By year’s end, Smithfield Foods will have moved 30 percent of the company’s gestating sows out of stalls and into group housing. “I am very pleased to report that our livestock production subsidiary Murphy-Brown, LLC has made major progress toward the conversion from individual gestation stalls to group housing arrangements for pregnant sows on company farms,” says C. Larry Pope, Smithfield’s president and chief executive officer.

He points out that the 30 percent mark by Dec. 31, 2011, was the company’s original target when the effort was announced in 2007.

The Smithfield, Va.-based company had been under pressure recently, with the Human Society of the United States filing a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission saying the company was misleading consumers and making false or misleading statements, thereby violating federal securities laws. Also last month, HSUS, a Smithfield stockholder, called for a review of the company’s records. HSUS wanted a closer review of Smithfield’s gestation-sow housing conversion rate. Smithfield officials denied HSUS’ records request.

The world’s largest pork producer was on pace to convert all of its gestating sows from stalls to group housing until a severe economic downturn hit the U.S. pork sector from late 2007 to early 2010. However, the company recommitted itself to that effort late last year.

“We will continue the conversion as planned with the goal of completing conversion for all sows on company farms by the end of 2017, and today we are on course to achieve that goal,” Pope notes. “While we initially had concerns during the recession about whether we could meet the 2017 goal, we are now back on track and barring unforeseen circumstances beyond our control we are confident that we will achieve our stated goal.”

Smithfield was the first major producer to publicly commit to converting sow housing to group pens. Pope said the company will provide regular progress updates.

"(Our customers) want us to do that, and we've heard them loud and clear," CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call with investors discussing second-quarter financial results. "This company is going to do what's in the best interest of the business and the best interest of our customers."

Smithfield and its subsidiaries raise about 17 million market hogs annually, and works with about 2,135 independent U.S. farmers and contract growers to raise hogs.

"Smithfield's recommitment is an important and welcome move. With the company back on track with its phase-out,  we're getting closer to a day when the cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates will be a bygone era for the entire pig industry," said Paul Shapiro, HSUS's senior director of farm animal protection.

He encouraged Smithfield's competitors, such as Tyson Foods and Hormel Foods to "stop lagging behind" and adopt a similar policy.