updated 1/25/2007 4:13:19 PM ET 2007-01-25T21:13:19

Pork processor Smithfield Foods Inc. said Thursday it will phase out gestation stalls or crates at all 187 sow farms it owns in eight states and replace them with "more animal-friendly" group housing pens over the next decade.

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Smithfield's sows, which the company says grow to an average of 400 to 450 pounds during gestation, are kept in 2-by-7-foot metal crates in order to monitor their progress during their four-month pregnancies.

Animal-rights groups argue that confining pigs in crates is inhumane because the sows don't have room to turn around, they develop leg problems and they suffer from boredom and frustration. Group pens give sows some room to move and the ability to socialize.

Smithfield is making the change because customers "have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing," C. Larry Pope, chief executive of the Smithfield-based company, said in a statement.

"While this will be a significant financial commitment for our company over the next 10 years, we believe it's the right thing to do," Pope said.

The Humane Society of the United States urged other pork producers to emulate Smithfield, the leading processor and marketer of fresh pork and processed meats in the United States and the country's largest producer of hogs.

"This is seismic activity within the hog industry," said Wayne Pacelle, the society's president and CEO. "When you have the dominant industry player concede that this is the direction they must go, it validates our position that gestation crates are not acceptable."

Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants Smithfield to eliminate gestation crates more quickly. Sows spend most of their lives in the crates during multiple pregnancies, PETA said.

Such crates are "hideously abusive" and "it is no more acceptable to cram a pig into a tiny stall for her entire life than it would be to do that to a dog," PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said. "It is a life of unmitigated misery for a mother pig."

The group pens Smithfield is considering could house from six to 55 sows, depending on the size of the barns, which need to be retrofitted, said Dennis Treacy, vice president for environmental and corporate affairs.

Smithfield is still determining the cost of the changeover but does not expect it to dramatically affect prices for its pork products because the expense will be spread out over 10 years and offset by production efficiencies, Treacy said.

He stressed that the decision to change was based on what makes sense for the business.

"We were not pressured by customers or activist groups or anybody, but we're listening to our customers," Treacy said. Those customers include McDonald's Corp., which uses Smithfield pork in sausage biscuits at its fast-food restaurants, he said.

Smithfield's move is "a significant step forward for animal welfare," Frank Muschetto, McDonald's senior vice president for worldwide supply chain management, said in a statement. "Animal welfare is an integral part of McDonald's corporate social responsibility efforts and supply chain practices."

PETA's Friedrich said Smithfield can say it wasn't pressured by activist groups, but "we pressured them."

"Kudos to Smithfield for doing it, whatever their reasons," Friedrich said.

Pacelle noted that voters, in ballot initiatives spearheaded by the Humane Society, approved measures to outlaw such crates in Florida in 2002 and Arizona in 2006. He said the society has been considering replicating the campaigns in other states in 2008.

Smithfield owns sow farms in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Illinois, Treacy said. The company also has fewer than 100 contract sow farms nationwide and will work with them to convert to group housing, he said.

Pope said research has concluded both systems provide for the well-being of pregnant sows and work equally well from a production standpoint.

"There is no scientific consensus on which system is superior, and we do not endorse one management system over the other," Pope said in his statement.

Smithfield has been conducting its own three-year study into penning systems at three hog farms in North Carolina, Treacy said. Preliminary results after two years indicate that with proper management, group housing is as good as gestation stalls for providing care for pregnant sows, he said.

The National Pork Producers Council said it respects Smithfield's decision but this does not change the association's policy on gestation stalls.

"The American Veterinary Medical Association and other organizations recognize gestation stalls and group housing systems as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows during pregnancy," the council said in a statement.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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