Carl Icahn's reputation as a ruthless corporate raider may be at risk as the billionaire mogul takes on the world's biggest fast-food chain over the treatment of pigs that end up in the U.S. pork supply.
"I really do feel emotional about these animals and the unnecessary suffering you put them through," Icahn said in an interview last week with Bloomberg News. A pig has "a good brain" and is "a feeling animal," added Icahn, by biographer Mark Stevens.
The investor has nominated two people for election to McDonald's board of directors in what's likely a first step toward a proxy fight, the company confirmed Sunday in a statement. Icahn, who holds a mere 200 shares in McDonald's, told Bloomberg that his motivation had nothing to do with profit.
Icahn's nominees include Leslie Samuelrich, president of Green Century Capital Management, devoted to protecting "our water, air and land," and Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer at Bon Appétit Management, which calls itself a "food service for a sustainable future."
McDonald's in 2012 pledged to phase out its use of pork from controversial suppliers that use gestation crates, which are roughly the same size as the animal and leave no room to turn or lie down.
The Humane Society of the United States at the time applauded the announcement. More recently it faulted McDonald's for issuing several statements about "ending" gestation crates while allowing suppliers "to confine mother pigs in these crates for weeks on end during each pregnancy cycle throughout their lives."
In a 2017 update, McDonald's vowed that by the end of 2022 it would purchase U.S. pork only from producers that do not use the crates to house pregnant sows.
Now McDonald's says it anticipates by the end of this year that just 85% to 90% of its U.S. pork would be from pigs not confined to the crates while pregnant. It cited "industry-wide challenges for farmers and producers," including the pandemic. The company now says its expects to fulfill its pledge to use pork in the U.S. only from "sows housed in groups during pregnancy" by the end of 2024.
But Icahn has his doubts. In an interview this month with the Wall Street Journal, he said McDonald's suppliers transfer pigs from crates only after it's known they are pregnant, when they should not be using the gestation crates at all.
"They never delivered," the 86-year-old Icahn told Bloomberg, while also relaying he'd pushed for McDonald's initial pledge behind the scenes at the urging of his daughter, a vegetarian who at the time worked at the Humane Society.
"It's not something you can say, 'well it's good for humanity.' You don't have to keep this pig stuck in this gestation crate," Icahn told Bloomberg. Icahn said he was not trying to tell people they can't eat meat, only that there's no need to make an animal "suffer for fours years and then get killed."
Icahn's stance drew support from Norway's pension fund, KLP, which holds $72 million in McDonald's, including its bonds and equities.
''It is absolutely appalling that McDonald's has not ended the cruel use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs in its supply chain so we welcome this renewed attention and we strongly urge other shareholders to look into this very closely. Until these practices are banned, it is a duty for a global and enormously wealthy corporation like McDonald's to outlaw this with immediate effect," Kiran Aziz, head of responsible investment at KLP, said in an emailed statement.
While Icahn and KLP want McDonald's to only source "crate free" pork, the company believes the request is not realistic.
"While the company looks forward to promoting further collaboration across the industry on the issue, the current pork supply in the U.S. would make this type of commitment impossible," McDonald's said.
McDonald's purchases 1% of pork produced in the U.S., and does not itself own any pigs, it added.
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