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The Whole Truth

I have ventured into dating again for the first time since I was a kid. I had no idea whether the rules had changed, whether there are any rules, or if there are rules, whether anyone bothers following them. Blindly wading into something that I suppose may one day result in a steady girlfriend, and after that who knows, I decided there was only one way to handle the situation.

No matter what kind of chemistry is apparent on a first date, I figure it is in both our interests to be forthright, honest and open right from the start. After all, if you are willing to consider making a long term emotional ‘investment’ in someone, isn’t it best to be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why would one party withhold information from another that may cause the ‘investment’ to turn sour at some point down the road? If you tell the whole truth, I figure you’ll never have to worry about what it is you said, or didn’t say, and have a much better understanding of what it is you might be investing in. Call me an idealist if you will, but shouldn’t life work this way?

In the investment world the buzzword for this process is “disclosure”, and is something that many companies have yet to fully embrace. Case in point is the recent outing of Kentucky Fried Chicken as a major purveyor of trans fats, created when manufacturers add small amounts of hydrogen to oils. The hydrogenation process raises the oils’ melting point, helping them stay solid at room temperature, which makes them easier to transport and use in cooking. Due to their altered chemical structure, the resulting trans fats have been found to simultaneously raise levels of “bad” cholesterol while lowering levels of “good” cholesterol in those who consume them. Trans fats’ harmful effect on cardiovascular health is therefore well established, and probably explains why KFC chose not to disclose its levels in their Extra Crispy Combo meals.

Kentucky Fried Chicken is owned by Yum Brands (NYSE: YUM), and these guys might be in a little trouble if they don’t respond adequately to the pressure that is being brought to bear on them. Other companies have been more proactive in dealing with this particular issue, notably Kellogs (NYSE: K) and PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) who, despite other shortcomings, have at least adapted their product lines to reduce or eliminate the use of trans fats. So when you are shopping for a box of cereal, you can at least decide between the one that touts itself as “low in trans fats” and the one that says nothing at all. Saying nothing at all should give you a clue about what’s inside the box. Reminds me of dating…

For some years now, there has been a vocal movement behind a proposal for mandatory labelling of foods that use genetically modified ingredients. While such labelling is now required on foods sold in Europe, no such requirement exists for food displayed on Canadian (or American) supermarket shelves. I’m not going to wade into the GMO debate here, there are countless more studied opinions available, but I would definitely appreciate the opportunity to make a more informed purchase the next time I’m looking for dinner. However, Monsanto and others say that labels could mislead consumers by implying that there is a risk, so I’m left somewhat uninformed about what’s on my plate. If there is a risk, can I trust you to tell me? You see this kind of thing really eats at me, if you’ll forgive the lousy pun. If Monsanto were my date, this kind of non-disclosure would preclude me from investing in a long-term relationship with her.

The managers at Ethical and Meritas Funds must be given credit for their activism on the GMO issue. At Ethical Funds for instance, their 2006 Shareholder Action Program calls for companies to refrain from placing genetically modified food products on the market until proven safe and to support the consumers’ right to know what is contained in the food they are eating through better food labelling. Loblaw Companies, Maple Leaf Foods, Metro and Sobeys are the four corporations being engaged on behalf of Ethical Funds shareholders.

Normally, if this discussion does not yield any progress, all shareholders in these companies will be asked at the corresponding annual general meeting to vote on a resolution supporting better disclosure. If you own one of the above-mentioned companies through your Ethical Funds account, you can be assured that your shareholder voting rights will be used to support such a resolution. If you own these companies through any other Canadian mutual fund, such support is uncertain, and you will have to contact your fund company to determine how they voted your shares.

The Ethical Funds Company has produced an excellent review of the background to the GMO debate, and their approach to dealing with these issues. It is available for download off their website at www.ethicalfunds.com/do_the_right_thing From the homepage click on the article entitled “Food for thought…”.

Disclosure, transparency and clarity…whether one is considering an investment in a home, a stock, a mutual fund, or yes, even a personal relationship, these are qualities that should be apparent prior to making any long term commitments.

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