Courts & Crime

Court rejects challenge to poultry inspection rules from N.C. doctor

Poultry inspector Hamilton Cook inspects chickens at the White Oak Pastures processing plant in Bluffton, Georgia, July 18, 2012.
Poultry inspector Hamilton Cook inspects chickens at the White Oak Pastures processing plant in Bluffton, Georgia, July 18, 2012. MCT

A retired Rocky Mount, North Carolina, doctor who’s worried about food safety failed Tuesday in her challenge to revised U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry inspection rules.

In a unanimous ruling closely watched by agribusiness and activists alike, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Dr. Margaret E. Sowerwine and her allies with Food and Water Watch lacked the legal standing to sue.

The ruling by what’s often called the nation’s second-highest court leaves intact the inspection revisions that Sowerwine claims threaten her health. Sowerwine’s fear, the court panel concluded, was insufficient reason to block the New Poultry Inspection System.

“A careful examination of allegations demonstrates that they have not plausibly alleged that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness compared to the existing inspection systems,” Judge Robert L. Wilkins wrote.

Reasoning that Sowerwine, Charlotte, North Carolina, resident Alina Pittman and other members of the Washington-based organization Food and Water Watch Inc. had “not alleged a sufficient injury,” Wilkins and the appellate panel upheld a trial judge who had dismissed the lawsuit last year.

These allegations . . . fail to plausibly allege that the regulations substantially increase the risk of foodborne illness.

Judge Robert L. Wilkins

Wilkins was joined in the decision by Judge Patricia A. Millett, a fellow Obama administration appointee, and Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, whom President George H.W. Bush appointed. Millett and Henderson filed concurring opinions to offer additional thoughts, as well.

The legal challenge and the underlying poultry inspection rules reflect a protracted struggle that’s played out across courtrooms, bureaucracies and Capitol Hill alike. More than 250,000 public comments flooded the USDA prior to the new rules being set last year.

The public comments had some effect, as the chastened USDA decided to keep the maximum poultry plant inspection-line speed at 140 birds a minute rather than increase it to 175 per minute, as originally proposed.

The revised inspection system would still emphasize “science-based” resource allocation that “positions food safety inspectors throughout poultry facilities in a smarter way,” according to the USDA. As part of an optional system, poultry companies can opt to sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to federal inspectors.

The USDA contends the poultry companies’ initial sorting frees up Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors for important work. Critics worry it weakens oversight by privatizing inspections.

“Those who continue to eat chicken slaughtered in NPIS establishments will bear the burden of an increased risk of harm from purchasing and consuming adulterated and unwholesome poultry product,” the original lawsuit declared.

Pittman, the Charlotte resident who joined the lawsuit, added in a 2014 declaration that she “was and still am very concerned” about the new rules, which she said could undermine “the ability to make sure that what goes into my body is healthy.”

Courts, though, carefully screen lawsuits that claim potential future injury. As a general rule, Wilkins noted, the appellate court requires increased risks to be substantial before allowing lawsuits to proceed.

“These allegations still fall short because they fail to allege that the NPIS as a whole will produce significantly more adulterated, unwholesome chicken compared to the existing inspection systems,” Wilkins wrote.

The appellate court likewise rejected as legally insufficient Sowerwine’s claim that she’ll be harmed by having to seek out alternative poultry sources in order to avoid possibly dangerous birds.

Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, said Tuesday that the organization was disappointed in the court’s ruling and was reviewing options.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10