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Court Rules in Favor of Public Citizen, Overrules USDA’s FOIA Exemptions

  • 59,000 The number of workers in meatpacking facilities infected with the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic.
  • 22 months The amount of time it took for the United States Department of Agriculture to complete its “expedited” production of records in response to a Public Citizen Freedom of Information Act request.
“The Court’s ruling made clear that USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding information about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workers at meatpacking plants. Our victory in this case is important not only because it required agency compliance with FOIA law, but also because it ensured that important information about worker health and safety at meatpacking plants, which were hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks early in the pandemic, was made public.” Wendy Liu, attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group

The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on workers in meat and poultry processing facilities across the country. In May 2020, Public Citizen submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA for records relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the health and safety of workers at meat and poultry processing facilities.  

Although USDA granted Public Citizen’s request for expedited processing, the agency had failed to complete production of the requested records more than a year later. Moreover, USDA had heavily redacted those records that it had produced. Public Citizen filed a suit against the USDA in May 2021, asking the court to compel the agency to complete the production and to disclose information wrongfully withheld. The agency then completed the production and re-produced some of the documents with fewer redactions. The parties then filed motions regarding some redactions that the agency asserted was protected from disclosure by FOIA’s exemption for a company’s confidential commercial information.  

In August 2022, the court ruled in favor of Public Citizen on all of the challenged redactions. USDA then disclosed the additional information, providing more information about communications between the Department of Agriculture and meatpacking facilities in the early days of the pandemic.  


  • Public Citizen files a Freedom of Information Act requesting records from the United States Department of Agriculture about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it impacted the health and safety of workers in meat and poultry facilities.
  • One year later, after the Department of Agriculture has produced only some of the records, and with many redactions, Public Citizen files suit against the agency.
  • The court rules in favor of Public Citizen, ordering the agency to disclose additional information.