Union Argues Against Dismissal in Case Challenging USDA Regulations Governing Chicken Production Line Speed

In the pending suit before Judge Timothy J. Kelly of the District Court for the District of Columbia, plaintiffs United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local No. 227 and others (collectively UFCW) have filed an opposition on Friday to the defendant’s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), motion to dismiss their complaint for lack of constitutional standing. The case challenges USDA policies concerning poultry processing plants’ production line speeds. At the heart of the case is a waiver enacted in 2018 that permits plants to exceed the line-speed limit by 25%.

The opposition explains that the plaintiffs “are unions that represent workers in various poultry processing plants throughout the United States.” The workers reportedly “perform manual labor to turn live chickens into food product safe for human consumption.”

The complaint claims that because the work they perform is “repetitive and dangerous,” poultry workers face a greater risk of injury, such as amputations and lacerations, and chronic ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, than other industrial workers. The speed at which processing lines operate, they contend, “is widely recognized by the scientific community as a major contributing factor to the high injury rate for poultry workers.”

The opposition explains that the USDA last examined poultry line speeds in 2014. Then, its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) “decided not to increase the existing limits on line speeds after considering worker safety concerns, and explicitly acknowledged the evidence demonstrating the connection between line speed and worker safety.” Yet, the filing states, the FSIS did an about-face in 2018 when it created the waiver rule.

The plaintiffs claim that workers at waiver plants “are now at a higher risk of injury than if their employers remained subject to the maximum line speed established by the agency’s regulations.” Through their Jul. 28 complaint, the plaintiffs seek judicial review of the USDA’s supposed failure to engage in “reasoned decisionmaking in adopting its waiver program, for implementing its ‘new technology’ waiver regulation unlawfully, and for contravening notice-and-comment requirements in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)…”

According to the UFCW’s opposition, the USDA’s motion to dismiss argues that the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they have standing under Article III of the Constitution and the plaintiffs  also allegedly fail the “zone-of-interests test.” Specifically, the opposition states, the USDA challenges UFCW’s proffer of injury in fact.

UFCW argues that its injury in fact is an increased risk-of-harm to workers. UFCW contends that “members who work on poultry processing lines are harmed by USDA’s decision to grant waivers that enable their employers to increase their line speed  by 25 percent, which  substantially increases the risk of physical injuries.”

In support of their contention, the plaintiffs put forward evidence, like statistics and scientific research that demonstrates how faster line speeds enhance that risk. The plaintiffs further argue that they were not required to “identify an individual member with Article III standing in the complaint,” contrary to the USDA’s claim.

UFCW contends that it “falls with the zone of interests of the statutory scheme.” To combat the defendant’s opposing argument, UFCW analyzes and analogizes case law. The opposition filing states that controlling authority “reflects the principle that, when the concerns animating a plaintiff are of the sort that the agency surely will have ‘in mind’ when exercising its authority pursuant to statute, that ‘alone is enough to show that the plaintiff’s asserted interests at least arguably fall within the zone-of-interests protected by’ the statute in question.”

The USDA reportedly argued that the rules at issue are concerned with food rather than worker safety. The plaintiffs rebut this contention by arguing that the USDA “identifies no systemic misalignment between the worker safety interests advanced by UFCW and food safety, and USDA fails to explain how maintaining a line speed of 140 [birds per minute] could have a ‘bad’ effect on food safety.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group and United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC.