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US judge says that humane handling lawsuit against the USDA can progress further

Animal welfare advocates in the US welcome the ruling from a federal judge stating that a lawsuit against the USDA for failing to require humane handing of poultry at slaughter can move forward.

15 October 2021, at 9:27am

A federal judge in Rochester, New York, ruled that the USDA's denial of a humane poultry handing rule is subject to Administrative Procedures Act review. The USDA previously blocked a rule that would potentially allow the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to prohibit behavior that could to cause birds deaths by means other than slaughter.

The FSIS had previously denied the petition in 2019, saying that its humane animal handling authority does not extend beyond poultry slaughterhouses. In August of 2020, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Farm Sanctuary, represented by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, appealed the denial of the rulemaking petition in the US District Court for the Western District of New York. The lawsuit calls on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to develop regulations governing the handling of chickens, turkeys, and other birds at federally inspected slaughter facilities.

The AWI and Farm Sanctuary say they sued USDA to address “systematic mistreatment” of poultry at slaughter, which can compromise food safety and meat quality in violation of the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA),

The USDA moved to dismiss the suit, but US District Judge Charles Siragusa sided with the plaintiffs.

“Consistent with the Supreme Court’s reasoning, the Court finds in the present case that FSIS’ denial of plaintiffs’ rulemaking petitions was not an agency decision that has been precluded from judicial review as an action committed to agency discretion under the APA (Administrative Procedures Act),” Siragusa said. “Rather, FSIS’ denial is subject to the Court’s review to determine whether it must be set aside as arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

In addition to denying USDA’s motion to dismiss the case, Siragusa ordered the department to “file and serve an answer to plaintiff’s complaint within 30 days of the date (13 October) of this order.”

“This ruling moves us one step closer to improving poultry product quality and helping to protect the vast majority of land animals who are routinely abused on the slaughter line,” said Dena Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director.

Though the ruling puts the USDA rules in the crosshairs, it was not a complete victory for AWI. Judge Siragusa said that leadership at the USDA can operate with a "broad degree of discretion", going against the plaintiffs who asserted that the USDA Secretary “shall promulgate such other rules and regulations as necessary to carry out the provisions of the PPIA.”