RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork producer, said Thursday it is on track to end the practice of keeping female hogs in small metal crates while pregnant at its U.S. facilities by 2017 and plans to phase out the practice at its international hog production operations and its joint ventures by 2022.
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 had successfully moved 38 percent of its pregnant sows from the crates to group housing at the end of 2012, up from 30 percent a year ago.
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 took a break from that conversion in order to deal with the economic downturn the last few years.
Smithfield's North Carolina-based livestock subsidiary Murphy-Brown operates about 460 hog farms in the U.S. with approximately 851,000 sows producing about 15.8 million market hogs annually. It also partners with about 2,100 independent farmers and contract breeders 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.
The treatment of livestock destined for the dinner table is "becoming very important to our customers and is an important factor in the recent growth in our food service business," CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call with investors regarding its second-quarter financial results last month.
In 2011, The Humane Society of the United States had filed a federal complaint saying Smithfield was misleading consumers by suggesting it does not abuse pigs. The animal-rights group said the gestation crates and other abuses continue at Smithfield facilities, violating federal securities laws that prohibit companies from making false or misleading statements.
"The situation has changed pretty dramatically since the end of 2010," said Paul Shapiro, the organization's senior director of farm animal protection. "We recognize this progress."
The organization released photos and video in 2010 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.
Shapiro said Smithfield's move away from gestation crates is an important step but other issues with the treatment of the animals still exist.
"There's an increasing awareness that the treatment of animals who are raised for food is very important," Shapiro said.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.