Chocolate, slavery and our collective guilt

There is no delicate way to ask this question: Are we complicit in the use of slavery today to produce chocolate?

Hundreds of years ago, Mesoamerican slave labor harvested cocoa beans to supply European demand for chocolate. I recently came face to face with this horror from the past while visiting Chocolate: The Exhibit,at the Minnesota History Center.

This exhibit is on loan from the Chicago Field Museum. Upon returning home, I visited the Field Museum web page to learn more about chocolate (a taste I love so much, I think it should have its own place on the food pyramid). One thing led to another, as it does when you trip from link to link on the internet, and it wasn’t long before I was reading that history has repeated itself, that slave labor is being  used again to harvest cocoa beans, this time with child slaves, in parts of West Africa. And, to answer the question in the first paragraph, yes, we are complicit. You and I support this evil each time we purchase a chocolate product that is not labeled fair trade, free trade, slave-free or organic. Time to rethink my relationship with chocolate.

Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of children work the plantations, many of them as slaves, supply 70% of the world’s cocoa. (Certifying Blood Chocolate, June 25, 2010) Teen-age boys are sold into slavery by their impoverished parents. Others are lured by agents who scout for homeless children in Mali and then transport them to Cote d’Ivoire where they work in appalling conditions without the ability and resources to find their way home. (Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire)

Consumer outrage over this situation forced many chocolate producers, including giants in the industry, such as Nestle, Mars and Kraft, to sign the non-binding Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol in 2001, which commits the companies to eliminate “… the worst of child labor. The Protocol did not commit the industry to ending all child labor in cocoa production, only the worst forms of it … the protocol was criticized by some, criticism which seems to have been validated by the fact that industry still has not delivered on farm level certification against the worst forms of child labour”. (Cocoa Protocol — Wikipedia)

Chocolate has deep roots in Mexican culture, history and cuisine (Oaxaca al Gusto, by Diana Kennedy)

Other chocolate producers have signed on with the Rain Forest Alliance to ensure the entire cocoa supply is “sustainably produced”. Critics say that RA standards aren’t severe enough to change the industry, and instead offer its members a way to look good for consumers without significantly changing business practices. (Certifying Blood Chocolate)

Compliance seems spotty and mixed. And confusing. Do the labels “organic” and “fair trade” mean slave free? According to Caroline Tiger, writing for the online magazine Salon, there is, apparently, another option that is slavery-free. “Organic chocolate, sold by such U.S. companies as Newman’s Own and Dagoba, is also ‘slave free,’ since organic farms are subject to their own independent monitoring system that checks labor practices.” And from Stop Chocolate Slavery , “It has also been noted that, as of now, they don’t grow cocoa beans organically in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), which is where the vast majority of the reports about chocolate slavery have come from. Finally, according to Camille Littlejohn of Newman’s Own Organics, the limited supply of certified organic cocoa ensures that organic cocoa farmers receive a premium price. So, apparently, organic is also okay”.

After writing this, I eyed my chocolate stash with a wary eye. Hershey’s cocoa. Trader Joe’s bittersweet chocolate. My old standby, Mexican Ibarra chocolate. Surely the artisanal chocolate bars from B.T. McElrath Chocolatier in Minneapolis were untainted, but why was there no label on the packaging assuring the buyer of free trade, fair trade, organic, anything?

Back to the web pages, where I read that B.T. McElrath “support(s) sustainable agriculture by sourcing chocolate products with UTZ Certified Sustainability Program and socially responsible business practices.” So why not state “Free Trade” on the label?

UTZ is not without its critics. It requires its members to follow national laws regarding renumeration of employees. If a country, such as Cote d’Ivoire, has poor or non-existent laws regarding child labor and adult employment, but the laws, such as they are, are followed, UTZ is satisfied. (Wikipedia)

Hershey has an impressive web page devoted to explaining their social commitment. “Building on Milton Hershey’s legacy of commitment to consumers, community and children, we provide high-quality Hershey products while conducting our business in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.” Again, there is nothing on the cocoa can label to indicate free trade or their social responsibility. Perhaps it is because Hershey is not as committed as it claims to be. An article by John Robbins in the Huffington Report, dated as recently as September 2010, states “this carefully researched report pointed out that the Hershey company lags well behind its competitors in taking responsibility for the impact the company is having on the local communities from which it sources cocoa around the world … While Hershey’s primary competitors have at least taken steps to reduce or eliminate slavery and other forms of abusive child labor from their chocolate supply chains, Hershey has done almost nothing”. (Huffinton Report)

My 500-gram bar of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate, measuring almost 11″ by 5″, has all the room in the world to state something about its free trade commitment, if it has one. The package is happy to tell me the chocolate bars are “made exclusively for Trader Joe’s in a small town outside of Antwerp by confectionery artisans”, but nothing about their social commitment. Nothing about being slave free. Perhaps the S word is too dirty to mention, even in a positive context, if Trader Joe’s has anything positive to say.

It seems that if a company is taking the high road by certifying that all their chocolate is sourced from free trade growers, they would want to announce this fact. Is the absence of this information because their chocolate is not 100% fair trade, therefore the fair trade label is only on a few chocolate items, if any? Is an agreement with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol, which lacks any enforcement, enough to make them look good without really changing anything?

I would love to know that there is more up-to-date information, that the above mentioned companies — and the hundreds of other companies not discussed here — are now in 100% compliance with the Harkin-Engel Cocoa Protocol. I would love to be corrected by more current information. I want to be corrected and told that blood chocolate is a thing of the past. Sadly, I can’t find anything more current that disputes my conclusions. Bittersweet, indeed.

What You Can Do:

  • Be a responsible buyer. Check  for fair trade or organic labels.
  • Call or write the producer and ask tough questions. Demand slave free chocolate.
  • Boycott companies that have no commitment to slave free chocolate.
  • Sign a petition telling Hershey to shift toward Fair Trade certified cocoa
  • Spread the word.

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13 thoughts on “Chocolate, slavery and our collective guilt

  1. Wow what an interesting article and not a subject I had ever really considered before, I had no idea such a large proportion of our chocolate came from a small area of Africa. Its encouraging that here in the UK some of the most popular chocolate manufacturers now have some mainstream bars of choclate that are Fairtrade such as Cadburys Kitkat and Dairy Milk, also Green & Blacks which is organic seems to be on the rise in terms of popularity. I hope that Fairtrade means that factors such as good working conditions and child labour are considered as I know it also encompases environmental concerns, but I’ll certainly now be looking into this further! Thanks for sharing. Gemma

    1. Gemma, this is a subject that is not well known, considering how many people buy chocolate. But the word is getting out, pressure is being put on manufacturers, and slowly, but surely, more chocolate is being harvested with concern for the workers. Tell others about this to help further this progress.

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  4. Lorin Johnson

    Very good article. The chocolate selections here in Oregon have grown amazingly. New seasons has choices that can take a lot of time to go through. I would like to say that companies should be able to fit the information on their labels. I get some small dark chocolate rectangles maybe even a little smaller than a Hershey’s miniature that manage to say “EQUAL EXCHANGE fairly traded dark chocolate” on the front, “ORGANIC DARK CHOCOLATE” on the sides, 55%CACAO on the ends, and EQUAL EXCHANGE, Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth, Fair Trade Certified TM by TransFair USA, with two logo/symbols one for Equal Exchange and another for Fair Trade Certification. If all of that can fit on that tiny wrapper I think others could figure out how to do it if they were proud of what they were doing.

    1. I agree that if a chocolate company is operating with complete knowledge about the origin and type of labor used to harvest their cocao beans, they would want the buyer to know this information. The best we can do is communicate with those companies that do not state this information on the packaging that we consumers want fair trade chocolate.
      It sounds like your small chocolate pieces are as good as they come and that the producer is proud to tell their purchasers about their business ethics.

  5. Dear Kathleen, thank you for such a well-written and researched article that hits us where our mouth is — with a punch! I appreciate that you are raising awareness and consciousness about chocolate. I am now wondering about Oaxacan chocolate that I eat continuously in homemade cocoa and and mole negro. Chocolate is a staple of the Oaxacan diet. I know older traditional women who roast their own cacao beans, grind them, and make their own chocolate. I go to Mayordomo, Guelaguetza and other mole provisioners to buy freshly prepared mole. I wonder where that chocolate comes from? Than you for sharing your concern and providing this important perspective.

    1. Norma, I would like to think that their chocolate is Mexican grown, not African, but I don’t know for sure. This is an interesting question, but
      one I can not find an answer to on the internet. If you ever learn of the source of Oaxaca cocoa beans, please let me know. Cocoa is grown as far north as 20 degrees north of the equator. I have read that it grows in the wild in Chiapas (it is grown as far north as 20 degrees north of the equator), but I don’t know if it is enough to be harvested commercially.

      On another note, have you seen Diana Kennedy’s newest book, Oaxaca al Gusto? It is simply outstanding. It has an article devoted to chocolate use in Oaxaca, but gives no information as to the origin of cocoa beans ground by the mujeres of Oaxaca.

  6. Very interesting article. I try to do my best every time chosing fare trade choco but sometimes is not easy to find it or to have clear info.
    Anyway thank you for remember us!!

  7. An eye opener indeed, makes you wonder how many other things we ignore about the products we consume everyday. I like to think of myself as a responsible buyer, and thanks to you, I will make sure next time I buy chocolate, I can feel good about it. Thanks again and have a wonderful weekend back at home!

    1. A global market makes food decisions even harder. How can we easily know the particulars of products grown on the other side of the world? It is hard enough to make local decisions closer to home. But we must do our best and not accept ignorance as an excuse.

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