In a scathing open letter to McDonald’s shareholders, legendary investor Carl Icahn said the company’s leadership was “failing” its investors and misleading the public about its animal welfare practices.
“McDonald’s’ Board of Directors … is failing shareholders and stakeholders by presiding over animal welfare violations, supply chain lapses and what I perceive to be a hollow environmental, social and governance (‘ESG’) agenda,” he wrote. “A company’s reluctance to improve policies and verification methods represents a serious risk to a business, its bottom line and the world around us.”
In February, McDonald’s reported that Icahn had nominated two new directors to its board, saying at the time that the move “relates to a narrow issue regarding the company’s pork commitment.” That issue is the use of gestation crates — tiny stalls where pregnant sows are held, their movements severely restricted — in McDonald’s pork supply chain.
Icahn said he holds only 200 shares in the company, McDonald’s noted at the time.
McDonald’s first promised in 2012 to phase out the use of the crates. In February of this year, it said that by the end of 2022, 85% to 90% of its US pork will come from sows that aren’t housed in gestation crates, and that it expects to meet a target of 100% by the end of 2024. The company also pushed back on the proposal from Icahn, saying he has “asked for new commitments,” including exclusively sourcing “crate free” pork.
“While the company looks forward to promoting further collaboration across the industry on this issue, the current pork supply in the US would make this type of commitment impossible,” McDonald’s said.
In Thursday’s letter, Icahn said that McDonald’s (MCD) claim about most of is US pork coming from sows not housed in gestation crates was a “cynical fabrication.” In a proxy statement filed with the SEC Thursday, Icahn and his two board nominees, Leslie Samuelrich and Maisie Lucia Ganzler, argued that to reach those numbers, McDonald’s (MCD) is “simply reducing the amount of time sows spend locked in gestation crates and using misleading language to hide their failed commitment.”
In his letter, Icahn said that some of the reasons McDonald’s gave for not reaching its 2022 goal — like challenges from the pandemic across the industry and a devastating swine fever — are “poor excuses.” He pointed to high executive pay as evidence that the company can reach its goals when it wants to. “You can look but you won’t find similar lapses in the pay doled out to McDonald’s’ directors and officers,” he said.
The letter outlined clear demands, including a commitment to removing the use of gestation crates entirely from McDonald’s supply chain by the end of next year, among other things.
Making the changes demanded by Icahn would increase prices for customers, the company said in a statement responding to the filings.
“McDonald’s today pays a premium to purchase group-housed pork in accordance with our 2012 commitment,” the company said, noting that switching to a system that would meet the standards Icahn outlined Thursday “would significantly increase those costs, placing a burden on all aspects of our business, our supply chain and McDonald’s customers.”
From the company’s perspective, “what Mr. Icahn is demanding … is completely unfeasible,” it said.
McDonald’s added that it “cares about the health and welfare of the animals in our supply chain and has long led the industry with our animal welfare commitments.”
‘Hypocrisy’ on Wall Street
Animal welfare has become a personal cause for Icahn. In a February interview with Bloomberg, he said that he’s upset by the conditions in which pigs are held. “I really do feel emotional about these animals and the unnecessary suffering,” he said.
Last month, he turned his attention to Kroger (KR) over the same issue, telling the company he planned to nominate two directors to the company’s board. “Mr. Icahn voiced his concerns regarding animal welfare and the use of gestation crates in pork production,” the company said at the time.
For Icahn, this isn’t just about pigs. His battle is also about Wall Street’s overall commitment to sustainable practices.
“I want to shine a light on what may be the biggest hypocrisy of our time,” Icahn wrote. “A large number of Wall Street firms and their bankers and lawyers appear to be capitalizing on ESG to drive profits without doing nearly enough to support tangible societal progress … clearly, the ESG status quo on Wall Street needs to change.”
He added that “if the ESG movement is to be more than a marketing concept and fundraising tool, the massive asset managers who are among McDonald’s’ largest owners must back up their words with actions.”
McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting is scheduled for May 26. It reports earnings next week, on April 28.
— CNN Business’s Julia Horowitz and Alicia Wallace contributed to this report.