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WASHINGTON, D.C. July 28, 2020 – The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group filed a federal lawsuit today to end U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers allowing poultry plants to increase production line speeds and further endanger workers already facing elevated risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiffs argue that the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) waiver program should be set aside, and 10 currently active waivers should be voided. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the USDA failed to follow required procedures and ignored the agency’s own rules and policies when it adopted the waiver program.
“America’s poultry workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need during this crisis,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible. This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”
“The law is clear that an agency must follow proper procedures when adopting a new program and must consider and address all relevant factors, including its own prior positions on the same issue,” said Nandan Joshi, the Public Citizen attorney serving as lead counsel on the case. “FSIS did not follow these basic rules when it decided to allow more poultry plants to exceed the agency’s own regulatory line speed limits.”
Poultry processing poses a wide range of risks to workers, including musculoskeletal problems – such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and “trigger finger” – and acute physical injuries, such as sprains, lacerations, contusions and amputations. Federal and private research, as well as the experiences of poultry workers, show that an increase in work pace caused by faster line speeds increases the risk of injury to workers.
In April 2020 alone, FSIS approved 15 waivers allowing poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed. These waivers do not protect our food supply, but they create greater risk of worker injury, including increased risk of catching and spreading the virus as workers are forced to crowd together to keep pace with faster processing speeds.
The five local unions who are plaintiffs in this case – UFCW Local 227, UFCW Local 1529, UFCW Local 1995, UFCW Local 2008 and Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union – Mid South Council – represent more than 35,000 poultry workers at processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and Missouri. UFCW represents more than 250,000 workers in meatpacking and food processing across the industry.
UFCW and Public Citizen have been leading national voices calling on the USDA to strengthen corporate oversight in meatpacking and increase safeguards to protect workers and ensure our country’s food supply is secure. In July 2020, UFCW announced its support for new legislation in Congress to roll back dangerous line speed increases across the meatpacking industry. And in October 2019, UFCW and Public Citizen filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the USDA’s rule allowing pork plants to increase line speeds.
In 2014, FSIS adopted a rule that set the maximum line speed in poultry plants at 140 birds per minute. At that time, FSIS acknowledged the extensive rulemaking record demonstrating that faster line speeds can increase the harm to poultry plant workers. In 2017, the National Chicken Council, a trade association that lobbies for the chicken industry, asked FSIS to lift line speed limits entirely. Although FSIS declined that request, it stated that it would grant more waivers that allow plants to operate at up to 175 birds per minute.
FSIS announced the waiver program in early 2018 but did not follow proper procedures when adopting that program. The Administrative Procedure Act requires an agency to give the public prior notice and an opportunity to comment before adopting a new rule. Instead, FSIS created the program behind closed doors. FSIS justified the program as a way to allow plants to experiment with new technology – even though increasing line speed is not a new technology. FSIS failed to adequately explain why the new waiver program was needed or why the program ignores the worker safety concerns that FSIS had previously acknowledged.