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United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local No. 663 v. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) in 1906, in response to widespread concerns about conditions in America’s meatpacking plants, and the resulting effects on consumer and worker safety. In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a rule under the FMIA that radically changed the inspection regime for pork slaughter facilities, reducing by 40 percent the number of federally employed inspectors, replacing them with plant employees, and eliminating maximum line speeds. In doing so, USDA refused to consider the impacts these changes would have on workers, ignoring evidence showing that increased line-speed rates increase the risk of injury to meatpacking workers.

Public Citizen filed a lawsuit against USDA on behalf of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the majority of pork slaughter workers in the U.S., and three of its locals. The suit alleges that USDA, by failing to consider the harms of its actions to workers and by contradicting the FMIA’s requirement that federal inspectors perform a critical appraisal of every animal carcass, violated engaged in arbitrary and capricious decision-making in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

USDA moved to dismiss the case in December 2019, arguing that UFCW members lacked standing to challenge the New Swine Inspection System as their injuries were speculative and not directly caused by USDA, that workers lied outside the “zone of interests” of the relevant statutes, that the agency’s action was neither arbitrary and capricious nor contrary to law. Plaintiffs filed their opposition in January 2020, arguing that the allegations of injury, combined with the agency’s concessions in the complaint, were sufficient to demonstrate standing under the relevant case law. They also explained that both Congress and the agency have long viewed worker safety as an important goal of the meat inspection regime, bringing workers within the zone of interests and requiring the agency to consider the impact of its actions on worker safety.

In April 2020, the district court denied in part and granted in part USDA’s motion to dismiss.  The court held that UFCW members had standing to challenge the elimination of maximum line speeds, but not to challenge the reduction in the number of federally employed inspectors. It further held that plant workers are within the zone of interests of the relevant food safety laws, and that USDA’s refusal to consider the impact of line speed increases on worker safety was based on “circular logic” and “internal inconsistency” and lacked a “rational explanation.”

In May 2020, USDA, arguing that it wanted to provide additional explanation for the rule, filed a motion asking the court to remand the rule to the agency and to put the case on hold for 120 days. Opposing the motion, we explained that a remand without vacatur is not appropriate when an agency does not intend to reconsider its rule and leaving the rule in place in the interim would harm the plaintiffs. In July 2020, the court denied USDA’s request to stay the case. The court stated that it would consider whether a remand without vacatur was appropriate at the summary judgment stage.

On March 31, 2021, the court granted our motion for summary judgment, denied USDA’s motion for summary judgment, and denied USDA’s motion for remand without vacatur. The court first rejected USDA’s argument that UFCW lacked standing to bring the case on behalf of its members. On the merits, the court held that USDA acted arbitrarily and capriciously by failing to consider the impacts of the challenged rule on worker safety. As a remedy, the Court ordered the line-speed provision of the rule vacated. The Court stayed its order for 90 days to allow USDA time to develop a plan for plants that had already converted to NSIS.

After the court issued its summary judgment ruling, four plants that were participating in NSIS filed motions to intervene. First, Seaboard Foods, operator of a plant that had converted to NSIS while the case was pending, argued that it wanted to intervene to seek a 10½-month stay of the court’s vacatur of the Rule’s line-speed provision and possibly to appeal the court’s decision on summary judgment. Plaintiffs opposed, arguing that Seaboard, which had previously filed a declaration in the case, waited too long to intervene and that, at most, intervention should be for the limited purpose of allowing an appeal. Second, three operators of plants that, before USDA’s 2019 rule, had held waivers allowing them to operate at increased line speeds moved to intervene. They argued the Court should order that its vacatur of the line-speed provision of NSIS automatically restored their waivers. Plaintiffs opposed, arguing that the status of waivers issued pursuant to a different regulation was not at issue in this case, and, in any event, motion was untimely. The judge, agreeing that the motions were untimely, denied them both.

Two weeks after the district court denied the motion to intervene, all four plants appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked the district court to stay its vacatur of the line-speed portion of NSIS as to their plants pending resolution of that appeal. Plaintiffs opposed the stay motions, and the district court denied them, emphasizing that the plants were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their appeals. The plants then asked the Eighth Circuit for stays pending appeal, which also denied their requests.

Meanwhile, the district court issued its judgment of vacatur on June 30, 2021, and NSIS plants reverted to the pre-existing line-speed limit. Seaboard subsequently dismissed its appeal, but the three other plants did not. In June 2022, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of intervention, thus ending the case.