Court Rules in Favor of Pork Plant Worker Unions and Line Speed Limits in Lawsuit Against USDA

The District of Minnesota ruled in favor of food workers’ unions on Wednesday, granting them partial summary judgment in a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) contesting new rules regarding pork and swine inspections. The section of the New Swine Inspection System final rule addressing the elimination of line speed limits was vacated. 

The matter will now be considered by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) after a 90-day stay to give the USDA time to create plans to address pork plants that have already modified their practices.

The plaintiffs, four chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) which represent 33,000 pork industry workers, called this ruling a “major victory.” The court determined that the USDA “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” when it did not consider the health of workers when eliminating speed limits. UFCW claimed that an increased speed of production would cause additional risks of “musculoskeletal injuries, lacerations, and amputations,” for workers. 

“Today’s ruling is a victory for all of these brave men and women, finally ending the dangerous Trump USDA policy that allowed pork plants to push workers to the breaking point with unsafe line speeds that increase the risk of injury and put the safety of our food supply in jeopardy. With the success of this lawsuit, our country’s essential workers have sent a powerful message that the safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale and that these companies will finally be forced to stop these dangerous practices,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in the press release.

The unions challenged the USDA’s rule change under the Administrative Procedure Act, claiming that they did not meet the “requirement of reasoned decision-making” when it rejected comments related to worker’s safety, according to the order. The order said there are compelling arguments from workers and stakeholders, but said that “the agency’s rejection of worker safety concerns is not merely a technicality. It had wide-reaching implications for workers and pork plant operators.” 

The court reasoned that there has already been disruption in the market due to the COVID-19 pandemic which reduced production and caused the facilities to “adapt() to lower speeds,” despite the speed limit being lifted. However, without the vacator in the future it is more likely that facilities will increase their production to speeds that could harm workers. 

In addition to granting the plaintiffs’ motion, the court denied two motions from the USDA, one for summary judgment and another for remand without vacatur. UFCW is represented by Public Citizen and the USDA is represented by the Department of Justice. 

A separate lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety and other organizations against new inspection requirements in the same final rule survived an attempt by the USDA to dismiss it in February. The Northern District of California ruled that if the allegations in the lawsuit are credible then there could be an increased harm to consumers, specifically members of the plaintiff’s organization. The plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint after surviving dismissal.