Union Bosses Seek Control Over Food Safety Rules

Stuart Webster, CC BY 2.0

Poultry and swine line speeds are both now federal cases

By Dan Flynn on March 17, 2020

Food Safety News – For more than six weeks, a federal judge in Minnesota has been considering whether to dismiss a union challenge of USDA’s regulation of line speeds for swine slaughter.

On the West Coast, in Northern California, a similar challenge to USDA’s regulation of line speeds for poultry won’t get an initial scheduling order until May.

Department of Justice attorneys Leslie Cooper Vigen and David W. Fuller argued their motion to dismiss the swine line speed lawsuit, United Food, and Commercial Workers, Local No. 663 et al. v USDA.

Federal Judge Joan N. Ericksen heard from Vigen and Fuller along with plaintiff attorneys Adam R. Pulver and Sarai King on Jan. 27 for almost 90 minutes before taking the motion to dismiss under advisement.

The plaintiffs in the swine case are three local labor unions and their affiliated international labor union that represent workers in swine slaughter and processing plants. The civil action against USDA is brought under the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

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“As thousands of commenters told USDA during the rulemaking process, the rule will jeopardize the lives and safety of both consumers of pork products and workers like plaintiffs’ members,” the UFCU complaint says.

“Experts told USDA during the rulemaking that ‘there is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers,’ and the elimination of a maximum line speed will ‘potentially cause an epidemic of disabling work-related MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders].’ ”

The government’s attorneys asked for dismissal of the union lawsuit largely on the basis that it lacks standing and mostly involves speculation. Any New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) establishment might “choose not to increase its line speeds above the current maximum of 1,106 head per hour, ” they argued. “Indeed, establishments that participated in the HIMP pilot operated at an average line speed of 1,099 head per hour, and line speeds in these establishments varied from 885 to 1,295 head per hour.”

UFCW v.USDA has been pending since it was filed on Oct. 7, 2019.

The challenge to poultry line speeds is the more recent filing brought less than a month ago on Feb. 25, 2020. Its title is the Humane Society of the United States v. Perdue. Also brought under the federal Administrative Procedure Act

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and outgoing Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Carmen Rottenberg are both named as defendants in their official capacities. The case is assigned to federal Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero. He is the chief magistrate for the Northern District of California.

Spero has suggested the federal district court’s “Dispute Resolution Procedures” should be considered as an option for settling the dispute and scheduled a case management conference for May 29.

The Department of Justice is assigning attorneys to defend USDA and FSIS. The top attorney for the plaintiffs is renowned animal rights lawyer Bruce A. Wagman of the San Francisco law firm of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP. Wagman’s words in the complaint are all about painting a picture.

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“In many commercial slaughterhouses across the country, chickens are hastily shackled — by their legs and upside down — to a fast-moving line where they are supposed to be stunned, then killed, and finally submerged in scalding water at a rate of 140 birds each minute,” the complaint says.

“Because of the rapid speed at which the chickens are processed, millions (if not billions) of birds suffer extreme cruelty during the process every year, and an untold number are drowned or scalded to death while fully conscious. This high speed also causes many workers to suffer painful injuries and exposes consumers to food contamination and illness. Additionally, the slaughter process consumes huge amounts of water and produces vast amounts of wastewater. Despite these problems, the federal agency overseeing slaughter — which has long recognized the connection between animal welfare and food safety— has decided to authorize a 25 percent increase in chicken slaughter line speeds, virtually guaranteeing increases in animal cruelty and public health dangers.”

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