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Hormel ending tight confinement for pregnant pigs

Hormel Foods Corp.'s company-owned farms are phasing out the use of small metal crates for confining pregnant hogs by the end of 2017 -- a move welcomed Thursday by the Humane Society of the United States, which had pushed for the change.

The Humane Society has been campaigning across the country for an end to the use of gestation crates, saying they severely restrict the animals' movements. Hormel -- the maker of Spam canned meat, Cure 81 hams and Black Label bacon -- is the society's latest claimed success. Six weeks ago, the world's largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc., said it would stop using gestation crates at its facilities by 2017.

Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for the society's farm animal protection campaign, said the first word his group got of Hormel's change in policy was at the company's shareholders meeting in Austin, Minn., Tuesday night when he asked CEO Jeffrey Ettinger when the company would stop allowing gestation crates in its supply chain. He said Ettinger replied that Hormel's company-owned farms would phase them out by the end of 2017.

It wasn't immediately clear when Hormel made the policy change. The company's media relations department pointed to a section of its online 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report explaining its plans. The section on hog operations was updated at some point to reflect the change since one version of the report was issued last year, but the company did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on when it made the change or whether it was in response to pressure from the Humane Society.

In both versions, Hormel says the breeding sows at its company-owned farms in Arizona will be transitioning to group housing by the end of summer this year and at its farms in Colorado before 2018.

"With nearly 75 percent of our company-owned sows moving to group sow housing at our farms in Arizona and Colorado, for the purposes of consistent animal handling practices, employee training, personnel transfer and reporting processes, we will also begin the transition to group sow housing at our company-owned farms in Wyoming before 2018," the updated passage reads. "By including our Wyoming farms with our operations in Arizona and Colorado, all Hormel Foods-owned farms will be 100 percent group sow housing before 2018."

The earlier version did not mention plans for Wyoming, and neither version says whether Hormel is asking the more than 775 independent farmers across the Midwest who supply the company with hogs to end the use of gestation crates.

Dominguez noted Hormel acknowledged the policy change just six weeks after competitor Smithfield, and just days after the Humane Society announced the results of an undercover investigation at two Oklahoma facilities that use the crates.

"The science is clear on this, the competitive landscape is clear and public sentiment is clear that gestation crates have to go," he said.

According to the Humane Society, Hormel has 54,000 breeding pigs at its facilities in Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. Hormel did not immediately confirm that figure. Eight states have passed bans on gestation creates including Arizona and Colorado, where the bans take effect by the end of the 2012 and 2017 respectively. But Wyoming has no such law, the society pointed out.

"This decision brings us closer to the day when the cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates will be a bygone era for the entire pork industry," Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a statement. "We thank Hormel for making this decision and urge the company to also apply it to any contract pig breeders it may use. We also urge Hormel's competitors such as Tyson, Triumph, Prestage and Seaboard to stop lagging behind and get on the gestation-crate free pathway."

Dominguez plans to raise the issue when he attends the Tyson Foods Inc. annual meeting in Springdale, Ark., on Friday.

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