The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

It's almost Halloween. My kids are already shaking with anticipation of the crazy costumes, the parties, and most importantly, the avalanche of candy to come, but for me, the thrill is gone. Last week I stumbled upon a short news item that opened my eyes to the human cost of all that chocolate in their trick-or-treat bags -- and we're not talking cavities.

I'd never thought deeply about chocolate before (beyond its deliciousness, of course) but I've learned that the majority of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa. Harvesting the beans that eventually become the chocolate in your Hershey's Kiss is a labor-intensive process, and the bulk of this hands-on work is done by children, some as young as five years old. Some of these kids come from cocoa-farming families in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and forgo school to help their parents in the fields. Tens of thousands more are child trafficking victims from neighboring African countries like Mali, who are separated from their families and communities and forced to work in the cocoa fields for little or no pay. There is no polite way to put this; these children are chocolate slaves.

The plight of these children has been on the international radar for the past ten years (though somehow I never heard about it until now.) In 2001, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and the World Cocoa Foundation voluntarily signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, sponsored by US Sen. Tom Harkin and US Rep. Eliot Engel. The Protocol represented a commitment by the chocolate industry to develop and implement industry-wide standards of public certification that cocoa beans have been grown and processed without relying on enslaved child labor. In 2005, the US Department of Labor hired the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University to monitor progress on this initiative. Tulane's most recent report, published September 30, describes some progress but also lists major impediments to improving industry conditions. For example, the Ivory Coast erupted in civil war shortly after signing the protocol; monitoring child labor practices has simply not been the top priority for a nation in post-war recovery. Corporations have also been slow to change. Hershey, America's leading chocolate brand, still doesn't have a system in place to ensure good labor practices in West Africa, and the company refuses to reveal its cocoa suppliers in the region.

Learning the truth about chocolate production is shocking and sad, but there's a lot that concerned consumers can do, especially we parents who find ourselves reluctantly thrust into the role of frequent candy purchasers, particularly at this time of year:

Buy Fair Trade and/or organic chocolate -- Products certified as Fair Trade have met strict criteria for ethical labor practices as well as other environmental, social and economic measures. According to the website Stop Chocolate Slavery, created by a student at UCSD, organic chocolate is also "slave free," since the process of organic certification includes a review of labor practices. You can find a list of guilt-free chocolate brands here.

Join the campaign to encourage Hershey to ensure that children are not harmed in the production of its products -- A coalition of groups, including Green America and Global Exchange, is working to urge America's favorite chocolate brand to be a leader in corporate responsibility. A simple phone call to the company will help.

Most importantly, if the truth about chocolate concerns you, as it does me, tell others. In a world full of problems, this is one that can actually be solved.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Enter your email here to sign up for our weekly recap, the Mama Memo.
Related Posts with Thumbnails