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Smithfield to Phase Out Crates
Big Pork Producer Yields To Activists, Customers On Animal-Welfare Issue

By LAUREN ETTER
January 25, 2007; Page A14, the Wall Street Journal

Smithfield Foods Inc., the nation's largest pork producer, plans to announce today that it will phase out "gestation crates" at all of its company-owned sow farms over the next decade.

The company has come under fire by animal-rights activists in recent years over the crates, where some female pigs can spend most of their lives. The issue also played a role in last year's midterm elections.

Smithfield is the first major pork producer to move to ban the crates, but the company's efforts may not be fast enough for critics. "It's a big step," says Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and animal-rights researcher. But "it's not quick enough."

Groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, say it is inhumane to keep the sows – female pigs – in the crates during their 16-week gestation period, because they can't turn around, walk or stretch their legs. The crates are typically two feet wide by seven feet
long. At the peak of their gestation, sows can weigh as much as 600 pounds. When a sow is ready to give birth, she is moved to a "farrowing crate" to give birth and then reintroduced to the crate shortly later when she becomes pregnant again by artificial insemination.

Activists also say that pigs are intelligent animals that develop compulsive behaviors while kept in the crates, such as "chewing on cage bars and obsessively pressing against water bottles," according to a PETA Web site.

Speaking of the crates, Mr. Rollins says: "If you see one you'll never forget it."

Smithfield will replace the crates with "group housing," where the animals can socialize with one another. The pens will hold between six and 55 sows, depending on the size of the barn, according to the company. The crates at Smithfield's farms will be phased out completely by
2017. The company also contracts with farms. At those farms crates will have to be phased out by 2027.

The transformation to pens from crates is expected to be costly, but Smithfield declined to estimate how much it would spend.

Smithfield says its customers, including McDonald's Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have been increasingly asking the company to get rid of the crates. Customers have expressed "their desire to have a different form of sow housing," said Dennis Treacy, vice president of environmental and
corporate affairs at Smithfield.

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

Sow crates became a hot-button issue during last year's midterm election. Arizona voters passed an initiative, called the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act, which requires farmers to house sows in pens larger than the gestation crates. In 2002 Florida passed a similar regulation. The gestation crates are banned in Europe.

This is somewhat of a risky move for Smithfield since its independent producers could bear the cost of transforming their barns to the new pen standard. Smithfield doesn't have any sow farms in Arizona, but other pork producers balked at the initiative in that state. A group of pork producers called Campaign for Arizona Farmers & Ranchers posted large yellow and black signs stating "HOGWASH" along Arizona highways.

Smithfield has 187 sow farms – facilities where pregnant pigs are raised – across the country. Smithfield says the crates were originally used to protect the pig while pregnant, and to keep the animal clean. The company says new research shows that keeping sows in pens rather than crates doesn't interfere with the animals' ability to give birth.