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Consumer concerns have prompted the massive Utah hog operation, Circle Four Farms, and 459 other farms operated by the world's largest pork supplier to phase out cages so small that breeding pigs cannot turn around or move.

The Virginia-based parent company, Smithfield Farms, announced this week that it will phase out individual gestation stalls in favor of group housing for pregnant sows at all company-owned sow farms by 2017.

Smithfield officials said the company made the decision "based on input from its customers." When completed in 2017, it is estimated that the U.S. conversion will cost about $300 million.

In addition, Smithfield's international hog operations will complete conversions to group housing on company-owned farms by 2022.

Smithfield also released a video showing what sows' lives are like in its group-housing units. Company officials declined interviews, but released a statement on its video.

"We think this is both an entertaining and informative look at how we are caring for pregnant sows, with actual footage from our sow farms that helps to explain how the group housing system ensures the safety, comfort and health of the sows during the gestation process," said Dennis H. Treacy, Smithfield's executive vice president and chief sustainability officer.

The Humane Society of the United States welcomed the news and commended Smithfield for "recommitting" to phase out gestation crate confinement of pigs, a policy the organization said the company first made in 2007 but delayed in 2009.

"Smithfield is making progress in the right direction," said Human Society spokesman Paul Shapiro. "We also encourage them to apply the same policy to its contractors as well, but again, we certainly recognize the progress they are making."

Along with its farms, Smithfield also contracts with 2,000 independent U.S. producers.

In 2010, the Humane Society conducted a month-long undercover investigation at a Smithfield-owned farm in Waverly, Va., showing female breeding pigs crammed inside gestation crates. The investigator said some of the animals had bitten bars so incessantly that blood from their mouths coated the fronts of their crates.

The Human Society's president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, called for similar policies to be enacted by Smithfield's competitors "such as Tyson, Hormel, Triumph, Prestage, Seaboard, and others."

None of the companies immediately returned telephone calls and emails seeking comment.

Smithfield said in its statement that the company "is committed to providing good food in a responsible way and maintains robust animal care, community involvement, employee safety, environmental, and food safety and quality programs."

Its Utah operation in Milford raises and markets 1.2 million hogs annually, a number that is about 185 times larger than Beaver County's human population. Circle Four Farms, which opened in 1992 and is Smithfield's largest hog operation, is a concentrated animal feeding operation where hogs are kept and raised in confined situations. Most of its products are shipped to California.

In July, Smithfield's chief executive Larry Pope appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee to answer questions about a $7.1 billion buyout that would be the largest-ever Chinese takeover of a U.S. firm. The acquisition of Smithfield by the Hong Kong-based meat processor Shuanghui International could close later this year.

Smithfield is a $13 billion global food company and the world's largest pork processor and hog producer. In the United States, the company is also the leader in numerous packaged meats categories with about 50 brands including Smithfield, Eckrich, Farmland, Armour, Cook's, Gwaltney, John Morrell, Kretschmar, Curly's, Carando, Margherita and Healthy Ones.

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Utah's Circle Four Farms

What • Produces 1.2 million hogs per year near Milford

Parent firm • Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork supplier

Inventory • Sells food products under 50 brand names; $13.1 billion sales annually

Workforce • 46,000 employees in 25 states, including 450 in Utah, and four countries

Murphy Brown division • Utah farm largest among its 460 farms; also contracts with 2,000 producers Hog cages

Gestation crates • Are used to confine breeding pigs for virtually their entire lives.

Banned • Eight states and the European Union have passed laws to phase out gestation crates.

Scientific research • Confirms that confining sows in gestation crates is detrimental to animal welfare.

Source: Human Society of the United States