Shortly after I began working in a daily newspaper newsroom, someone mentioned that a story “had legs.” I did not have a clue as to what he was talking about. Finally, after hearing the phrase used again in context, I understood it meant the story was moving on its own or with help.

While I don’t hear it much anymore in this digital world, some stories do still “have legs.”

When we first heard that the U.S. Department of Labor was investigating Packers Sanition Services Inc. over evidence that it was using child labor to service the meat industry, we knew that at its heart it was a food safety story. That’s because, when you connected the dots, it was clear that the minors were actually working at JBS Beef in Grand Island doing critical sanitation jobs overnight. How serious about food safety can you claim to be when your actions involve putting children to work on your plant floor?

Not long after PSSI agreed to pay fines of around $1.5 million for employing more than 100 children, some as young as 13, to clean slaughterhouse floors at night for some of the biggest brands in the meat industry.

And this story has legs. One of the more recent developments is that Cargill, according to NBC News, has notified PSSI that it has terminated all its contracts for sanitation services and is currently transitioning to “alternative solutions. . . without compromising our commitment to people and food safety.”

NBC News, which has really picked up on this story, reports that Cargill was using PSSI at 14 of its large meat plants and labor investigators found 25 minor children “cleaning the blood and animal parts off the floor in the Carfill plant in Dodge City, KS, and one child learning the Carfill plant in Fiona, Texas.”

Cargill has managed to cut its ties to PSSI and PSSI’s settlement with the Department of Labor involves no claims of misconduct involving Cargill. Still, the story has legs that involve stolen identities, a Homeland Security investigation, and the possibility that those millions of migrants who’ve come across the southern border may be looking for food industry jobs because they have debts to pay to the cartels.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has jumped on the issue by sending a letter to the top 18 largest meat and poultry processors. “While this issue is not unique to the food industry, it cannot be ignored that it is a problem, ” he said noting a 69 percent increase in the use of child labor since 2018.

PSSI claims to be a victim of all this. It says it has a “zero-tolerance” policy against employing anyone with phony IDs. But NBC News apparently had no trouble finding a 16-year-old working for PSSI in Kansas. And stolen identify reports track pretty well with the cities and towns where PSSI operates.

PSSI employs 17,000 nationwide and provides sanitation services to more than 400 facilities, mostly overnight. Those jobs are not supposed to be available to anyone younger than 18 years of age.

“Blowback” is a term we use to associate with our foreign policy adventures. But, I think it may turn out to be an accurate term for the future of the open southern border. More than 2.2 million people came across in 2022. Many acknowledge they have debts to pay to the cartels for getting them across the border.

And the food and agriculture industry is, in many locations, starving for employees. That’s probably why those kids under 18 in overnight jobs at the slaughterhouse looked older than everyone in authority at those plants who encountered them. Just don’t claim that food safety is your top concern.

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