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Activist Ackman Takes $5.5 Billion Stake in Snacks Giant Mondelez

High-profile activist investor William Ackman has built a $5.5 billion stake in Mondelez International Inc., MDLZ 1.51 % a giant bet that the maker of Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers will become the biggest target in a wave of consolidation reshaping the food industry.

Mr. Ackman is expected to reveal his firm’s stake, which amounts to about 7.5% including options and forward contracts, as soon as Thursday morning, people familiar with the matter said. The activist believes Mondelez has to grow revenues faster and cut costs significantly, they said, or sell itself to a rival.

With a $75.6 billion market value, there are few companies that could afford Mondelez. One potential buyer, the people said, could be the newly formed Kraft Heinz Co. KHC 0.84 % , which has a $97.6 billion market cap. A spokesman for Kraft Heinz declined to comment.

“We welcome Pershing Square as investors in our company,” a Mondelez spokeswoman said. “We’ll continue to focus on executing our strategy and on delivering value for all our shareholders.”

The investment, one of the biggest ever by an activist, represents the latest in an array of dizzying turns for the snacks company, whose $34 billion in annual sales makes it one of the world’s biggest packaged-food producers. In 2012, Mondelez spun off its former North American grocery brands business into Kraft Foods Group Inc., which itself was gobbled up this year to form Kraft Heinz.

Were a sale to materialize, it would be one of the biggest in a string of mergers in the food industry in the past two years that also has included Tyson Foods Inc. TSN -0.43 % ’s $7.7 billion acquisition of Hillshire Brands Co.

The drive to consolidate big U.S. food companies comes as they wrestle with rapid shifts in consumer tastes that are hampering sales growth. Shoppers increasingly are shunning traditional packaged foods in favor of products that are fresher and claim simpler, more natural ingredients.

A sale to Kraft Heinz would recombine Mondelez and its former Kraft unit in a remarkable circle of corporate rearrangement. It would reinforce the influence in the...