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Blood chocolate (chocolate as a crime)

At a time when labels are everywhere- “dolphin-free”, “shade-grown”, “free range”, “grassfed”-, the world’s biggest chocolate makers are still unable to guarantee a label that should be self-evident.

Forget- for a moment- fairtrade, labor conditions in the chocolate industry are so bad that simply assuring products are “slave free” is too much to ask of the world’s biggest chocolate makers.

In fact, most of our chocolate is potentially tainted: 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from the West African nations of Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, where forced child labor is common on cacao farms. A 2002 report found 284,000 children working in dangerous conditions, the majority under 14 years old, nearly 6,000 of whom were unpaid.

Cocoa protocol

In 2001 the US Congress got involved and passed legislation to guarantee- and label- chocolate and cocoa products as “slave free”, but before the Senate was given a chance to vote the chocolate lobby stepped in.

Arguing that they had no control over the cocoa farms, the chocolate companies drafted a compromise agreement- the Cocoa Protocol (or the Harkin-Engel Protocol)- which was a voluntary protocol to end forced child labor by 2005. They failed to meet this deadline and were given until 2008.

But as the new deadline approaches, the BBC has reported that children are still being “exploited” and now even the initiator of the Cocoa Protocol- US Congressman Eliot Engel- is getting tired of waiting. “The deadline came and went and we were very unhappy. They now need to live up to that agreement. If they don’t, personally I would be for implementing some sanctions, because I think six years is enough.”

Eating chocolate as a crime

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam in 2004, tv reporter Teun “Tony” van de Keuken was haunted by the idea that 139 years after the abolition of slavery chocolate companies still couldn’t guarantee slave-free products. So he attempted to prosecute himself in the Dutch courts for knowingly eating a product made with slave labor.

After eating 19 bars, he called the police and turned himself in. They laughed and hung up. He hired a lawyer to help him on the grounds that Dutch law gives 4 years prison to anyone who buys something obtained by means of a criminal offence.

“Whoever receives goods…while knowing at the time he receives them or when they are made available to him…that it concerns unlawfully obtained goods is guilty of wilfully receiving…unlawfully obtained goods and shall be punished by a term in prison of maximum four years or a Category Five fine.”

His case was thrown out in lower courts, but when he took it to the Supreme Court the judge ruled there are “justifiable grounds” to believe that serious crimes are being committed in the Ivory Coast, though they said the lower court didn’t need to prosecute van de Keuken.

The world’s first “slave-free” labeled chocolate bar

As an important moment for chocolate- July 2005- approached, Tony felt obliged to take further action. This was the deadline for the Cocoa Protocol- when chocolate producers had pledged to deliver slave-free chocolate.

It was also the month of the release of the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Nestlé was making chocolate bars for a contest similar to that of the film. Tony challenged the chocolate giant to make those bars slave-free. According to his website, “Nestlé didn’t like the idea” so Tony set up shop himself to prove the label was achievable.

He produced an initial 5000 bars with cocoa from a collective in Ghana. The first batch of Tony’s Chocolonely slave-free bars sold out on their first day in stores (November 29, 2005).

Fairtrade as “traffik-free” chocolate

Tony is not alone in calling attention to 2007 as a moment to wake up consumers to the reality of slavery in this century. “During 2007 we have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, yet the UK chocolate industry still cannot guarantee that our chocolate is ‘Traffik-free’. Currently, the only chocolate that we know has not used forced labour (including children as young as 12 years old) in its production is that displaying the FAIRTRADE Mark.”

Fairtrade chocolate is free of human rights abuses by definition so Tony’s move into chocolate production may have been more of a publicity stunt, but the industry is in desperate need of such tactics.

According to Global Exchange, Nestlé sources a third of their chocolate from West Africa, and despite the widespread acknowledgement of child slavery there, they claim “the Fair Trade approach is not a solution“. Global Exchange points out that this is just another anti-child move for a company that has continued to support- despite 20 years of consumer pressure- an “aggressive and irresponsible promotion of infant formula – a policy that has cost the lives of over 1.5 million infants around the world“.

Nestlé admits slavery exists

Tony has continued to target Nestlé. In the trailer for his upcoming documentary Tony and the Chocolate Factory, he catches a Nestlé spokesperson in a Michael Moore moment.

Nestlé spokesperson: Let’s face it slavery exists.

Tony: Oh yeah.

Nestlé: Clearly.

Tony: Because?

Nestlé: Because they are so desperately poor.

Tony: Because they don’t get paid enough by Nestle or the companies they work for?

Nestlé: Alright that’s enough, goodbye.

Evidence against Nestlé

Tony is not alone in targeting Nestlé. In 2004, action groups including the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) sued Nestlé’s U.S. subsidiary (along with commodities traders ADM and Cargill) for failing to “to enforce laws protecting U.S. consumers from goods made by forced child labor”.

The ILRF says they targeted Nestlé because they have evidence that at least one of their suppliers used forced child labor. Nestlé argues that they aren’t the “owner of any plantation” and that the Ivory Coast is experiencing “basically a civil war situation” where “there might be a lot of other human rights abuses than just the ones that have been picked up.”

When- in 2005- the wider chocolate industry failed to vindicate themselves by complying with the Cocoa Protocol deadline, the ILRF’s Bama Athreya charged that the entire chocolate industry “clearly believes that enslaving children is an acceptable cost of business in order to continue to reap enormous profits… If companies were serious about eliminating child labor from their supply chain, they would not be going to this unusual length to ensure non-enforcement of the law.”

Cocoa is priced wrong

This charge has been leveled at big chocolate makers before. In 2001, the then Ivory Coast prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan made the same argument, accusing chocolate multinationals of keeping prices low and farmers in poverty and even driving some to use forced labor.

N’Guessan calculated at the time that the market was so out of touch with a fair price that by just eliminating child labor, chocolate companies would have to pay 10 times more for their cocoa.

The price of pods per bar

As consumers, it’s doubtful that most of us have any idea what is a fair price. Recently, while researching for an interview with Dagoba chocolate founder Frederick Schilling, I was surprised to learn just how much labor goes into one bar of chocolate.

Take my bar of choice- a 100 gram dark chocolate, 70% cacao. For a 100 gram bar, 80 or 85 beans are used- that’s about one and a half cacao fruit, or pods. Pods have to be harvested by hand since the trees are very delicate. Workers use machetes and long-handled knives to carefully extract the pods without damaging the remaining leaves and stems that will produce again.

Schilling showed me a pod and they’re bigger than I would have thought- about the size of a football. Yet every time I eat one of my dark chocolate bars I munch through one and a half of those.

According to Transfair USA, for a typical American chocolate bar (30g, 10% cacao), farmers see about one cent. Since there is more cacao in my dark chocolate, they might see a bit more of the profit, but it is still pennies. Annual salaries for cacao farmers are often only $30 to $100 per year.

The table wine of chocolate

It’s easy to just blame the multinationals for not paying enough for the raw produce (or middlemen for taking too big a cut), but we as consumers are also not choosing to buy the current “slave-free” chocolate option: fairtrade chocolate represents less than 1% of the 60 billion in worldwide chocolate sales.

Part of this is lack of awareness about the problem, but when you’re used to buying a 60 cent Hershey’s bar, it can be quite a leap to a $3 fairtrade bar (4 Divine or Equal Exchange bars for $12 or Dagoba’s Fairtrade bar for 3$).

It may seem a leap, but much of the time it’s a bit like the leap from a table wine to a sought-after single-estate reserve. And in chocolate, the 60 cent Hershey’s bar- or any other cheap bar- is the table wine of chocolate.

Single origin chocolate

A cheap bar is not just inexpensive because there is only 11% cacao content (meaning there is more sugar and less chocolate than darker chocolate bars of 50, 70, even 99%), but because they contain cheaper ingredients, like vanillin for artificial flavoring, and beans without a declared origin.

Now, take a fairtrade bar like that of Equal Exchange. It contains real vanilla for flavoring (organic as well) and all their beans come from two cooperatives: Conacado (the Dominican Republic) and Cacvra (Peru).

Or take Dagoba’s Fair Trade Certified Conocado bar; the description reads like a fine wine: “Single origin Dominican, Fair Trade Certified. Named after the Conacado Cooperative, the sole source of the beans and leaders in sustainable cacao farming. This is earthier than our New Moon 74% bar, exposing the terroir, or regional flavor, of the bean.”

Dagoba founder Frederick Schilling showed me the dozens of bean samples in his office from individual farms and with labels like “2006 harvest” and “sun-dried”. Like an experienced vintner with his grapes, he knew the farmers and flavors behind every bean.

Schilling is not some unique artisanal craftsman selling only to a select crowd. Last year he was bought by America’s biggest chocolate maker, Hershey’s, who have been trying to make inroads into the growing market for premium chocolate (Since 2001, the premium market has grown at 20% per year, while the conventional chocolate market has risen just 3.9%.).

Fair organics and an accidental Fairtrade mark

In the UK, the growing demand for organics has added to the popularity of fairer chocolate (organic certification guarantees a certain basic level of labor rights). The organic chocolate company Green & Blacks- the manufacturers of the UK’s first fairtrade chocolate bar- had 5.1% of the British block chocolate market in 2005 when it was bought by multinational Cadbury Schweppes.

For Green & Blacks’ founder Craig Sams- like Dagoba’s Schilling- fairtrade certification isn’t paramount, though paying fair wages are. It’s all part of their larger philosophy of knowing, and caring for, their suppliers. For Sams and his wife, they never went looking for Fairtrade certification, but simply “agreed to pay the farmers a fair price for their crops… this way of doing business didn’t seem different to them – it was what came naturally but it subsequently earned them the UK’s first Fairtrade mark.”

On the Green & Blacks site, they give credit to the important role of their farmers, who cover the beans after harvest “with banana leaves for around five days” during which time “the beans ferment and develop their pronounced chocolate flavour. After they are perfectly fermented, they are laid out to dry in the sun. If all this attention to detail is starting to sound again like the making of a fine wine, the analogy doesn’t end in the fields.

Instead of adding a cheap emulsifier to their cocoa paste, like the soya lecithin found in any cheap bar (it’s what gives them that waxy texture)-, those at Green & Blacks “conch”, or stir, their cocoa mass for “18 hours to reveal the intense flavour unique to [their] chocolate”. As a result, their bars shouldn’t have any “shine”: that white, cloudiness you can find in chocolate when the cocoa butter has separated from the rest of the ingredients. They also claim their bars have good “snap”: the sound of quality chocolate breaking.

Why conching could help fairtrade

I bring all this up about conching and shine and single origin and terroir because even with knowledge of the dark side of chocolate (no pun intended), I think in order for some of us to make that leap from cheap chocolate to a more ethical- and more expensive- bar, we’ll need this education.

In the same way that the growth in fairtrade coffee in the US coincided with the success of premium coffee- that leap from a standard cheap American brew to a $3 cup of Starbucks bridged the pricing gap between cheap brew and fairtrade- as we grow accustomed to the value in premium chocolate, perhaps we’ll find it easier to spend a bit more for more sustainable chocolate- whether fairtrade, organic or the renegade ethical brands like Tony’s Chocolonely.

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, after all, there are some hardened cynics who don’t think slave-free chocolate is even possible. One chocolate importer was so adamantly opposed to the idea of Tony’s Chocolonely label that they sued Tony (as well as, the factory and the tv production company) claiming that the “slave free” label was unfair, damaging to the reputation of their product and impossible to guarantee.

This February, Tony won the case. It appears slave-free chocolate is possible in 2007.