The Montgomery County pork producer that makes the hot dogs sold at Phillies games and hundreds of other retail outlets is phasing out the use of controversial crates used to house female pigs.

Clemens Food Group in Hatfield – parent company of Hatfield Quality Meats – announced quietly on its website it would eliminate the use of so-called gestation crates by 2022 for the pigs it breeds and those belonging to contractors and independent producers.

The decision is being hailed by animal-welfare advocates as the most far-reaching effort by any pork producer to improve living conditions for pigs.

"We applaud Clemens for their work eliminating gestation crates and heeding market demand to create better living conditions for mother pigs, and hope others in the pork industry follow their example," said Josh Balk, director of food policy for the Humane Society of the United States.

Roughly 2 feet wide and 7 feet long, gestation crates are not much larger than the pregnant pigs they house and all but immobilize the animals for most of their lives. Use of the crates gained popularity after World War II as American farming practices grew more industrialized.

"It was easier to put food at the front end and hose off the back end," Balk said. "It's an extremely cruel, barbaric practice, which is why the European Union and nine states have banned it."

Clemens officials did not respond to several calls seeking comment on Friday. A post on the company website said it would be shifting to a "free-to-roam" housing system for its pigs based on its "diligent review of sound research and our ongoing commitment to give the best care to our animals."

"We are committed and have the commitment from all of our family farms who raise hogs for us to have 100 percent of the hogs (not just company owned) coming to Clemens Food Group raised in free-to-roam housing. This would make us the first company in the industry to do so."

The move by Clemens, which supplies pork to Giant and Stop & Shop supermarkets, among others, comes as end-use retailers and fast-food outlets - such as Costco, McDonalds, and Burger King - have announced intentions not to buy pork products from farmers using the crates.

Clemens, the 16th-largest pork producer in the United States, has already shifted 30 percent of its 50,000 pigs to group housing, where the animals can move around freely and socialize with other pigs.

The company said it would move all of the pigs it owns to group housing by 2017 and would demand the same of its contract farmers and independent farmers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana by 2022.

While pork-producing giants Smithfield, Cargill, and Hormel have announced similar plans to phase out gestation crates, none has required compliance from its independent farmers.

Clemens, a privately held company with $550 million in sales and 2,200 employees, remains in the same family that founded it in 1895.

A section of its website is devoted to the company's animal-welfare policies, which include requiring employees to sign a "swine handlers code of conduct" and complete animal welfare training. The company also says it has an ethical obligation to treat animals humanely and has a zero-tolerance policy for those who violate that policy.

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