cells in laboratory studies,” a shareowner resolution filed with Dunkin Brands by As You Sow states. “Because of their small size, nanoparticles are more likely to enter cells, tissues, and organs where they may interfere with normal cellular function and cause damage and cell death.” 

Dunkin Brands uses titanium dioxide in several of its donuts, and As You Sow's resolution requested that the company “report on Dunkin’s use of nanomaterials in the company’s food products or packaging. The report should identify products or packaging that currently contain nanomaterials; the purpose of such use; and actions management is taking to reduce or eliminate risk, such as eliminating or disclosing the use of nanomaterials until they are proven safe through long-term testing.” 

This week, As You Sow announced that Dunkin Brands has decided to remove titanium dioxide from the powdered sugar used on its donuts. The organization responded by withdrawing the resolution. 

“This is a groundbreaking decision. Dunkin’ has demonstrated strong industry leadership by removing this potentially harmful ingredient from its donuts,” said Danielle Fugere, President and Chief Counsel of As You Sow. “Engineered nanomaterials are beginning to enter the food supply, despite not being proven safe for consumption. Dunkin’ has made a decision to protect its customers and its bottom line by avoiding use of an unproven and potentially harmful ingredient.”

This article first appeared at Social Funds.