Thousands of commenters told the USDA during the rulemaking process that the rule would endanger the lives and safety of both consumers and workers. Comments also provided the agency with dozens of peer-reviewed studies and expert analyses showing that the USDA’s changes would put plant workers, who already are in one of the most dangerous jobs in America, at increased risk of injuries.
In its final rule, the USDA did not dispute any of this evidence. Instead, the agency simply refused to consider the impact of its actions on worker safety, despite having done so for decades, suggesting that only the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration could take such harms into account.
Today’s lawsuit argues that the USDA’s refusal to consider the harms its actions will have on workers reflects arbitrary and capricious decisionmaking and thus violates the Administrative Procedure Act. Not only has the USDA considered the impact of its actions on workers in previous rulemakings, but in proposing this rule, the agency acknowledged the importance of considering the impacts of increased line speeds on worker safety.
In addition, the record before the USDA showed a clear link between worker safety and food safety – a connection Congress itself noted in adopting the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The workers also claim that the USDA’s replacement of 40% of federal inspectors with plant employee inspectors who are paid and employed by the company they are charged with inspecting – individuals who can be intimidated and pressured by management – violates Congress’ directives.
“There are two basic principles of administrative law: agencies cannot simply refuse to address concerns about the impacts of their actions, and they must acknowledge and explain when they change their positions,” said Adam Pulver, attorney for Public Citizen. “By refusing to even discuss the mountains of evidence showing that faster line speeds will put workers’ health at risk, after acknowledging the importance of considering worker safety in its proposed rule, the USDA broke these two bedrock rules.”
The three local unions in the case – UFCW Local 663, Local 440 and Local 2 – represent thousands of employees in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma who work at pork slaughter and processing plants where the USDA expects companies to increase line speeds and alter safety inspection methods pursuant to the rule. UFCW International also represents tens of thousands of workers at dozens of pork slaughter and processing plants across the U.S.
Meatpacking workers suffer injuries and illnesses at a rate 2.3 times higher than the average for all private industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Swine slaughter workers regularly have reported extreme pressure to work as fast as possible, which increases the risk of repetitive motion injurie; tendonitis; carpal tunnel syndrome; knee, back, shoulder and neck traumas; and lacerations from knives and blades. UFCW members who work at pork plants previously have suffered from all of these injuries.
“Thousands of our members work hard every day in America’s pork plants to help families across the country put food on the table. Increasing pork plant line speeds not only is a reckless giveaway to giant corporations, it will put thousands of workers in harm’s way,” said Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International. “This new rule also would dramatically weaken critical protections that Americans depend on to be able to select safe, healthy food to feed their families every day. The safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale, and this lawsuit seeks to ensure this dangerous rule is set aside and these companies are held accountable.”
Already, the USDA has come under fire for the undisclosed data and flawed analysis used to justify the rule. In June, the agency’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the agency’s conduct throughout this rulemaking at the request of 17 members of Congress. Public Citizen and UFCW are asking the court to block implementation of the rule and set it aside.