Shareholder Activism: Icahn Targets McDonald’s Pig Pens

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Without the presence of Carl Icahn as protagonist, this latest pig tale might otherwise rate as a story of minor interest.

Recall that Icahn came to prominence in the 1980s, as a ruthless corporate raider, known for acquiring companies such as Trans World Airlines and engaging in swingeing asset striping in the quest of siphoning off beaucoup bucks. Many younger readers might not recognize his  name, but they surely would recognize the ’80s icon and fictional character he in part inspired, Gordon Gekko.

To be fair, with these latest porcine interests, Icahn currently seems to be on the right side of an issue for a change (although I declare my suspicions up front; one never knows with Icahn, and there’s almost certainly more to this story than what’s been publicly disclosed).

Sticking with those known facts, he’s acquired some McDonald’s shares – a few hundred rather than the thousands in which he typically deals –  and has nominated two directors to its board with the aim of improving the food behemoth’s suppliers treat their pigs, according to the FT,  Carl Icahn launches board fight at McDonald’s over treatment of pigs:

Activist investor Carl Icahn has launched a highly unusual board fight at McDonald’s to demand changes to the way its suppliers treat pigs.

In a statement on Sunday, McDonald’s said Icahn had nominated two board directors as part of a campaign related to “a narrow issue regarding the company’s pork” processing. Icahn has asked McDonald’s to require that all its US pork suppliers end the practice of keeping pregnant pigs confined in small crates.

The company pledged in 2012 to phase out the use of what are known as “gestation stalls” for pregnant sows in its US pork supply chain in 10 years. It said on Sunday that by the end of 2022, it expected to source 85 to 90 per cent of its US pork from sows no longer confined to stalls, and to completely eliminate the practice from its supply chain by the end of 2024.

The FT, CNN (Billionaire Carl Icahn targets McDonald’s over pig welfare), the Grey Lady’s Dealbook (Carl Icahn Pushes McDonald’s to Change Way It Sources Its Pork), and BBC  (McDonald’s pig policy fight escalates with board nominations) all ran with this porky tale today.

Two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal highlighted Icahn’s longstanding interest in McDonald’s pig policy, Relentless Wall Street Billionaire Has a Secret Cause:

Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor known for his relentless campaigns against CEOs and rivals, has a secret cause that he has pursued for a decade.

In 2012, McDonald’s Corp. pledged to stop buying pork for its Bacon McDouble cheeseburgers, McRib sandwiches and the like by 2022 from producers who use small crates to constrain pregnant swine. Left unmentioned was that Mr. Icahn had pushed for the change behind the scenes.

A decade on, Mr. Icahn has concluded the original promise was hogwash. McDonald’s now often has its producers move pigs out of the containers only after confirming they’re pregnant. Many wait to do so until the sows are four to six weeks into their 16-week pregnancies. Mr. Icahn had expected the use of so-called gestation crates to be banned altogether.

Icahn, who’s not known for letting an issue of interest slide,  doesn’t believe McDonald’s has fulfilled its 2012 pledge. According to the WSJ:

The man who helped send TWA into bankruptcy and partly inspired Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider in “Wall Street,” is spending a lot of time advocating for better treatment of pigs, using many of the same tactics.

Mr. Icahn got involved with the Humane Society of the United States, which is leading the push, at the behest of his daughter, Michelle Icahn Nevin, a vegetarian animal-lover who was working there at the time. He learned details of the pigs’ plight when he hosted a Humane Society executive for dinner at his Manhattan penthouse. The nonprofit was having trouble getting McDonald’s to take action until it corralled Mr. Icahn.

Now, at this point, I can  just imagine Michael Douglas saying, “What’s my motivation for this concern for the welfare of another sentient being?” In other words, what lies behind Icahn’s latest crusade? The answer, per the WSJ, may surprise long-term Chan watchers:

“Animals are one of the things I feel really emotional about,” says Mr. Icahn. He and his wife have three small dogs. He says he feels particular affection for pigs, pointing to their intelligence. A recent study suggested a kinship with humans by showing pigs can play videogames with their snouts.

If I concentrate carefully, I can almost hear the snorts that this latest Icahn confession elicits.

Yet after watching from afar Icahn wreak corporate havoc for decades, I for one am now pleased to see that the 86-year old billionaire many times over has finally discovered some living creatures he can feel emotional about.

Oink, oink!

Although McDonald’s hasn’t so far abandoned gestation crates entirely, other companies have done so. Indeed, rival Burger King has gone one better, at least in terms of making a pledge, to phase out the use of such crates for both pregnant and non-pregnant sows alike. According to the WSJ:

Massachusetts and California have outlawed the sale of pork produced using such crates in most circumstances. Some brands say they don’t use them at all, including Applegate Farms and Niman Ranch. The parent company of McDonald’s rival Burger King, Restaurant Brands International Inc.,has set a goal to eliminate the use of crates for both pregnant and nonpregnant sows.

The crates came into widespread use just before corporate raiders strode onto the scene,  to reshape U.S. companies and the wider capitalist landscape in their wake. Per the WSJ:

Widespread use of gestation crates began in the 1970s as pork producers gave priority to efficiency. A 1978 article in the industry publication National Hog Farmer suggested producers consider the sow “a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.”

“Under that mind-set, the industry went, no pun intended, hog wild into moving pigs into gestation crates,” says Matthew Prescott, senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society, who has been focused on eliminating the crates since 2002.

Over to the pink paper for the last word. According to Josh Balk, vice-president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the US, who’s known Icahn for more than a decade:

 “He is absolutely — to his core — someone who will fight to prevent cruelty to animals.”

For his part, Icahn is not pussy-footing around, and is close to taking action, telling Bloomberg TV last week, according to the FT:

“We’re not going to fool around with them any more,”

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  1. Michael Ismoe

    “He is absolutely — to his core — someone who will fight to prevent cruelty to animals.”

    I wish one of our oligarchs felt the same way about humans

    1. JBird4049

      Yeah, but it’s nice to see some slivers of decency from one of Them. Looking at how they abused and exploit their fellow humans is painful. Reading about how animals are treated is just nauseating. The book The Jungle is still relevant to today. Seriously, I am not a vegetarian, and when I can afford it, love me some meat especially pork; that doesn’t mean I approve of them getting every last bit of profit or me getting a cheaper price without regards to suffering.

  2. amechania

    Massachusetts passed a ballot initiative for cruelty free chicken cages three-ish years ago. Regulators just voided it last month ‘cuz covid’. And inflation. No penalties for the producers who deliberately took no action for years. Only anti-corp resistance matters, I guess.

    The law wasn’t even delayed. Straight up nullified, so it seems democracy is negotiable after all.

  3. Susan the other

    Well, I love it. Go Carl. And after pigs there is a long list of other animals in need of a guardian.

  4. Socrates Pythagoras

    You buried the lede. The real story here is that the McRib sandwich actually contains pork.

    WRT Icahn, something stinks here. Having a difficult time believing all this sweetness and light.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      As I said in the post, I’m not all on board with the sweetness and light either. I’ll update when and if new details emerge.

      1. John Zelnicker

        Jerri-Lynn – So, Carl Icahn actually has a (pig’s?) heart! Who knew?

        I saw a brief story from AFP about Icahn’s moves on Raw Story this morning that had an interesting detail near the end.

        Apparently, Icahn is the majority owner of Viskase “a company that produces and supplies packaging for the pork and poultry industry.”

        I have no idea if this is significant or not, but it’s something to keep in mind. Icahn does appear to be sincere since he’s been advocating for pig welfare for at least a decade.

    2. LowellHighlander

      Look, you’ve good reason to be skeptical. But I can see why Icahn was motivated to do this: his daughter (or, more accurately, his love for his daughter).

      I remember seeing a documentary years ago about the war on weed. The setting was, I think, Michigan in the early ’70s. This white man with no social or academic pedigree had been arrested for possessing and/or smoking marijuana. Activists in the state called in John Lennon, who came and gave a concert to publicize this guy’s plight. I believe he’d been convicted, because everyone now feared that he was facing many, many years (perhaps decades) in jail. What saved him? The story, as given in the documentary, was that the judge’s daughter (late teens, I think) barged into his study and told him that, if he sent this guy to jail, he would never see her (or her future children) again. The story that I remember is that the judge sat there, stunned. I think the guy was let off with no jail time.

      And I see my neighbor’s (the father’s) devotion to his daughter, who’s now 10, as well as to his son. I’m convinced he’d do anything for her. I think the stereotype from my youth said that men preferred to have sons. Well, I beg to differ; I’ve seen different.

      1. Alex Cox

        The man was John Sinclair, former manager of MC5. The song is on Some Time in NYC – an excellent album!

  5. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I would say almost certainly that Icahn is high on the ASD spectrum.
    Having been deeply immersed in the ASD world for the past few years, I am fascinated by constellation of (and often conflicting) characteristics possessed by people on the spectrum. This explains why ASD is so often misdiagnosed as narcissism, sociopathology, ADD, etc.
    I have known more people than I can count (including some VERY close to me) on the spectrum, who will have incredible empathy for animals, children, the starving people in Africa and yet blurt out the seemingly cruelest statements to their nearest and dearest.
    For years I had all sorts of dismissive interpretations for Aspergirls and boys (self-identified despite what the DSM claims) behaviour, and only recently have I begun to discern patterns, many of which are not mentioned in the usual texts but are often encountered in books by people on the spectrum themselves.
    As the classic finding about people high on the spectrum (besides hyper focus and intelligence and a neurologically observable task-switching lag), is the lack of a theory of mind, i.e., they will never understand how other people are feeling nor how devastating their comments and behaviour can be, which oddly enough, is often intended to be helpful criticism. It certainly doesn’t feel that way!.
    As ASD does seem to have a genetic component, it’s interesting that Icahn’s animal loving daughter was working at the Humane Society.
    ASD would not forgive Icahn’s behaviour that inspired the depiction of Gordon Gekko, but it might help to explain it.

  6. sawdust

    I’m highly suspect of any of Icahn’s moves but I suppose I’ll give him credit for now.

    In 2011 I was part of the audit review for Federal Mogul, an auto parts company that Icahn owned. They had some obvious goodwill impairment they needed to declare from a prior acquisition that was the result of poor financial planning and sloppy reporting decisions on their part.

    The CFO that Icahn put in place pulled out every trick in the book – including outright fraud – to avoid proper accounting treatment. They fabricated fake earnings for a brake pad division to show it wasn’t impaired and probably would have gotten away with it if they hadn’t first sent us the real earnings. Even after being caught, they threatened to fire our audit team (big 4) if we didn’t pass them. We had to get the head America’s partner to join our calls and sign off. In my years working audit reviews I never saw a more brazen disregard for the rules.

  7. Tbone

    I have a relative (who’s passed) that had their pension (twa) stolen by that scumbag.
    Here’s hoping he dies in fire.

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