USDA, 60 Minutes Revive Child Labor Issue

May 15, 2023
USDA sends letters of concern to meat packers; CBS newsmagazine replays the PSSI story.

Although the news coverage of child labor, especially involving immigrant children, has died down since the late 2022-early 2023 revelations, the subject was revived in recent weeks with two reports.

CBS TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes featured the issue on its May 7 broadcast, “This Ancient Atrocity.” That title is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called child labor when it was outlawed during his administration 85 years ago.

“So it was a shock in 2022 to learn that an American company [PSSI or Packers Sanitation Service Inc.] owned by a Wall Street firm [Blackstone Group] sent children as young as 13 to work in slaughterhouses,” said CBS’ Scott Pelley, who narrated the segment.

Both PSSI and Blackstone say they had no idea they employed children. “Could it have been a mistake?” Pelley asked Shannon Rebolledo, a 17-year U.S. Dept. of Labor investigator. “There’s no way that this was just a mistake,” she answered.

The segment replayed what we’ve reported late last year here on Food Processing and elsewhere in the media: that PSSI, which provides third-shift cleaning and sanitation to numerous food plants, especially meat processors, across the country, had employed at least 102 children 13 to 17 years old in 13 meat processing facilities in eight states. Still, the 13-minute segment is worth a listen.

PSSI in February paid $1.5 million in civil penalties following investigations by the Dept. of Labor and Dept. of Homeland Security (the latter because all or most were recent immigrants).

Separately, USDA in April sent letters to the 18 largest meat and poultry processors, representing approximately 70% of meat and poultry production by volume, “requesting that all actors in the food supply chain take important precautionary steps to prevent or eliminate illegal child labor.

“These steps include determining whether illegal child labor is being used anywhere in their supply chain, including strong language in contracts, and adopting standards that will better guard against the use of illegal child labor.

“Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has seen a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies,” a subsequent news release from USDA read. “In the last fiscal year, the department found 835 companies it investigated had employed more than 3,800 children in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. While this issue is not unique to the food industry, it cannot be ignored that it is a problem, and USDA is standing with our federal partners to combat it.

“This letter is just the first step in many we hope to take on this issue… USDA is currently exploring enforcement mechanisms and considering aspects of regulatory infrastructure that support our ability to encourage compliance and provide the necessary attention and increased oversight to curb this recent trend as quickly as possible.

“The use of illegal child labor — particularly requiring that children undertake dangerous tasks — is inexcusable, and companies must consider both their legal and moral responsibilities to ensure they and their suppliers, subcontractors, and vendors fully comply with child labor laws,” the USDA announcement concluded. “Companies in food manufacturing — particularly those with significant market power — need to be vigilant about the standards of their suppliers to help reduce systemic violations and abuses.”

About the Author

Dave Fusaro | Editor in Chief

Dave Fusaro has served as editor in chief of Food Processing magazine since 2003. Dave has 30 years experience in food & beverage industry journalism and has won several national ASBPE writing awards for his Food Processing stories. Dave has been interviewed on CNN, quoted in national newspapers and he authored a 200-page market research report on the milk industry. Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter who specialized in business writing, he holds a BA in journalism from Marquette University. Prior to joining Food Processing, Dave was Editor-In-Chief of Dairy Foods and was Managing Editor of Prepared Foods.

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