Editorial: Leave meat processing to the grown-ups

While some states are loosening child labor laws, the fact remains that underage employees should not work on a meat processing floor.
If you grew up in a family meat business, you probably were on the plant floor as soon as you could walk. I have heard time and time again from operators whose after-school hours and summer vacations included folding boxes, washing tubs or putting labels on packages. This education helped them gain an early understanding of the family business, and in many instances, it helped develop a passion for the industry that grew as they entered the business.

Many of the leading companies in the small meat sector are multi-generational, so supporting the next generation by educating them at an early age is a vital part of long-term success. AAMP has engaged the youth of the small plant sector, from introducing them to the meat industry in a safe way to helping to pay for their education. Recently, we launched the Youth Ambassador Program at our 2023 Charleston convention. The program was designed to take teenage attendees at the convention, ages 14 through 18, and help acquaint them with various aspects of the meat processing industry. AAMP's Stephen F. Krut Scholarship is given annually to university students in an ag-related major.

Unfortunately, the meat industry has been seeing a very different trend: employing underage workers – not as children of owners but as cheap labor options. Many of these teenagers have recently come, alone or with families, from across the Mexican border. The work they are doing is far more dangerous than folding boxes or running a cash register. They are working with hazardous chemicals and machinery. While some states are passing laws to permit some of these practices, the fact remains that underage employees should not work on a meat processing floor.

This year alone, a large contract sanitation services provider had to pay more than $1 million in fines for employing children aged 13 to 17. They were found working with chemicals to clean meat processing equipment. Elsewhere, a large meat snack manufacturer was accused by the Department of Labor of hiring minors to operate power-driven machinery, including meat slicers. Then in Michigan, the owner of a meat processing plant pleaded guilty to illegally employing a 17-year-old worker who lost his right hand in a meat grinder.

A meat plant is filled with dangerous equipment and jobs. People who have grown up in this industry know it better than most. A meat industry veteran takes great care to minimize injury risk. There are procedures that must be followed when cleaning or maintaining equipment, preparing cleaning solutions, or handling knives or sharp tools. Personal protective equipment is mandatory. Training should be done on a regular basis, so that team members can interact on a busy shop floor without putting themselves or others at risk. And even then, the risk of a workplace accident is never zero. Can you expect 15-year-olds, with no experience in the meat industry, to understand the dangers inherent in the job? If they are refugees from Guatemala or another Latin American country, can they understand the directions on how to stay safe?

There are jobs that are acceptable for a teenage employee to do, like working in the retail store or helping in the office. The Labor Department permits youths as young as 14 to take those jobs, albeit at limited hours. If you have a young retail worker that you want to train for an eventual processor job, you can start their preparation with training on knife safety, employee hygiene and sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs). AAMP has a series of videos, in both English and Spanish, that can help our members. By doing so, you can introduce a promising team member to your business, learn about their work habits as they work in a “safe” part of your facility, and train them to handle the responsibility of a butchering job. Then, when the employee is old enough for a processing job, they can go to work on the shop floor with the know-how necessary to make them a safe and valuable member of your team.

Iowa and Arkansas have passed laws that loosened child labor restrictions, and other states are considering similar legislation. These laws are said to provide “freedom of choice” for teens to work longer hours or in more dangerous positions. They are promoted as ways to help fill the labor pool. However, these laws are not necessarily a free pass. The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division states, “Rules vary depending upon the age of the employee. Once an employee is 18 years old, child labor rules no longer apply. Many states have enacted child labor laws as well. When federal and state laws are different, the rules that provide the most protection to young workers apply.” Visit the Department of Labor's YouthRules website ( for more information.

The meat industry benefits from the young talent who enter the field from universities, trade schools and family ties. But, from a safety and legal standpoint, some parts of the industry are not for kids.