Public Justice is using movement oriented litigation for food systems that put people over profits

Public Justice is a legal advocacy organization that works on a multitude of issues from civil rights, to environmental justice to consumer rights. As part of the Community Coalition for Real Meals, they provided legal advice for the Real Meals Campaign. Since joining HEAL’s membership in mid-2020, Public Justice has worked with HEAL and its worker-led members to take action against giant meatpacking corporations who have been putting working people at risk. The Public Justice Food Project is dedicated to a future where “our food chain results in healthy, empowered communities and sustainable livelihoods and a just animal agriculture system that is transparent and accountable to people, not profit.” We had the chance to speak with Brent Newell, Senior Attorney, Public Justice Food Project about how they’re using movement oriented litigation to achieve this goal. Here’s excerpts from our conversation. 

What is the vision and purpose behind the Public Justice Food Project?

At Public Justice, we believe that the corporate control of our food system has irreparably harmed rural communities, farmers, our land, air, water and animals. We especially believe corporations that control the food system are exploiting and extracting from communities of color, including working people, and communities that live near factory farms. This externalization of cost, and exploitation of people demands that we change our food system to one that compensates people fairly for their labor, that’s consistent with climate goals, that empowers farmers to be the solution and does not lead to discriminatory outcomes. 

The food system is so intersectional and affects so many different aspects of our lives. We believe that our farmers and workers and rural communities can all benefit from a pasteurized animal agriculture system and that farmers, working people, environmental advocates, water quality advocates, and climate justice advocates can work together for better food systems. So we seek to work among movements to achieve that change and what we bring to the table is our movement-oriented litigation. 

What is movement oriented litigation?

We view litigation as a tool for the broader movement, rather than as a silver bullet that is going to tackle corporate consolidation. We don’t think that litigation on its own is going to help achieve the positive vision of agriculture that we all align around, so we use litigation not just as a tool to fight the root cause of corporate consolidation of our food systems, but also to support the base building, community organizing and narrative shift work that our movement allies are doing on the ground.

Who are the people, or which are the organizations, that you most often represent?

We represent local and regional farmer-led organizations, community based organizations, and policy organizations working on water quality issues or racial justice issues. We also work with national environmental groups such as Food and Water Watch, animal welfare organizations that want to take on Ag-Gag Laws, or those like HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance that are working on labor-related issues. 

Sometimes these organizations reach out to us and identify an issue. Other times we work in collaboration with groups. Often, opportunities for intervention emerge out of relationships and trust that we have built with different groups. 

And who do you find yourselves up against?

It ranges from big corporations, to smaller factory farms to the government. We’ve taken action against a combination of big food and agriculture corporations, like Smithfield, Tyson or JBS. We’ve also taken on individual dairy operations, and actual factory farms. We’ve sued the federal government over its use of check-off money in a way that harms small farmers, as well as the State of Iowa for a water quality issue. It’s all about taking on that externalization of pollution, and corporate control of the food system. 

In movement based litigation, what does winning look like? 

It isn’t necessarily whether the judge agrees with us and issues an order. It’s also not necessarily a win if that legal outcome occurs in a vacuum. We look at our work in three different ways: whether there is some kind of structural change that occurs because of the lawsuit, whether the litigation helps to build power on the ground through organizing or base building, and how effectively the litigation has been used as a narrative tool.

My colleague Dave Muraskin worked with Towards Justice to bring a case against Smithfield during the early days of the pandemic. The judge dismissed the case but the case highlighted the issue of workers and how they were being treated during COVID19 — it was a huge narrative shift moment and it also helped build power in the community with the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA) who were plaintiffs in the case. Additionally, the litigation brought power to the workers that Axel Fuentes, the Executive Director of RCWA worked with, and allowed him to organize around the issue and communicate it to a broader audience. Even though the case wasn’t successful in court, it was very successful in the other two goals. 

What are the most urgent or pressing issues that Public Justice is litigating currently? 

We’ve identified climate change, in particular the methane emissions from industrial dairy operations as one. The industrial dairy and hog operations contribute about 1.3 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions and there is a movement by Big Oil and Big Ag to capture the methane from these operations, rebrand and greenwash it as a climate friendly source of energy, and then use that to prop up their fossil fuel systems. We call it factory farming gas and it’s a false solution — it’s dirty energy. Whereas pasture based farming is an actual solution for the climate, for farmers and rural communities who will benefit economically from a more farmer-centric, pasture-based system as opposed to an industrial system. Read more.

We’re also working on representing farmers in a checkoff fund related litigation — checkoff dollars have been said to support corporate agriculture’s interests and not farmer interest. Read more

Another area we focus on is water quality — we’ve brought lawsuits against individual dairy operations for water contamination. We’re also representing Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (IowaCCI) and Food and Water Watch against the State of Iowa for allowing toxic runoff from agriculture operations to be exempt from the Clean Water Act, causing groundwater pollution. Read more.

Finally, we’re doing a lot of work on worker justice issues along with organizations like HEAL, Food Chain Workers AllianceVenceremos and RCWA. 

Speaking of worker justice issues, could you tell us about the Title VI complaint against Tyson and JBS? How did Public Justice work with HEAL and other organizations to make that happen, and what was the strategy behind it?

In April 2020, even as the impact of the pandemic on food processing and meatpacking workers started becoming public (Public Justice filed a case against Smithfield for failing to protect their workers during this time), the racial disparity among meatpacking workers was not being talked about, or addressed by policy. 

My colleague Kristina Sinclair and I began brainstorming about what we could do about this, and also spoke with FCWA and HEAL about what would be the most helpful to achieve their primary goal of keeping workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meat processing workers are overwhelmingly Black, Brown and Asian while managers in these same companies are overwhelmingly white. Communities of color were also being disproportionately impacted by COVID19 across the country. Given that Tyson and JBS were receiving a significant amount of public funds, we thought it was a good opportunity to highlight the racial disparity that exists within their ranks. We knew that Perdue’s USDA was not going to say ‘Hey you’re right! We need to fix this’ but the complaint served a broader effort to identify the issues and uplift the narrative about racially disparate worker impacts in the food processing and meatpacking sector.


Thanks for all the work that you are doing, and for making time to chat with us. In closing, how can folks who are interested in getting involved in this work support you?

We’ve recently opened up our membership to include non-attorneys. Anyone who is interested in being a member can go onto the Public Justice Food Project Website and join as a member with a small annual contribution. If they are an attorney or law student, they can join the Food Project Attorney Network. The other way to support our work is to support the organizations that work with so the broader movement can become more powerful!