Pregnant hogs are seen in small stalls in a photo provided by The Humane Society of the United States to back up its allegations that Smithfield Foods was abusing the animals. The group said the photo was taken at a Smithfield plant in Waverly, Va., in November 2010.
Two years after shelving a pledge to phase out its practice of confining pregnant hogs in small, metal stalls, the world's largest pork producer on Thursday said it was ready to recommit. That was welcome news to the Humane Society of the United States, which had filed a complaint against the practice, and it urged Smithfield Foods' competitors to follow suit.
"(Our customers) want us to do that, and we've heard them loud and clear," Smithfield CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call with investors. "This company is going to do what's in the best interest of the business and the best interest of our customers."
Pregnant pigs are kept in gestation stalls where they stay during their four-month pregnancies. Afterward, they are moved for about three weeks to a stall large enough to nurse their piglets before being artificially inseminated and placed back into the stall for another round of breeding.
By the end of 2011, Smithfield said, 30 percent of its sows will be in group housing rather than in the stalls, and a complete phase-out should be done by 2017 -- the date initially set by the company in 2007 but then shelved in 2009.
Pope said the company "took a two-year holiday" from that conversion in order to deal with the economic downturn.
Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle didn't focus on the two-year delay, instead welcoming the move. "We recognize Smithfield's recommitment as progress," he said in a statement, "and urge its competitors such as Tyson, Hormel, Triumph, Prestage, Seaboard, and others to stop lagging behind and follow suit by adopting similar policies."
Smithfield produces about 17 million market hogs a year at about 460 hog farms in the U.S. It also partners with more than 2,100 independent hog farmers and contract growers in the U.S.
The move comes a month after the Humane Society filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that Smithfield was misleading investors and consumers by suggesting it does not abuse pigs.
A year ago, the group released photos and video showing about 1,000 large female pigs crammed into gestation stalls at a Smithfield facility in Virginia. The undercover operation also revealed 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 stall grates and dying in manure pits.
Msnbc.com's Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press contributed to this report.