All 187 Smithfield-owned pig farms in eight U.S. states will be converted to group pens, allowing more mobility, the company said. Contract farmers will later be expected to follow the practice.
"This is perhaps the most important moment in animal welfare in the agribusiness sector in 50 years," Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle told The New York Times.
"It's going to be very hard for other companies to not follow Smithfield," Pacelle told The Washington Post.
Smithfield officials denied pressure from activists or the recent passage of two state initiatives banning the crate practice had anything to do with their announcement.
They said the company was responding to concerns voiced by McDonald's Corp. and other customers, including several supermarket chains.
Smithfield defended the use of the crates, which are so narrow the animals cannot turn around and some lie uncomfortably on their chests. But it said its research concluded the crates could be replaced by group pens without any long-term problems or cost increases.