WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack recently wrote a letter to the meat and poultry industry requesting that companies take steps to prevent or eliminate illegal child labor in the food supply chain.

The agency sent the letter to the 18 largest meat and poultry processors, which comprise 70% of the meat and poultry production by volume in the United States.

Vilsack specified actions that industry stakeholders could take, including strong language in contracts to prevent child labor that could result in stronger sanctions, regular unannounced investigations of vendor activity and more effective reporting, monitoring or auditing where needed.

Another step Vilsack suggested was creating procedures for workers to report law violations without fear of retaliation, especially with contractors with an effective, trusted partnership with workers, unions and community organizations.

“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,” Vilsack wrote in the letter. “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.”

Vilsack added that the food industry and the US Department of Labor have a shared commitment to ensure zero tolerance for illegal child labor. He said the agency would use its procurement and regulatory authorities to provide the necessary attention and increased oversight to curb this recent trend as quickly as possible.

According to numbers from the US Department of Labor, the agency has seen a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies since 2018.

Since the beginning of 2023, the DOL has investigated violations of child labor laws. 

Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) was fined $1.5 million after the department found that at least 102 workers from 13 to 17 years of age were cleaning meatpacking plants.

DOL also cited Marksbury Farm Foods LLC in Kentucky in February for child labor violations.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) accused meat processor Tony Downs Food Co. of employing minors in hazardous jobs at its plant.