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RICHMOND (AP) -- Smithfield Foods says it plans to end the practice of keeping female hogs in small metal crates while pregnant.

The world's largest pork producer said Thursday it will phase out the use of gestation crates at its facilities by 2017.

The Smithfield, Va.-based company has been criticized for continuing to breed sows in the crates that severely restrict the animals' movement.

The Humane Society of the United States filed a federal complaint last month saying Smithfield was misleading consumers by suggesting it does not abuse pigs. The group says the gestation crates and other abuses continue.

Smithfield Foods had been in the process of converting a number of its sow farms from individual gestation stalls to group housing for pregnant sows, but hadn't said when that transition would be finished.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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