Minn. investigators allege Madelia meatpacking plant employed young workers in dangerous jobs

A Tony Downs Foods worker walks past
A Tony Downs Foods worker walks past a Now Hiring sign in front of the business in Madelia, Minn. on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Updated: 10:40 a.m.

Minnesota authorities have filed a temporary restraining order against a southwest Minnesota meat processor for allegedly employing children as young as 13 to operate meat grinders, ovens and a forklift.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison alleged in the Wednesday filing in Watonwan County that at least eight children younger than 18 were working overnight or on shifts ending in the early morning hours at the Tony Downs Food Company in Madelia. Two are 14 and 15, and six are 16 and 17. The 14-year-old began work there at age 13, according to Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry investigators.

Mankato-based Downs Food Group issued a statement Thursday morning saying it has “an unwavering commitment to regulatory compliance” and is fully cooperating with the investigation.

According to court documents, in late January, DLI investigators responding to a complaint visited the plant around 11 p.m. on a Thursday night and interviewed employees in Spanish. They also reviewed company documents as well as information provided by schools to identify the employees, learn ages, and in the case of the company, confirm schedules.

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Minnesota law prohibits employees younger than 18 from working after 11 p.m. if they are going to school the next day. There are more restrictions on teens 14 and 15 years of age. Children under 14 “generally may not be employed in any capacity,” according to the criminal complaint.

The latest court action by the state follows an investigation by federal authorities of a company that employed minors to clean meatpacking houses in several states, including Minnesota. The company, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., in December agreed to a permanent injunction barring it from hiring children.

During the Tony Downs plant inspection, state investigators found “large power-driven machinery such as large mixers, grinders, conveyor belts, ovens, and other industrial-scale machinery,” according to court documents.

“DLI observed young appearing workers engaging in work such as working with or around large machinery in different areas of the facility, operating a forklift, working in the maintenance welding area, and working in the individually-quick-frozen part of the facility that is kept cool and where meat is flash frozen using carbon dioxide and ammonia.”

Investigators reported children told them they were going to school the next day. Others gave conflicting age information, one even asking to be recorded as 40 years old, “even though the worker could not plausibly be 40.”

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The investigation also allegedly found a young employee who had been injured at the plant.

“For instance, DLI identified an employee of Tony Downs who is currently 18 years of age. That employee’s employment records show they began working for Tony Downs at 15 years of age and in a position involving hazardous work. Three injury reports provided by Tony Downs describe injuries experienced by this employee when this employee was under age 18,” the court document read.

Labor investigators also met with school officials, who said they were concerned about the students’ academic and physical wellbeing after investigators asked about them. A person who answered a phone number for the Madelia School District declined comment Thursday.

Minnesota Department of Labor Commissioner, Nicole Blissenbach, praised the state’s attorney general’s office, and Ellison in particular, for their help in the case.

“Child labor — especially in dangerous industries, especially when employers exploit children and families from vulnerable communities — is an extremely serious social and economic ill that has ripple effects in every community,” Ellison said in a statement. “It will take every level of government working cooperatively together, along with industry and public pressure, to solve it.”

Downs Food Group said in its Thursday statement that it works “to ensure that all who work in our plant meet all required employment criteria, including being of legal age. People who are underage should be in schools, not working in manufacturing facilities. We intend to take decisive action to root out what may have enabled any underage workers to circumvent our hiring process and verification requirements which include providing government-issued photo IDs as evidence that they were 18 or older.”