Food & Water Watch, Inc v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905 (D.C. Cir. 2015) | jgersen | August 20, 2017

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Food & Water Watch, Inc v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905 (D.C. Cir. 2015)

by jgersen
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Food & Water Watch, Inc. v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905 (D.C. Cir. 2015)

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Before: HENDERSON, MILLETT and WILKINS, Circuit Judges. (foornotes omitted) 

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WILKINS, Circuit Judge:

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Margaret Sowerwine and Jane Foran, individual consumers of poultry, and Food & Water Watch, Inc. (“FWW”), their organizational advocate, fear that new regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) may result in an increase in foodborne illness from contaminated poultry. To prevent the regulations from going into effect, Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate an injury in fact and dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims for lack of standing.

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 * * *

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I.

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The Poultry Products Inspection Act (“PPIA”), 21 U.S.C. §§ 451472, was born out of a Congressional interest in protecting consumer health and welfare by enabling the Secretary of Agriculture (“Secretary”) to ensure that poultry products were “wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged.” 21 U.S.C. § 451. The PPIA accomplishes this goal, in part, by requiring the Secretary **371 *910 to ensure that inspectors1 conduct a post-mortem inspection of all poultry processed for human consumption. Id. § 455(b). The PPIA also requires condemnation and destruction for human food purposes of all poultry that is found to be adulterated, unless the poultry can be reprocessed under an inspector’s supervision so that it is found to be not adulterated. Id. § 455(c). The PPIA defines “adulterated” to include various conditions, including containing, among other things, “any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health”; various additives that are unfit for human consumption; consisting in whole or in part of any “filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or is for any other reason unsound, unhealthful, unwholesome, or otherwise unfit for human food”; or packaging in conditions where it “may have been rendered injurious to health.” Id. § 453(g). Carcasses that pass inspection receive an official legend indicating that it was inspected by the USDA. Id. § 453(h)(12); 9 C.F.R. § 381.96.

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The Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) administers the PPIA. See 7 C.F.R. §§ 2.18(a)(1)(ii)(A), 2.53(a)(2)(i). Historically, FSIS has permitted chicken and turkey—the poultry products of concern to Plaintiffs—to be inspected under one of four inspection systems: the Streamlined Inspection System, the New Line Speed Inspection System, the New Turkey Inspection System, and traditional inspection (collectively, “the existing inspection systems”). Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed.Reg. 4408, 4410 (proposed Jan. 27, 2012). Under the existing inspection systems, FSIS inspectors perform either an online or offline role. See id. Offline inspectors ensure compliance with food safety regulations, verify sanitation procedures, and collect samples for pathogen testing. See id. One or more online FSIS inspectors inspect each poultry carcass with its viscera2 immediately following the separation of the viscera from the carcass. See id. Under the existing inspection systems, the inspectors conduct an “organoleptic” inspection, using sight, touch, and smell to evaluate the carcasses. See Brief for Appellees, Food & Water Watch, Inc. v. Vilsack, No. 15–5037 (D.C. Cir.), Doc. No. 1553589, at 3; see also 77 Fed.Reg. at 4410 (noting that inspectors “examine each eviscerated carcass for visual defects”). Poultry establishment personnel do not conduct any sorting or evaluation of carcasses; the poultry establishments provide a “helper” who takes action only upon an FSIS inspector’s direction. 77 Fed.Reg. at 4410.

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The inspection method at issue in this case, the New Poultry Inspection System (“NPIS”), alters the responsibilities of the FSIS inspectors and the establishment personnel. The NPIS rules institutionalize the shift from inspector-based sorting and evaluation to establishment-based sorting and evaluation. Under the NPIS, poultry establishment personnel sort the poultry carcasses and take corrective action prior to an FSIS inspection. See id. at 4421.

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*911 **372 The NPIS grew out of FSIS’s concern that agency resources were not being used in the most effective way to ensure food safety. See id. at 4410. In an effort to develop new methods to more effectively inspect poultry, in 1996 FSIS promulgated the “Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points” (“HACCP”) rule. Id. at 4413; Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, 61 Fed.Reg. 38806 (July 25, 1996). HACCP required poultry establishments to develop controls to ensure product safety and empowered the establishments to make their own determinations about how to meet the FSIS regulatory requirements. 77 Fed.Reg. at 4413. FSIS subsequently announced an HACCP-based inspection models project (“HIMP”) that would allow FSIS to test and develop new inspection models. HACCP–Based Meat and Poultry Inspection Concepts, 62 Fed.Reg. 31553 (June 10, 1997). The pilot HIMP method made poultry establishment personnel “responsible for identifying and removing normal from abnormal carcasses and parts.” 77 Fed.Reg. at 4413.

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The HIMP pilot was challenged as a violation of the PPIA because FSIS inspectors did not inspect poultry carcasses themselves, leaving all inspection to establishment personnel with FSIS oversight. Am. Fed’n of Gov’t Empls., AFL–CIO v. Glickman (AFGE I ), 215 F.3d 7, 9–10 (D.C.Cir.2000). This Court held that such delegation violated the PPIA. Id. at 11. In response to AFGE I, “FSIS modified HIMP to position one inspector at a fixed location near the end of the slaughter line in each poultry slaughter establishment” who was responsible for evaluating each carcass after establishment personnel had sorted and processed it. 77 Fed.Reg. at 4413. The modified HIMP program was also challenged, and this Court held that the program did not violate the PPIA. Am. Fed’n of Gov’t Empls., AFL–CIO v. Veneman, 284 F.3d 125, 130–31 (D.C.Cir.2002). However, we cautioned that “[i]f the USDA undertakes a rulemaking to adopt as a permanent change something along the lines of the modified program, experience with the program’s operation and its effectiveness will doubtless play a significant role” and warned that our opinion “may not necessarily foreshadow the outcome of judicial review of such future regulations.” Id. at 130–31.

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Twenty young chicken and five turkey establishments participated in HIMP, and FSIS collected and analyzed the data from these establishments. 77 Fed.Reg. at 4414. Using this data, FSIS concluded that the HIMP procedures “improved performance related to food safety and non-food-safety standards ... especially in reducing pathogen levels” and proposed the NPIS to replace the existing inspection systems, excluding the traditional inspection system. Id. at 4421. Under the proposed NPIS rule, “establishments [would] be required to sort carcasses, to dispose of carcasses that must be condemned, and to conduct any necessary trimming or reprocessing activities before carcasses are presented to the online FSIS carcass inspector.” Id. The carcasses would pass along a production line for the online inspector at a speed of 175 birds per minute for young chickens, and 55 birds per minute for turkeys. Id. at 4423. While establishment personnel sort carcasses, FSIS inspectors would reallocate their time by increasing offline inspection activities. Id. at 4420, 4422. FSIS projected that 99.9% of young chickens and poultry would be produced under the NPIS. Id. at 4436. After a notice and comment period, FSIS adopted a final NPIS rule with a number of modifications, which included making adoption of the NPIS optional, and lowering the birds per minute speed of young chickens to 140 birds per minute. **373 *912 Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 79 Fed.Reg. 49566, 49570 (Aug. 21, 2014)

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On September 11, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their complaint in this case, claiming that the NPIS constitutes “an unprecedented elimination of inspection resources for a secret set of young chicken and turkey slaughterhouses.” Compl. ¶ 1, J.A. 9. In this spirit, Plaintiffs alleged eight claims against Defendants: (1) violation of 21 U.S.C. § 455(c) by allowing condemnation of young chicken and turkey carcasses by NPIS establishment personnel; (2) violation of 21 U.S.C. § 455(c) by allowing reprocessing of young chickens and turkeys by NPIS establishment personnel without inspector supervision; (3) violation of 21 U.S.C. § 455(b) because each young chicken and turkey carcass will not receive a post-mortem inspection in NPIS establishments; (4) violation of the PPIA’s branding requirements; (5) violation of 21 U.S.C. § 455(b) and 9 C.F.R. § 381.1 because each chicken and turkey viscera will not be federally inspected; (6) violation of 21 U.S.C. § 463(c) for failure to provide an opportunity for oral presentation of views; (7) violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) by failing to provide adequate opportunity for notice and comment; and (8) violation of the APA because the final NPIS rules are arbitrary and capricious. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief. On the same day they filed the complaint, Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction on Claims 1, 2, 6, and 7. The District Court heard the motion on October 17, 2014.

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On February 9, 2015, the District Court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiffs lacked standing, and denied the motion for preliminary injunction and all other pending motions as moot. Food & Water Watch, Inc. v. Vilsack, 79 F.Supp.3d 174, 206 (D.D.C.2015). With respect to the Individual Plaintiffs, the District Court found that they did not suffer an injury in fact in order to establish standing. Id. at 190–95. The District Court also found that FWW lacked standing as an organization, and that Plaintiffs did not suffer a procedural injury sufficient to establish standing. Id. at 199–206. Plaintiffs appeal the dismissal on these grounds.

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* * *

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 III.

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Plaintiffs first contend that the Individual Plaintiffs, Sowerwine and Foran, have alleged an injury in fact. Plaintiffs also submit that FWW would have associational standing on behalf of its members. See, e.g., Sierra Club v. EPA, 754 F.3d 995, 999 (D.C.Cir.2014) (explaining that associational standing requires an organization to show, among other things, that “at least one of [the organization’s] members would have standing to sue”). Because the analyses for both the Individual Plaintiffs and FWW’s members are identical, see id., we address them jointly here.

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For the Individual Plaintiffs or FWW’s individual members to establish standing, they must show (i) they have “suffered a concrete and particularized injury in fact, (ii) that was caused by or is fairly traceable to the actions of the defendant, and (iii) is capable of resolution and likely to be redressed by judicial decision.” Osborn v. Visa, 797 F.3d 1057, 1063 (D.C.Cir.2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, because Plaintiffs are not directly subjected to the regulation they challenge, “standing is ‘substantially more difficult to establish.’ ” Public Citizen, Inc. v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (Public Citizen I ), 489 F.3d 1279, 1289 (D.C.Cir.2007) (citing Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. at 562, 112 S.Ct. 2130). In order to have suffered an injury in fact, Plaintiffs must have suffered an injury that is “(1) concrete, (2) particularized, and (3) actual or imminent.” Id. at 1292. A concrete injury is “direct, real, and palpable—not abstract.” Id. A particularized injury is “personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated—not generalized or undifferentiated.” Id. An actual or imminent injury is “certainly impending and immediate—not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical.” Id. at 1293.

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Here, Plaintiffs claim their injury in fact is an increased risk of foodborne illness from unwholesome, adulterated poultry resulting from the Defendants’ regulation.4 Increased-risk-of-harm cases implicate the requirement that an injury be actual or imminent because “[w]ere all purely speculative increased risks deemed injurious, the entire requirement of actual or imminent injury would be rendered moot, because all hypothesized, nonimminent injuries could be dressed up as increased risk of future injury.” Id. at 1294 (quoting NRDC v. EPA (NRDC II ), 464 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C.Cir.2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, “[t]he Supreme Court has repeatedly held that disputes about future events where the possibility of harm to any given individual is remote and speculative are properly left to the policymaking Branches, not the Article III courts.” Id. at 1295. As a result, this Court has limited its jurisdiction over cases alleging the possibility of increased-risk-of-harm to those where the plaintiff can show “both (i) a substantially increased risk of harm and (ii) a substantial probability of harm with that increase taken into account.” Id. at 1295 (emphasis in original); accord Susan B. Anthony List, 134 S.Ct. at 2341 (“An allegation of future injury may suffice if the threatened injury is ‘certainly impending,’ or there is a “ ‘substantial risk’ ” that the harm will occur.’ ” (quoting Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1138, 1147 n. 5, 1150, 185 L.Ed.2d 264 (2013))). “The word ‘substantial’ of course poses questions of degree, questions far from fully **376 *915 resolved.” Va. State Corp. Comm’n v. FERC, 468 F.3d 845, 848 (D.C.Cir.2006).

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Although Plaintiffs may establish standing by demonstrating an increased risk of harm, “[i]n applying the ‘substantial’ standard, we are mindful ... that the constitutional requirement of imminence ... necessarily compels a very strict understanding of what increases in risk and overall risk levels can count as ‘substantial.’ ” Public Citizen I, 489 F.3d at 1296. Accordingly, “the proper way to analyze an increased-risk-of-harm claim is to consider the ultimate alleged harm—such as death, physical injury, or property damage ...—as the concrete and particularized injury and then to determine whether the increased risk of such harm makes injury to an individual citizen sufficiently ‘imminent’ for standing purposes.” Id. at 1298.

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The Individual Plaintiffs’ and FWW members’ alleged harm is the foodborne illness that would result from consuming adulterated, unwholesome chicken produced under the NPIS. In order to have standing, therefore, Plaintiffs at least need to plausibly allege that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness when compared to the existing inspection methods. Accordingly, in order to satisfy this Court’s two-part analysis, the Plaintiffs must demonstrate, under the relevant standard, (1) that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of contracting foodborne illness compared to the existing inspection methods, and (2) a substantial probability that the Individual Plaintiffs and FWW members will contract a foodborne illness given that increase of risk. A failure to satisfy either of these prongs would deprive this Court of jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs’ case. See Public Citizen I, 489 F.3d at 1295.

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A.

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Plaintiffs argue that their complaint and submissions in support of their motion for preliminary injunction sufficiently establish that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of harm that will arise from consuming unwholesome, adulterated poultry. Defendants submit that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate a substantially increased risk of harm.

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We find that Plaintiffs’ complaint, as well as their various submissions in support of their motion for preliminary injunction, fails to plausibly allege that the NPIS taken as a whole substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness as a result of unwholesome, adulterated poultry. First, a careful examination of Plaintiffs’ allegations demonstrates that they have not plausibly alleged that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness compared to the existing inspection systems. To be sure, Plaintiffs’ submissions contained detailed allegations about how HIMP, and by extension, the NPIS, differs from the existing poultry inspection systems. See Compl. ¶¶ 31–77, J.A. 16–25. The complaint is replete with what Plaintiffs argue are the NPIS’s inadequacies. See Compl. ¶¶ 78–126, J.A. 25–29. The complaint also outlines what Plaintiffs perceive are the flaws with the HIMP studies and analyses. See Compl. ¶¶ 148–61, J.A. 33–35. However, these differences and perceived flaws do not demonstrate a substantial increase in the risk of foodborne illness under the NPIS compared to the existing inspection systems. 

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To the extent that the presence of adulterated, unwholesome poultry could give rise to an inference of resulting foodborne illness, 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. Plaintiffs’ allegations focus on certain discrete aspects of the NPIS: the reduced number of **377 *916 online federal inspectors, the speed at which the online federal inspectors must evaluate carcasses, and the substitution of establishment personnel for federal inspectors. See Compl. ¶¶ 78–121, J.A. 25–29. However, Plaintiffs’ complaint contains only a single allegation that references another key aspect the NPIS: the reallocation of resources for offline inspection. Compl. ¶ 183, J.A. 39. Under the NPIS, additional offline verification inspectors will check to see to that inspection protocols are being followed and conduct pathogen testing. See 77 Fed.Reg. at 4422. Plaintiffs’ complaint makes no allegation regarding the impact of increased offline verification inspectors on the presence of adulterated, unwholesome poultry. Although Plaintiffs fault Defendants for failing to account for a reduction in online inspectors in Defendants’ risk assessment, Plaintiffs’ failure to account for the increase in offline inspections and their attendant impact on poultry production prevents us from inferring that the NPIS as a whole substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness.

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Other allegations in the complaint reveal the same problem. For example, the complaint outlines HIMP personnel’s alleged failure to catch disease-related conditions on poultry. See Compl. ¶ 177, J.A. 38 (“An FWW analysis of the data for 14 HIMP plants found that out of 229 [Noncompliance Reports] filed from March to August 2011, 208 (90 percent) were for visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees.”). Although these allegations, at best, give rise to the inference that establishment personnel will not be as effective in identifying adulterated poultry, they do not allege how NPIS inspection as a whole will impact the amount of adulterated poultry. Notably, these allegations do not allege that these results are worse than what plants do under existing inspection systems. Thus, they fail to plausibly allege that the regulations substantially increase the risk of foodborne illness.

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Plaintiffs’ submissions in support of their motion for preliminary injunction suffer from the same defect. The sworn affidavits from existing USDA inspectors go into great detail about the differences between the NPIS and existing poultry inspection systems. One inspector explained that under the existing inspection systems, they “would have 3 inspectors on each line, with 90 birds per minute split among them, so that each inspector was looking at 30 birds per minute” but under HIMP, one inspector looks “at up to 200 birds, or more, per minute.” J.A. 298. Another inspector claimed, “I know I cannot detect all of the carcasses with Food Safety defects, and it is reasonable to assume that some are going out to the public.” J.A. 306. A third inspector said, “I know the kinds of unwholesome, mutilated, and diseased chickens that are processed and shipped out for sale and I feel it is important to share this information with consumers and taxpayers” because the HIMP system “is tantamount to having the wolves watch the proverbial henhouse, but these chickens are real and they could very likely hurt or kill someone.” J.A. 317. Another inspector who worked previously for a chicken production company and serves currently as a USDA inspector outlined the various pressures that poultry production personnel are under to increase the number of birds that are shipped out to consumers. J.A. 32124. Although these statements may be alarming, even taken as true, they do not allege that there **378 *917 is a substantially increased risk of foodborne illness because they do not allege that the risk of unwholesome, adulterated poultry is higher under the NPIS as a whole than the existing inspection systems.

29

Plaintiffs could perhaps overcome this deficiency by providing the Court with an alternative basis from which to infer that NPIS inspection results in a substantially increased risk of unwholesome, adulterated poultry. Here, if Plaintiffs could plausibly allege through their use of statistics that NPIS poultry creates a substantial increase in the risk of foodborne illness, they would allege a sufficient injury for standing. We have, in the past, refused to require a quantitative analysis in order to establish standing in increased-risk-of-harm cases, see NRDC II, 464 F.3d at 7, and we likewise refuse to hold that statistics are required for such cases. However, we remain mindful that “[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim [of injury] is context-specific, requiring the reviewing court to draw on its experience and common sense.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663–64, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). Accordingly, where a plaintiff’s allegations incorporate statistics and the plaintiff contends that the statistics demonstrate a substantial increase in the risk of harm, the plaintiff must allege something from which the Court can infer that risk. Using our experience and common sense, we cannot make this inference from Plaintiffs’ statistics. 

30

A review of Plaintiffs’ statistics demonstrates their failure to plausibly allege a substantial increase in the risk of harm. Plaintiffs point to isolated statistics where Defendants found Salmonella rates to be “higher” in chicken processed in HIMP establishments than in non-HIMP establishments, but the complaint does not specify how much higher the rates were. See Compl. ¶¶ 162–164, J.A. 35–36. Plaintiffs also submitted selections from an FSIS report that found under some scenarios, “a 0.2% increase in the proportion of samples testing Campylobacter positive,” but the same page of this report concluded that under most projected scenarios, the samples testing positive for Salmonella or Campylobacter would decrease. J.A. 430. Plaintiffs also alleged that 0.1% of Campylobacter illnesses would be attributable to the NPIS “under some scenarios.” Compl. ¶ 180, J.A. 39. Plaintiffs likewise relied on Defendants’ risk assessment assumption that annual Salmonella and Campylobacter illness “attribut[able] to poultry are about 174,686 and 169,005, respectively.” J.A. 430. Plaintiffs plucked these statistics from Defendants’ studies but provide no allegations from which we can infer that the statistics reflect a substantial increase in the risk of harm. Indeed, Defendants’ risk assessment concluded under most scenarios that annual illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter would remain unchanged or would decrease under the NPIS. J.A. 430–31. Even Plaintiffs’ complaint acknowledges that the risk of Campylobacter increase is “ambiguous.” Compl. ¶ 180, J.A. 39. An ambiguous increase in risk is hardly a substantial increase in risk.

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Plaintiffs’ statistics suffer from additional problems. First, these studies predate the final rule’s amendments. Although not necessarily a problem by itself, the rule’s amendments specifically lowered the line speeds (one of Plaintiffs’ chief criticisms) and made the transition to NPIS inspection voluntary. Plaintiffs make no allegations about the impact of these changes on their statistical claims. Furthermore, Plaintiffs fail to account for how increased allocations in offline inspections would impact the risk. In this context, Plaintiffs’ statistics do not plausibly allege that NPIS inspection as a whole substantially increases the risk that poultry will be contaminated **379 *918 with Salmonella or Campylobacter compared to the existing inspection systems. Because Plaintiffs have failed to plausibly allege that the NPIS substantially increases the risk of producing unwholesome, adulterated poultry compared to the existing inspection systems, they do not have standing. 

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***

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VI.

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For the foregoing reasons, we hold that Plaintiffs have failed to show any cognizable injury sufficient to establish standing. Accordingly, we affirm the District Court.

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So ordered. 

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(Concurring Opinions of Judge Henderson and Judge Millit omitted)

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Annotated Text Information

August 25, 2017

Food & Water Watch, Inc v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905 (D.C. Cir. 2015)

Food & Water Watch, Inc v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905 (D.C. Cir. 2015)

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