The bitter dark secret behind that sweet taste of chocolate

John Robbins is the only son of the American founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, and was groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he chose to walk away from the Baskin-Robbins fortune, as he explains “… to pursue the dream of a society that is truly healthy, practising a wise and compassionate stewardship of a balanced ecosystem.

Thbest-selling author of Healthy At 100, The Food Revolution, Diet For A New America, and many other books revisits everybody’s favourite guilty pleasure – the chocolate bar – in an online essay called Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate?

Most of us, he writes, rarely if ever contemplate the journey that brought all that delicious chocolate to our local store shelves. Nor do many of us know the very dark side of our chocolate consumption.  

But in the summer of 2001, the Knight Ridder newspaper chain in the U.S. ran a series of investigative articles by Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee that shocked John Robbins. He described what he read like this:

“In riveting detail, the series profiled young boys who were tricked into slavery or sold as slaves to Africa’s Ivory Coast cocoa farmers. An investigative report by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in 2000 had revealed the size of the crisis.

“According to the BBC, hundreds of thousands of African children from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo are being purchased from their parents for a pittance, or in some cases outright stolen, and then shipped to the Ivory Coast where they are sold as slaves to cocoa farms.

“Destitute parents in these poverty-stricken lands sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work once they arrive in Ivory Coast, and then send some of their earnings home. But that’s not what happens. These children, usually 12-to-14-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, are barely fed, are beaten regularly, and are often viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.”

The world’s major chocolate makers insist that they bear no responsibility for their child slavery problem, since they do not own the cocoa farms.

The $13 billion North American chocolate industry is heavily dominated by just two firms, Hershey’s and M&M Mars who control two-thirds of the market. Both of these companies admit to using large amounts of Ivory Coast cocoa.

Other companies whose chocolate is almost certainly tainted by child slavery include: ADM Cocoa, Ben & Jerry’s, Cadbury Ltd., Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, Fowler’s Chocolate, Godiva, Guittard Chocolate Company, Kraft, Nestlé, See’s Candies, The Chocolate Vault, and Toblerone.

Robbins reports that while most of these companies have issued condemnations of child slavery, and expressed moral outrage that slavery exists in their industry, each has acknowledged that they do indeed use Ivory Coast cocoa, and thus are unable to ensure consumers that their chocolate products are slavery-free.

Are there any chocolate companies out there who use cocoa that has not been produced with slave labour?

Happily, yes. Among this list are chocolate makers who are good global citizens – like our exquisite local organic Denman Island Chocolate.  Even if you don’t live here on the Pacific Coast of Canada, you can order online my three favourite dark chocolate bars: Zesty Orange, Espresso Chunk, or Holy Molé (made with spicy chipotlé).

The ‘slavery-free’ chocolate brands that Robbins recommends include Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Denman Island Chocolate, Gardners Candies, Green and Black’s, Kailua Candy Company, Koppers Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolates, Montezuma’s Chocolates, Newman’s Own Organics, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics, and The Endangered Species Chocolate Company.

John Robbins suggests that if you’d like to support only slave-free chocolates, remember that no organic cocoa beans are grown in the Ivory Coast, so organic chocolate is unlikely to be tainted by slavery.

Newman’s Own Organics, for example, is one of the largest of the slavery-free companies. The company’s cocoa beans come from Costa Rica where the farms are closely monitored.

Read the full article called Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate? on John Robbins’ website. Or watch this 3-minute video from Dutch activist Teun van de Keuken who compares knowingly buying slave chocolate to the crime of receiving stolen goods.

Q: Do you have a favourite brand of chocolate – and which list is it on?

7 thoughts on “The bitter dark secret behind that sweet taste of chocolate

  1. Interesting. So if we all decided just to purchase organic chocolate, we could bypass Ivory Coast cocoa beans. The list of non-child slavery chocolate is helpful. Will try the mail order service from Denman Island Chocolate – cool website.

  2. THANK YOU for this. I was kind of leary at first about reading this article based on your title (“oh no yet another thing I love that’s bad for me, for the environment, for human rights!”) but I’m glad to see this list of organic chocolate makers. I like to support smaller business anyway instead of Nestle, Hershy, etc. and I urge all your readers to do the same, if enough of us did, Big Corporate Chocolate would get the message.

  3. Thanks for this. Newman’s Own organic chocolate is not available in my area but I was able to order some of the Denman Island organic chocolate thru their website (thanks for that link, what a deliciously addictive treat that is!) We can have our treats and still not feel too guilty.

  4. Organic Commodities Project has been out of business for years. There are thankfully not hundreds of thousands of child slaves. That number refers to kids working in ag in W. Africa more broadly, still an unfortunate number. Read the actual report. Also, there’s no guarantee that organic farmers get fair prices or use good labor practices. Organic governs chemical/biological aspects of farming and processing, not prices or labor practices. It’s not correct to state that Ivory Coast is wholly tainted w/ bad labor practices or that other cocoa origins are wholly good. There are Fair Trade co-ops in Ivory Coast now, and the majority of farmers use good labor practices. Kids work on farms across Asia, Africa and the Americas. Ask your favorite brands more practices. Get informed responsibly.

    • Thanks for this, Chris. Based on your comments, I’m assuming that you work for the industry.

      But just two years ago,the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University published an “assessment of child labor in the cocoa supply chain” that found “forced or involuntary child labor” to be “widespread in Ivory Coast”. Read the report.

      And in September, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a multi-million dollar grant for “renewed efforts to end the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa industry of Ivory Coast and Ghana”, following up on the Department’s report, ‘Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor’.

  5. Carolyn, thanks for this (and–oh, snap!–after reading your reply, above, I’ll forever think of you when I see the phrase, “Read the report.”). I particularly appreciate seeing links to alternatives to child-labor produced cocoa, and additional research on the industry’s use of child labor.

    A challenge for many of us is learning the source of store-branded goods. I’m thinking, for example, of Trader Joe’s, now one of the biggest retailers in the US. Given the low price on the (very tasty) product, I’d be surprised if it *didn’t* come from the Ivory Coast/Ghana. I’ll come back and post when I find out.

    Keep kicking butt,

    • Thanks so much, Angela. Coincidentally, I was just having a slightly similar chat today with a casual acquaintance. She was raving about a new skirt she’d just bought at Costco for $9. The more I listened to her going on and on, the more I wanted to smack her upside the head and ask her how she knew that some 9-year old child slave in an Asian sweatshop hadn’t made this fantastic bargain for her? We can figure out the math and assume that a garment this cheap didn’t come from a pleasant air-conditioned factory with good wages and workplace safety policies. Of course, we can’t always make assumptions that expensive designer labels aren’t manufactured in the same sweatshops too. Aarrrrgggh…

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