DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- An embattled kosher meatpacking company accused of violating Iowa's child labor laws said on Wednesday that the government's allegations made public this week were "inflammatory" and denied knowingly hiring any minors.
In recent months, officials with Agriprocessors Inc. have found themselves repeatedly defending the company's hiring practices at its plant in Postville, which is the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant.
In May, the plant was raided by federal immigration officials and nearly 400 workers were arrested in the largest immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history.
This week, the Iowa Labor Commission announced it had uncovered 57 cases of child labor law violations at the Postville plant. Labor commissioner Dave Neil called the violations "egregious" and asked the Iowa attorney general's office to prosecute the cases to the fullest extent of the law.
Menachem Lubinsky, a spokesman for Agriprocessors Inc., said the company has cooperated with state officials throughout the investigation, which has spanned several months. He criticized a news release issued in which Neil said the company violated nearly every aspect of the state's child labor laws.
"Agri(processors) categorically denies the suggestion that it knowingly hired or retained minors as employees and it protests the issuance of a press release that has patently been motivated by a desire to ride the crest of the wave of current public opinion adverse to Agri(processors)," he said in the statement provided to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Lubinsky said it is Agriprocessors' policy not to hire underage workers, and to terminate any employees who are determined to be under 18 years of age. Under Iowa law, it is illegal for children under the age of 18 to work in meatpacking plants.
State officials say the types of child labor violations at the plant included minors working in prohibited occupations, exceeding allowable hours for youth to work, failure to obtain work permits, exposure to hazardous chemicals and working with prohibited tools.
Neil, the labor commissioner, said there were 57 children, ages 14 to 17 years old, who were involved in the investigation. His commission's report was not made public with officials citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Lubinsky said that on April 3 state inspectors conducted a surprise investigation at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville to search for underage workers. The team of inspectors toured the facility and "identified no minors working at the plant," he said.
Two weeks later, Lubinsky said state officials told the company that there were underage employees working at the plant. Agriprocessors requested that the workers be identified so that they could be fired, but the labor commissioner's office refused, he said.
The company offered to let labor officials review the company's hiring records on April 30, but Lubinsky said they responded that the review would happen on May 21. The immigration bust at the plant was executed a little over a week before that date.
In his statement, Lubinsky criticized the handling of the investigation.
"Notwithstanding the leisurely pace of its investigation, the inability of even the government's expert to identify any employees in the plant as minors, and the refusal to disclose the identities of any employees who the Labor Commissioner believed to be employed in violation of child-labor laws, the Commissioner has now issued an inflammatory press release alleging that there were '57 cases' and 'egregious violations'," he said.
Neil said on Wednesday that the federal immigration raid did have a positive affect on the state's child labor investigation.
"Quite frankly, it really loosened things up. People were more willing to talk after the raid than they were before the raid," he said.
The investigation took longer than most because of language barriers, and because child labor investigations of such magnitude don't often occur, Neil said.
"You really don't have anything to compare it to," he said.
Kerry Koonce, a spokeswoman for Iowa Workforce Development, the agency which oversees the labor commission, said that the Agriprocessors case is, to her knowledge, "the largest case of alleged child labor violations in Iowa."
Such violations are punishable by a $50 fine for each day of each violation, she said.
The maximum amount of fines that Agriprocessors could face will depend on what charges the attorney general's office chooses to bring against the company, Koonce said. She estimated that fines could range from $500,000 to $1 million.
Labor officials said they are still investigating possible wage violations at the plant.
Postville Mayor Robert Penrod said that if the allegations were true, they were "pretty appalling."
"What they do up there is their business. But it's disturbing for everybody to hear stuff like this. But...as I've told everyone, you are innocent until proven guilty," Penrod said.
Associated Press Writer Henry C. Jackson in Postville, Iowa, contributed to this report.