RICHMOND, Va. -- Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork producer, said Thursday it plans to end the practice of keeping pregnant hogs at the company's farms in small metal crates.
The Smithfield, Va.-based company, which has been criticized for continuing to breed sows in gestation crates that severely restrict the animals' movement, said it will phase out the use of gestation crates at its facilities by 2017. By the end of this year, the company said that 30 percent of the sows at its farms will be in group housing rather than the crates.
"(Our customers) want us to do that, and we've heard them loud and clear," CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call with investors regarding its second-quarter financial results. "This company is going to do what's in the best interest of the business and the best interest of our customers."
The company previously had been in the process of converting a number of its sow farms from individual gestation stalls to group housing for pregnant sows by 2017, but Pope said it "took a two-year holiday" from that conversion in order to deal with the economic downturn the last few years.
Smithfield's livestock subsidiary produces about 17 million market hogs each year at about 460 hog farms in the U.S., but it is unclear how many of those are breeding farms. It also partners with about 2,135 independent farmers and contract growers in the U.S. to raise hogs.
In the practice that Smithfield is phasing out, female pigs are kept in gestation crates where they stay during their four-month pregnancies. Afterward, they are moved for about three weeks to a crate large enough to nurse their piglets before being artificially inseminated and placed back into the crates.
Smithfield Foods' announcement comes a month after The Humane Society of the United States filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission saying the company was misleading consumers by suggesting it does not abuse pigs. The animal-rights group says the gestation crates and other abuses continue at Smithfield facilities, violating federal securities laws that prohibit companies from making false or misleading statements.
On the heels of animal abuse allegations at one of its hog farms, Smithfield released a new series of online videos that provide an in-depth look at pork production at the company's Murphy-Brown livestock production subsidiary, based in North Carolina. The Humane Society had said the rosy picture painted in the video series contrasts sharply with the results of its own undercover investigation of a Smithfield facility in Virginia.
A year ago, the organization released photos and video showing about 1,000 large female pigs crammed into gestation crates. The investigation also uncovered other alleged abuses, including a pig being shot with a stun gun and tossed into a trash bin while still alive and prematurely born piglets falling through gestation crate grates and dying in manure pits.
"Smithfield's recommitment is an important and welcome move. With the company back on track with its phase-out, I think we're getting closer to a day when the cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates will be a bygone era for the entire pig industry," Paul Shapiro, the organization's senior director of farm animal protection.
Shapiro added that the company's move is an important step but other there are still other issues with the treatment of the animals. He also encouraged Smithfield's competitors like Tyson Foods Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. to "stop lagging behind" and adopt a similar policy.