It hasn’t gotten much publicity here yet, but investor Carl Icahn is kicking up a fuss that may force North Carolina’s pork industry to invest as much as $1 billion to raise hogs in a more humane way.
Ten years ago, his daughter, Michelle, alerted the famous New York investor to how pigs are raised by pork producers aligned with Smithfield Foods and other giant meatpacking companies. The basic beef (sorry): Female adult pigs, or sows, are often confined to individual “gestation crates” that don’t enable them to turn around as they breed.
So Icahn, 86, pressured McDonald’s in 2012 to commit to buying pork for McRib sandwiches in a manner more acceptable to animal rights advocates. McDonald’s, without acknowledging that it was influenced by Icahn, agreed to stop buying pork from suppliers that use gestation crates by 2022.
It’s 2022 and Icahn learned that McDonald’s still buys some pork from producers using gestation crates. He responded by nominating two animal rights supporters to join the restaurant chain’s board. McDonald’s says its suppliers have made great progress in creating a more humane environment for pigs, but it’s a complicated process to change long-established practices.
Icahn also contacted supermarket giant Kroger, which told the Wall Street Journal it has asked pork suppliers to eliminate gestation crates by 2024.
To understand the issue, I asked Todd See, a professor who heads the animal science department at N.C. State University, to share his thoughts. North Carolina is the third largest pork producer behind Iowa and Minnesota.
See explained some key points:
– Smithfield Foods has phased out gestation stalls and converted company-owned farms to group housing. But individual housing (which critics call crates) remains common until the sow is confirmed pregnant between 35 and 45 days.
– Sows need to stay apart as they give birth and nurse piglets for the first three weeks because they can have aggressive interactions.
– N.C. pork producers use a variety of individual sow stalls, group housing systems, and a combination of the two.
– To meet the demands of some industry critics, farms using individual housing may need to remodel and boost their building space by 33% to maintain the same number of animals. That could cost as much as about $4,500 per sow space, or about $4 million for a farm with 2,400 sows.
– There are 800,000 sows in North Carolina as of March 30, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture quarterly report.
– “A ball-park range would be a minimum capital investment of $250 million and the investment required could easily approach $1 billion for N.C. pork producers,” See says.
Icahn has a history of winning most corporate takeover battles. Whether he prevails in forcing big investments in eastern North Carolina’s pork country will be interesting to watch.