By Lily Kuo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Safeway Inc, the second-largest U.S. grocery chain, said on Monday it plans to stop using pork suppliers that cage pregnant sows as part of their production process, a practice animal rights groups have called inhumane.
"We think there are more sustainable pork production methods," said Safeway vice president of public affairs Brian Dowling, referring to a common industry process where pregnant hogs are kept for months at a time in narrow metal cages called gestation crates where they are unable to move.
The retailer did not set a date for the phase-out but said it would take a "long period."
Using the crates often leaves the animals confined and immobilized for most of their lives. Producers have said that the cages prevent the sows from fighting.
Safeway's decision places the company on one side of a brewing fight that pits U.S. farmers and agribusiness against food safety groups and animal-rights organizations.
Activists have poured tens of thousands of dollars into lobbying efforts this legislative year for proposed laws regulating the raising of hogs in six states.
The agribusiness sector has spent $123.8 million on lobbying efforts in 2011, up from $110.2 million in 2007, according to OpenSecrets.org.
"Most pork producers either sell to Safeway or want to sell to Safeway. That's how big Safeway is as a grocery chain...by letting the industry know that this is its goal, (Safeway) is helping move the industry in the right direction," said Paul Shapiro, spokesperson for Humane Society of the United States.
Speaking for the pork industry, the National Pork Producers Council, said it was concerned Safeway's move represented a larger trend by governments, restaurants and grocery chains to bow to pressure from animal rights groups and as a result, increase production costs and consumer prices.
"It seems that Safeway was intimidated by an animal rights group whose ultimate goal is the elimination of food-animal production," the council's President R.C. Hunt said in a statement.
Safeway joins fast food chains McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, along with Compass Group, a food service company, who have announced plans to move away from suppliers who use gestation stalls. Hormel, maker of SPAM, has also said it would phase out the use of gestation crates.
Eight U.S. states along with the European Union have condemned using gestation crates, according to the Humane Society.
(Reporting By Lily Kuo; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)