The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and UFCW Locals Nos 663, 440, and 2 have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in federal district court in Minnesota to stop the modernization of the inspection system for market hogs.

The New Swine Inspection System went into effect on Oct. 1.

The AFL-CIO, Central Labor Council (CLC) affiliated unions represent USDA meat inspectors who are employed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The meat inspector unions have opposed the modernization of swine inspection ever since it was proposed as a pilot program more than two decades ago.

The latest court action comes after FSIS has implemented a final rule permitting market hog slaughter facilities to opt in to the new system. In their complaint about declaratory and injunctive relief,  the unions claim somewhat faster line speeds put worker safety at risk.

The lawsuit is based on the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

According to the complaint, the unions are hoping a federal judge will declare USDA’s new rule “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.” They want the court to enjoin USDA from implementing the rule, effectively setting aside.

And the unions want their costs, expenses, expert witness and attorney’s fees reimbursed by the taxpayers.

“The Rule dramatically alters the way in which pigs are slaughtered and processed for human consumption in the United States, abandoning protections for American workers and consumers that have been in place for decades,” the union complaint says. “The Rule entirely eliminates maximum line speeds and reduces the number of government-employed “online” safety inspectors on the lines by forty percent, instead of allowing the plants to use their own employees—with no required training—to monitor compliance with health and safety standards.”

The complaint claims USDA did not provide an “adequate rationale” for “its decision to reduce the number of federal inspectors by forty percent and replace them with employees.”  

USDA insists the changes enhance the inspection capacity   The unions claim the reduction is “arbitrary and capricious” and that USDA failed to address worker safety.

The modernization program does shift some resources off  “the line” in order to address the slaughter facility’s Sanitation and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans.   

The union complaint says  “USDA failed to meaningfully rebut the conclusion that FSIS inspectors cannot conduct the ‘critical appraisal’ of each animal carcass required by the FMIA when their numbers are reduced and line speeds are unlimited.”

USDA has yet to respond to the union complaint, but FSIS officials are almost certain to point out that if the line is running or stopped, its inspectors cannot see pathogens even if the line isn’t running at any speed. 

And while the union complaint acknowledges that: Both under the old regime and the new regime, federal inspectors have the authority to order the line speed reduced for a variety of reasons.” However, the union  complaint goes on to say that “with fewer inspectors observing the lines, inspectors are less likely to observe  dangerous conditions and to halt  the line when necessary to protect workers.”

With its basis under the Administrative Procedures Act, the union argues in the complaint that USDA did not meet the “requirements of reasoned decision making.”

United Food and Commercial Workers vs. USDA will be heard by Judge Joan N. Ericksen, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by former President George W. Bush. She previously was a judge for Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District and served as an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The UFCW unions are represented by Timothy J. Louris with Miller, O’Brien Jensen,, a Minneapolis firm with expertise in employment law; Adam R. Pulver, with the nonprofit Public Citizen, and Sarai King, in-house counsel for the national union.

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