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.