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Kraft Heinz facing investor pressure to beef up alternative protein plans

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Kraft Heinz facing investor pressure to beef up alternative protein plans

The Kraft Heinz Co. is facing pressure from investors to put a finer point on its alternative meat plans.

Green Century Capital Management Inc., a Boston-based mutual fund manager, filed the proposal, which shareholders will vote on at Kraft Heinz's Sept. 12 annual meeting in Pittsburgh. Green Century says Kraft Heinz has not moved quickly enough to introduce more plant-based proteins into its product lineup. Its resolution asks the food company's board for a report on Kraft Heinz's strategy regarding alternatives to meat, dairy, seafood and other animal-derived products.

Expanding Kraft Heinz's range of alternatives to animal proteins would be an environmentally friendly change, Green Century says, citing a United Nations report released in August that called for a drawdown in global meat consumption, particularly in wealthy countries. But Kraft Heinz is also missing out on growing consumer demand for plant-based meat alternatives, Kyle Kempf, Green Century's director of communications, said in an interview.

"Plant-based protein is a trend that's here to stay," he said. "We felt that they were really quite lacking relative to their peers."

Those peers have unveiled efforts in recent days to widen their product selection, signaling an interest in plant-based versions of foods. These products include deli meats, seafood and imitation chicken tenders as Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods Inc. continue to make inroads selling their plant-based burgers at retailers and fast-food chains.

Kraft Heinz did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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The latest in a line

Green Century's resolution, if presented, would mark the first vote for a proposal asking a major food company to do more on alternative proteins. Green Century filed a similar proposal with meat processor Tyson Foods Inc. in 2017 but withdrew it after Tyson took a stake in Beyond Meat later that year.

Kraft Heinz opposes the resolution. In a public filing it said it is "aware of increasing consumer demand for plant-based protein options" and pointed to its Boca brand, which makes soy-based proteins such as burgers and imitation chicken nuggets.

Kraft Heinz's largest investors, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and 3G Capital Inc., own almost 49% of outstanding shares in the company, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

AP Fonden 7, which manages $52.11 billion for Swedish public pensions, plans to support Green Century's proposal. The plan sponsor, which owned 647,024 shares of Kraft Heinz, or 0.05% of all common shares, at the end of 2018, believes the measure "would allow shareholders to better evaluate the company's sustainability performance and its management of related risks and opportunities," a spokesman said.

The proposal will join a roster of other environment-focused shareholder initiatives that food companies have faced in recent years. While many of those proposals have not mustered support from shareholders representing a majority of outstanding shares, companies have sometimes taken steps to allay their concerns anyway.

In 2018, for example, McDonald's Corp. said it would use recycled, renewable or forest-friendly sources for all of its packaging by 2025 after a related proposal from shareholder advocacy group As You Sow received support from holders of slightly less than one-third of outstanding shares.

The proposal at Kraft Heinz comes as the company's strategy is in flux. Miguel Patricio, who became the food company's top executive in June, said he is developing a new strategic plan for the company. Kraft Heinz has written down the value of some of its largest brands, faced an SEC probe into its procurement accounting and restated earnings in recent months.

Patricio's seeming desire for change makes Green Century "somewhat optimistic" that the company will take new action on the plant-based protein front, Kempf said. The company has not responded to Green Century's previous attempts to reach out about the issue, he said.

More sprouts at rivals

Kraft Heinz, known for hot dogs and cold cuts that it sells under its Oscar Mayer label, has invested in plant-based protein brands in recent quarters. In 2018, the company revamped Boca, which it purchased in 2000, making changes to existing products as well as introducing new ones, such as bite-size falafel pieces.

Kraft Heinz also invested in startups making products from coconut-based yogurt to protein bars through its Springboard incubator during the first half of 2019.

But other food companies have added plant-based proteins to their portfolios at a more aggressive rate. Swiss giant Nestlé SA said in April that it would launch new plant-based burgers in Europe and the U.S. by the end of 2019, while The Unilever Group acquired The Vegetarian Butcher B.V., which makes vegetarian meatballs, bratwurst and croquettes.

Other food manufacturers also have done more to market plant-based foods and disclose their outlook for growth among plant-based foods, according to a July report from investor network FAIRR. Kraft Heinz is "active" on the alternative protein front, FAIRR said, but the company ranked lowest among major food manufacturers for its progress, according to the report, which examined companies' plant protein products as well as related marketing efforts, companywide strategy and conversations with investors on the topic.

Receiving board-level endorsement for an alternative-protein strategy would be a first among food companies, Jo Raven, engagement manager at FAIRR, said in an interview. Of the major food manufacturers and retailers that FAIRR surveyed, none had a board-approved strategy for alternative proteins.

Expanding a food company's alternative protein operations requires reworking supply chains, developing new products as well as marketing them to consumers and retailers. "All of that is informed by the level of board buy-in," Raven said.