A-two year-old federal lawsuit brought by three non-governmental organizations claims USDA’s New Swine Inspection System undermines federal inspectors charged with protecting consumers from foodborne illness.

A federal judge in California has found “the matter suitable for disposition without oral argument.”

The Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and the Humane Farming Association kicked off the written arguments with a Jan. 14 Motion for Summary Judgment.   

Attorneys for USDA asked the U.S. District Court for Northern California for more time to reply, resulting in this schedule:

  •  Feb. 24, 2022: Defendants’ deadline for filing a cross-motion for summary judgment, together with a combined brief in support of their motion and opposition to plaintiffs’ motion; 
  •  March 10, 2022: Deadline for filing of proposed amicusbriefs (if any); 
  •  March 17, 2022: Plaintiffs’ deadline for filing a combined opposition and reply brief; and
  • April 7, 2022: Defendants’ deadline for filing a reply brief. 

The plaintiffs argue that the 2019 swine inspection rules violate the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), one of our country’s cornerstone food safety laws.   

At issue is whether inspection assignments at swine slaughter and processing establishments are sufficient. The plaintiffs see the new rules as a “radical departure” from long-established inspection protocols.

The plaintiffs’ motion argues that this raises significant dangers to public health. For example, an examination of USDA data showed that the plants that ushered in the new system had significantly more regulatory violations for fecal and digestive matter on carcasses than traditional plants

The plaintiffs says the government projects widespread adoption of the NSIS rules — plants producing more than 90 percent of the U.S. pork supply — meaning these policies will significantly impact consumers.

New inspection systems, which USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service refer to as its “modernization” program, are the work products of the Biden, Trump and Obama administrations.

Before the current lawsuit was filed, USDA’s then-Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears, defended the inspection modernization program, saying: “The modernization of swine slaughter inspection ensures a safe product on your dinner table because every hog and carcass is inspected by USDA inspection personnel, as mandated by Congress. The valued USDA mark of inspection is applied by federal inspectors only on meat that is safe to eat.”

Brashears and then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue were originally named as defendants in the swine lawsuit. They’ve been replaced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who implemented the poultry modernization program when he ran USDA for President Obama.

Those suing USDA  now view the new inspection systems as “relaxed inspection rules,” equivalent to permitting self-regulation lacking proper oversight and allowing persistent regulatory violations.

The plaintiffs also “note the widespread opposition to the NSIS rules. The vast majority of the over 80,000 comments filed on the program — from consumer groups, animal welfare groups, and dozens of members of Congress — were critical of the proposal.”

Federal Judge Jeffrey S. White has imposed limits on the written findings as follows:

  • Thirty pages for plaintiffs’ summary judgment brief; 
  • Forty pages for defendants’ combined summary judgment brief and opposition brief; 
  • Twenty-five pages for plaintiffs’ combined opposition and reply brief; and
  • Fifteen pages for defendants’ reply brief.

If all the writing does not do it, Judge White’s recent order does say: “The Court shall issue an order setting a hearing if it determines it is unable to resolve the motions on the papers.”

White was named to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to note the possibility that a hearing might be scheduled after all written arguments are concluded.

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