Over the years, companies have taken public stances on various social and environmental causes, whether they involve climate change, environmental degradation, detoxifying products, “standing” with Black citizens or improving the lives of the people who work within global supply chains. The frequent challenge, however, is following up and taking action on such promises. Animal welfare is one of those problems that have helped companies generate buzz when they announced changes to their policies and practices; the problem with some of these same companies, though, is the follow up.
About a decade ago, many companies pledged to improve their performance on animal welfare. Food producers and fast-food companies were front and center among brands saying they were determined to transform their supply chains so they could become more humane.
In particular, the practice of keeping pregnant sows in gestation crates were among the changes brands promised to end during the early 2010s. Consumers became aware of what critics often described as cruel and unsustainable conditions, so many companies pivoted and responded in kind. As the years went on, even though there were economic and brand reputational cases for improving animal welfare, evidence suggested that brands were falling short of their earlier promises.
In the latest development, the controversial financier and activist investor Carl Icahn has stepped into the fray over the use of gestation crates.
Icahn has certainly had a colorful career, with companies and brands including TWA, Pan Am, U.S. Steel, Marvel Comics and Lionsgate Films among his attempted and successful moves to either take over or wield his influence. Now, Icahn’s latest battle is a proxy fight over his criticism of McDonald’s animal welfare policies.
Over the weekend, Icahn announced his support for two proposed new members for McDonald’s board of directors, days after he told Bloomberg he feels “emotional about these animals and the unnecessary suffering” that they endure, adding that the use of gestation crates “have made us worse, not better.”
The outcome Icahn seeks is for McDonald’s to only source “crate-free” pork, as current practices to use gestation crates so pregnant sows cannot move is, in his words, “sadistic.”
Icahn made it clear that it’s not any financial gain he seeks, as he claimed that he personally owns only 100 shares of McDonald’s stock — the company puts that number at 200.
In any event, McDonald’s isn’t having it. While the company says it’s open to “promoting further collaboration across the industry on this issue,” in a public statement McDonald’s insists that it has been a leader in animal welfare. Further, the company noted it only sources about 1 percent of U.S. pork production, does not own any pigs, and does not directly produce or pack pork in the U.S.
McDonald’s also pointed out that Icahn is the majority owner of Viskase, a company that manufactures packaging and casing products for the meat industry.
The company also noted it was the first major brand to call for the end of using gestation crates back in 2012 and ultimately expects 85 to 90 percent of its pork to come from producers who eschew the practice. According to the company, 30 to 35 percent of U.S. pork has shifted to “group housing” systems.
But those numbers aren’t enough to sway Icahn, who told Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker that he’s opposed to the practice, period. “We’re not going to fool around with them anymore,” Icahn said as he described his communications with the company’s leadership, adding, “you’ve [McDonald’s] gotta do this.”
Schatzker was incredulous that Icahn would take on such a campaign, asking at one point, “Seriously? This [gestation crates] is important enough to you that you’re willing to wage a proxy fight over it with McDonald’s?”
Icahn didn’t take the bait, and while he noted that family members had been instrumental in focusing more of his attention on this cause, he insisted he was determined to end any “unnecessary animal suffering.”
Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) has continued to call out the pork industry and the brands that it supplies. A decade ago, the organization supported food companies’ pledges to phase out the use of gestation crates. “But instead of actually ending their use of gestation crates, some major U.S. pork producers have simply reduced their use of them,” HSUS concluded in a recent report.
Image credit: Phil Hearing via Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.