There are still a few chocolate bunnies hanging on in the kitchen. Ever since an unfortunate childhood experience involving what appeared to be a chocolate Easter bunny but was in fact a bunny-shaped piece of chalk, I’ve been a bit wary of the treat. That doesn’t mean I think chocolate is anything less than the “food of the gods,” which is the translation of its genus name, Theobroma. I’ve just always had a bit of a chalky feeling in my mouth at the sight of Cadbury eggs and Lindt bunnies. But you don’t have to bite into a bunny chock full of chalk to get a bad taste in your mouth about the chocolate industry.
In a globalized economy, treats consumed purely for pleasure can still bring great suffering in other parts of the world. Before delving into chocolate’s dark secrets, it’s useful to start with a little history.
Cacao has been an important food ingredient in Mesoamerica for several millennia. If you took out the milk and sugar from Coupa Café’s Spicy Maya hot chocolate, it might not be all that different from the Aztec drink xocolatl, which is a spicy concoction of cacao, vanilla, chile powder and achiote. Milk and sugar did not become part and parcel to “chocolate” until Europeans decided to market this New World drink in their own realm. But unlike the Mayan drink, chocolate in Western cultures has almost always been reserved for sweets and desserts. It’s never been a daily staple.
Despite chocolate’s dispensability as a foodstuff, our love of this product has led to a history of exploitation to increase production. Once the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, chocolate exportation to Europe began in bulk. As demand grew for the newly sweetened cacao plant, the Spaniards began enslaving Mesoamericans to ensure adequate supply. Sadly, slavery still exists on cacao plantations.
Currently, two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa. In recent years, human rights activists and journalists from CNN and the BBC have exposed cases of child labor, human trafficking and slavery on cacao farms. Yet Nestle, Mars and Hershey’s — huge players in the chocolate industry — continue to source their cocoa from Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
More than 10 years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) tried to pass a law mandating the use of a labeling system for chocolate. Following heavy lobbying by the billion-dollar chocolate industry, this law was reduced to a voluntary protocol whereby industry leaders would voluntarily certify that their chocolate was free of child labor. Despite three deadline extensions for the establishment of an auditing system, these provisions have not been met. A study from Tulane University suggests industry leaders have failed to contact 97 percent of Ivory Coast farmers to even begin a dialogue about child labor, much less end trafficking and establish promised poverty remediation programs.
So, are independent certification programs an answer to the chocolate industry’s failed promises? Sadly, even Fair Trade Certified farms in West Africa have been found using child labor as recently as 2010. This certification program and others like it, including Rainforest Alliance, continue to source their cocoa from West Africa.
The Food Empowerment Project, a nonprofit organization based out of San Jose, urges consumers to purchase fair-trade chocolate made from Latin American cocoa. Their website has a list of suppliers, such as Equal Exchange, Sunridge Farms, Theo Chocolate and Vivani, who source only from Latin American countries. Favorites like Trader Joe’s, Lindt and Ritter still source from West Africa. Clif Bar owners refused to even offer transparency about a country of origin. While it is impossible to guarantee that cocoa from Latin American farms is free of child labor, this list is a step in the right direction. Luckily, many houses on the Row source from Sunridge Farms, and Stanford Catering uses TCHO chocolate, which is actively working to improve its sourcing chain.
It’s time for my inner chocoholic to realize that, contrary to popular belief, chocolate is not a category on the new USDA food pyramid. It is fundamentally a luxury good. And if we realized the suffering caused by our consumption of this luxury, we would understand that it is worth spending a few dollars more for a slave-free product.
Farmworkers are mistreated on many farms — not just cocoa plantations — but this is one area in which we can achieve a definite change through our purchasing decisions. We cannot continue to support a corporate system that views child labor and slavery as the norm.
Curious about becoming a conscientious chocoholic? Let Jenny know at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.