The union, which represents workers in chicken processing plants in six states, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday. Their policies to enable companies to slaughter birds faster endanger workers and make protection against the spread of the corona virus more difficult.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and local unions, which represent 10 factories in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Missouri, have partnered with the nonprofit consumer protection group Public Citizen to bring the lawsuit to a federal court in Washington, DC, to submit.
The USDA first allowed the line to be exempted from speed in 2018 after the National Chicken Council, a poultry industry trading group, petitioned for an increase in speed.
The lawsuit alleges that the exemptions violate the Administrative Procedures Act because the USDA has not made a public announcement or statement and should be removed.
The unions claim that workers are at risk from faster line speeds and are further at risk during the coronavirus pandemic, as higher speeds make it fairly impossible to adequately distance workers.
"America's poultry workers have been at the forefront of this pandemic from day one, putting themselves at risk to ensure that our families have the food we need in this crisis," said Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International. "As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands of meat packaging workers, it is astonishing that USDA continues to endanger these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing almost impossible."
The lawsuit alleges that the USDA allowed 53 out of 124 chicken processing plants to process up to 175 birds per minute instead of limiting production to 140 birds, as laid down in the regulations passed in 2014.
A spokeswoman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service said the agency did not comment on pending litigation.
Representatives of the meat processing companies Tyson and Wayne Farms mentioned in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to comments.
National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super said the safety of line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute has been under investigation for 25 years since the first pilot projects started under the Clinton administration.
"The modernized system has been studied, discussed, enforced in legal proceedings and has been extensively reviewed for more than two decades to ensure its effectiveness in further modernizing chicken inspection while improving food safety and protecting workers," he said.
The local unions that join the lawsuit represent workers in chicken processing plants that have received an exemption to speed up processing. The unions said in court documents that an average of eight workers per year died in poultry processing plants at work between 2013 and 2017, and workers often suffer sprains, cuts, and bruises. They claim that research and work experience show that the speed of work is a key factor in the high injury rates of poultry workers.
Super said the injury rate in poultry processing has dropped in recent years. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Ministry of Labor shows that the reportable disease and injury rate in poultry processing was 3.5 cases per 100 full-time employees per year in 2018, after 3.8 in 2017.
The lawsuit asks the court to determine that the waiver program was adopted without the due process, and to declare the waiver program arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful. Allocation costs and costs, including reasonable attorney and expert fees.