DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. — Hearthside Food Solutions is challenging the characterization of its business practices as portrayed in a recent The New York Times article while also pledging to take several steps to ensure underage workers are not hired by the company or staffing agencies it uses. The article appeared to trigger a move by the Biden administration to step up child labor law enforcement.

Production facilities operated by Hearthside in Grand Rapids, Mich., were featured in the Times story published Feb. 25 – “Alone and exploited, migrant children work brutal jobs across the US.” The article said the illegal hiring of underage migrant children had increased sharply across the United States the last two years, especially for work in food processing plants.

A letter from Hearthside chief executive officer Darlene Nicosia Hearthside in response to the story said Hearthside has a longstanding requirement that everyone working the company’s production facilities must be at least 18 years old and that the company goes “to great lengths to vet our workforce and ensure they comply with relevant laws and the agencies we partner with do so as well.”

The Times said numerous underage workers are employed at Hearthside Foods plants, a violation of child labor laws, and that these young workers help make food products for companies including General Mills, Inc. and PepsiCo, Inc., including Nature Valley granola bars, Cheerios and Cheetos. While the article said it was based on reporter visits to seven different states and conversations with more than 100 underage migrant workers in 20 states, the story focused heavily on Hearthside Foods.

The article described working conditions at the Hearthside plants as hazardous, a representation vigorously disputed by Hearthside.

Noting that the food industry is overseen by stringent federal regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the letter said Hearthside’s safety track record is “in the top 16% of all food manufacturing companies,” based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Hearthside noted it has received an annual safety award each year from the American Bakers Association since the award’s inception in 2019.

In response to the allegations in the article, which traces the experience of a 15-year-old girl working at one of the company’s plants, Hearthside said it has engaged “a renowned global advisory firm and an independent law firm to conduct an independent review of Hearthside’s employment practices, third-party employee engagement, plant safety protocol and our standards of business conduct.” The company said the review would take about 60 days and that Hearthside would enhance its policies and practices in line with the recommendations.

In addition, the company said it has enhanced its process to confirm the age of all individuals working at the company and is asking staffing agencies it engages to take numerous steps to be sure employees assigned to Hearthside comply with the company’s policies.

Asked by Supermarket Perimeter's sister publication, Milling & Baking News, to comment about allegations in the Times article, General Mills, Inc. issued the following statement: “General Mills has no tolerance for any of our suppliers illegally employing or harassing minors. We are actively reviewing this situation, which allegedly occurred outside of a General Mills owned and operated plant… We recognize the seriousness of this situation and will take appropriate action based on our findings.”

The Times article also quoted caseworkers at child welfare agencies who accused the US Department of Health and Human Services of ignoring “obvious signs of labor exploitation.”

HHS disputed the accusation but on Feb. 27, the Department of Labor and HHS announced action to “increase their efforts to thoroughly vet sponsors of migrant children, investigate child labor violations and hold the companies accountable.”

Elaborating, the agencies said, “The Department of Labor will hold all employers accountable to ensure child labor is removed from supply chains.”

According to the Times, the caseworkers independently estimated that about two-thirds of all unaccompanied migrant children ended up working full time, a figure that has risen sharply since 2021. Announcing its new crackdown, the Labor Department said it has “seen a 69% increase in children being illegally employed by companies” since 2018.