Court Declines to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Waivers for Poultry Processing Speeds

In an order filed on Friday, the District of Columbia District Court determined that claims filed by five labor unions and an international affiliate of the unions against the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the speed of chicken processing are valid and declined to dismiss them. 

The lawsuit challenged a program that allows poultry workers, specifically those who are members of the unions, to work at speeds that are faster than those set by regulations.  The plaintiffs, primarily chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, alleged that this increases the risk of injury for the workers. 

The USDA sought to dismiss the claims, alleging that “worker safety falls outside the zone of interests protected by the governing statute,” and there has not been an increase of injury risk with the increased speeds the order explained. The court, however, did not agree and determined that the plaintiffs did have standing. 

In the filing, the court explained that the dispute is over the Poultry Products Inspection Act which is designed to protect the health of consumers, not workers, by ensuring that products are labeled correctly and are “not adulterated.” The act is administered by the Food Service Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the USDA. 

Reportedly the FSIS declined to raise the processing speed from 140bpm to 175bpm after considering arguments about worker safety. Later in 2018 the FSIS announced a program that would waive the 140bpm speed limit and allow up to 175bpm for processing plants that meet certain criteria and have a history of compliance. This waiver was reportedly granted to 35 processing plants. 

The court determined that the plaintiffs did have standing and it agreed with various arguments presented in the plaintiffs’ opposition to dismissal. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that poultry workers already have a high risk of injury and that poultry line speeds need to be reevaluated particularly the waivers which lead to an even higher risk of injury. 

The plaintiffs are represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group and United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC. The USDA is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice.