US prison labor used to make products in seafood supply chain

A U.S. state prison.

McDonald’s, Walmart, and Cargill are among the hundreds of U.S. food brands whose production processes have been tied to prison labor by a recent Associated Press investigation.

The AP report, published 29 January, traced at least USD 200 million (EUR 215 million) worth of sales of farmed goods and livestock to products grown by U.S. prisoners over the past six years. The products include soy, corn, and wheat bought by aquafeed producers and suppliers Cargill, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, Archer Daniels Midland, and Consolidated Grain and Barge directly from U.S. prisons. Products made from those raw materials are frequently exported, including to China, according to the AP.

Bunge said it ceased sourcing products produced by U.S. prison labor in 2021. Cargill said the agricultural products it purchases from prison farms in the U.S. states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ohio, were a small fraction its overall business.

“We are now in the process of determining the appropriate remedial action,” Cargill said.

Tens of thousands of U.S. prisoners across the country are involved in labor programs, which range from unpaid farm labor to paid worker placements into private businesses. Most commercial-scale agricultural work done by state prisoners takes place in the U.S. South, including Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, with programs in each of those states typically not paying anything for the labor. Companies that partner with the state prison work programs sometimes get tax credits and other financial incentives, along with a source of cheap goods or labor.

Incarcerated workers typically are not covered by federal safety standards and, in most cases, cannot file official complaints about working conditions, according to the investigation. If injured, harassed, or killed on the job, they do not qualify for compensation. If prisoners refuse to work, they can be punished, including with solitary confinement, and it can jeopardize their chances of parole.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids slavery and involuntary labor except as punishment for a crime. Additionally, it is illegal under U.S. law to knowingly transport or sell goods made by incarcerated workers across state lines, though an exception exists for agricultural products. The AP found corporations have created joint ventures with state corrections agencies to allow them to widen the types of goods they’re able to transport and sell nationally and abroad. However, the practice of prison labor is being challenged by recent federal legislation, and several state legislatures are pushing to end state laws allowing the practice.

Other companies the AP tied to the use of prison labor include Cal-Maine Foods, Hillshire Farm, Kroger, Sara Lee, Hickman’s Family Farms, Kellogg’s, General Mills, ALDI, Jimmy Dean, Land O’Lakes, BelGioioso, Target, Dairy Farmers of America, Burger King, Tyson, Saputo, PepsiCo., Russell Stover, and Sam’s Club. Flour, milk, butter, eggs, and other materials produced by these companies are sometimes used in the production of value-added seafood products.

In a response, McDonald’s said it would investigate any potential links it had to prison labor. ADM and General Mills said they have existing policies in place restricting suppliers from using forced labor. Whole Foods Market said its company policy “does not allow the use of prison labor in products sold at our stores.”

The AP report comes on the heels of a separate investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project, which found extensive evidence of Uyghur forced labor used by Chinese seafood processors entering the U.S. seafood supply chain.

In response to that investigation, which found the U.S. government has inadvertently spent more than USD 200 million (EUR 183 million) in the past five years on seafood associated with Uyghur labor for public food programs, numerous U.S. elected officials have called for a crackdown prohibiting seafood products tainted with forced labor from entering the United States.

On 6 February, 20 nonprofit organizations issued a public letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, calling on his administration to ban seafood produced using modern slavery or illicit fishing practices.

The groups’ letter urged Biden to make good on promises made in a 2022 National Security Memo (NSM-11) and a November 2023 commitment to protect worker rights in the U.S. and globally.

“As the largest single-nation seafood importer in the world, the U.S. can have a significant impact on eliminating forced labor in global seafood supply chains by wholly enforcing existing regulations,” they wrote. “However, these regulations are not currently being enforced to their full potential or in line with the necessary urgency expressed in NSM-11.”

The groups said the U.S. government’s tolerance of labor abuse creates market distortions by setting the cost of goods at artificially low prices.

“This compels actors further down the supply chain to seek cost-cutting measures that allow them to remain profitable, often at the cost of the environment and workers, including the loss of lives,” they wrote.

Signatories of the letter include Azul, Corporate Accountability Lab, Creation Justice Ministries, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Environmental Justice Foundation, FishWise,       Friends of the Earth, Freedom United, Global Labor Justice - International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), Healthy Ocean Coalition, Humanity United Action, Labour Rights Foundation, Ocean Defense Initiative, Oceana, The Freedom Fund, The Human Trafficking Legal Center, The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, and Verité.

“We urge this administration to continue taking steps to hold U.S. companies accountable for embedding and executing counter-IUU fishing and forced labor practices and policies throughout their supply chains and business practices,” they wrote. “Major loopholes in U.S. federal government procurement policies continue to allow U.S. government agencies to increase the profits of these companies by purchasing seafood products tainted with forced labor.”

Photo courtesy of Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock


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