LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Labor officials have moved to cut off federal contracts held by one of the nation's largest meatpackers, saying it discriminated against women and non-Asians.
The U.S. Labor Department claims Cargill Meat Solutions discriminated against more than 4,000 qualified people who applied for entry-level jobs at the company's plant in Springdale, Ark., with women less likely to be hired and Asians and Pacific Islanders unfairly favored over other races.
Federal officials said Tuesday they want to cancel Cargill's existing government contracts and prevent future contracts until the company stops what they call discriminatory practices. Cargill Meat Solutions currently holds contracts worth more than $550 million with the U.S. Department of Defense, labor officials said.
"This is an unfortunate case in which thousands of qualified workers were denied the opportunity to compete fairly for jobs in a tough economy," said Patricia A. Shiu, director of the department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, in a statement.
Shiu said the office is prepared to use every tool at its disposal, including canceling federal contracts, to achieve equal opportunity for workers.
Cargill Meat Solutions, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill, Inc., blamed the problem on "documentation," saying there wasn't a satisfactory record of why it didn't hire certain candidates.
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said minorities make up 84 percent of the 1,300 people employed at the Springdale plant and the accusation appears to be based on a "statistical analysis" of the job market rather than a review of specific applicants.
"This is a situation more about documentation than it is about discrimination," Martin said. "This allegation is based upon statistical analysis, not upon any hiring decisions that Cargill made."
In addition to the allegations of discrimination against women and non-Asians, labor officials pointed to problems with Cargill's employment records in a complaint filed earlier this month with the Office of Administrative Law Judges.
The complaint said Cargill failed to collect and maintain appropriate personnel and employment records.
Labor officials said the complaint came after they weren't able to secure a fair resolution from Cargill that promised to pay back wages and interest to the rejected job applicants and extend job offers to at least 167 of them.
The Springdale plant drew national attention this year when it had to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 107 people in 31 states. One person died from the illness. The labor complaint is not related to that recall.
The plant shut down for eight days while equipment was cleaned, but just weeks later salmonella showed up during routine testing and a second batch of ground turkey — 185,000 pounds — was recalled in September.
Cargill Meat Solutions is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cargill, one of the world's largest privately held companies. Cargill employs 138,000 people in 63 countries.
Cargill Meat Solutions, which handles Cargill's beef, pork and turkey businesses, is based in Wichita, Kan., and has more than 50 locations. It's the second-largest beef processor in North America, according to its website.
Martin, the company spokesman, said Cargill had been in talks with labor officials as recently as last week. The complaint was filed Nov. 15, but he called the Labor Department's announcement Tuesday a "complete surprise" and said he didn't know how long the company had to respond.
"It feels a lot like government-imposed hiring based on historical statistics rather than the reality," Martin said. "We follow and comply with all federal regulations regarding hiring practices."
Associated Press writers Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.