-- McDonald's Corp. CEO Jim Skinner came out swinging Thursday when asked about Ronald McDonald and whether the burger chain hooks children with junk food.
Skinner, speaking at the company's annual shareholder meeting at McDonald's headquarters outside Chicago, said that newspapers ads Wednesday calling for Ronald's retirement had prompted an outpouring of support to his office, with parents and customers asking Skinner "to defend their right to choose."
A group called Corporate Accountability International paid for the ads, which said Ronald is encouraging unhealthy eating habits and contributing to childhood obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.
At the meeting, shareholders defeated a proposal the group had helped craft asking McDonald's to issue a report on its responses to childhood obesity. The proposal received 6 percent support, according to preliminary results released by the company.
Nick Guroff, a spokesman for Corporate Accountability International, called it "an extreme success for a first introduction" and said the results will force McDonald's executives "to take these concerns – as much as they diminished them at their shareholder meeting and otherwise – very seriously."
When Deborah Lapidus, an organizer with the activist group, said McDonald's is interfering with political efforts to curb marketing unhealthy food to children, Skinner replied that "this is about choice."
"We believe in the democratic process and our government officials believe in the democratic process," he said to applause from the audience of McDonald's shareholders. "This is about choice, this is about personal, individual right to choose in the society we live in. That's where we play, that's where you play, and we have every right to do so."
Skinner also got applause when he called Ronald, the burger chain's smiling spokesclown, "an ambassador for good" and noted that he is the face of Ronald McDonald House Charities.
"He does not advertise unhealthy food to children," Skinner said. "We provide many choices that fit with the balanced, active lifestyle. It is up to them to choose and their parents to choose, and it is their responsibility to do so."
When another shareholder said he was disappointed that Ronald wasn't at the meeting, Skinner replied: "Ronald hasn't been here because he's out in the field busy doing work and fighting through the protestors."
McDonald's has fared well throughout the recession, and Skinner started his presentation by saying that the company has turned in eight straight years of growth in stores open at least 13 months, an important measure for a restaurant chain. He also said that store remodelings and an expanded menu, including smoothies and oatmeal, will broaden the restaurant's appeal.
"It's oatmeal, people," he added, an apparent jab at a shareholder who said the oatmeal contains as much sugar as a Snickers bar.
Shareholders re-elected all five directors on the ballot, including Skinner, with each getting at least 97 percent of the vote, the company said.
Shareholders also passed a proposal, with 77 percent approval, asking the company to require that all directors be re-elected annually. The Florida State Board of Administration, which submitted the proposal, said the change would help keep directors accountable. McDonald's had opposed the change, saying its strong financial performance should be evidence of a proper board structure.