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The Bittersweet Truth About Chocolate

About 70% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa, and much of that cocoa is produced using slave labor, in particular child slave labor. All the major chocolate companies are complicit in this practice - many of them unsure exactly where their cocoa comes from. And, sadly, this isn't a new story.

Since cocoa began to be majorly produced, companies (and countries) took advantage of the poverty and turmoil in Africa and used a variety of different levels (and ages) of slave labor to produce this fruit that we crave so much. In 2001 US Congress raised alarm bells and CEOs from the major chocolate brands signed pledges to eradicate child labor in cocoa production. The opposite has happened. When that pledge was signed, around 20 to 30% of the labor force in West Africa were under 19, now to nearly 70%, which equates to 1.5 - 2 million children.

There are complex reasons for this - cocoa is not an easy crop to produce. It needs very specific conditions and only grows in a 'belt' around the globe - 20º (north or south) of the equator. In addition to that very specific placement, it needs loose soil, consistent rainfall, and an abundance of humidity. All these conditions are difficult to find, and they also correspond with some key tropical areas that are ripe for deforestation for other hot-commodity plants (palm oil, bananas). And despite all these very specific needs, the commodity price for cocoa is very low given the demand. Cocoa takes a lot of processing - the first stage of processing happens at the cocoa farm, or a co-op, where the fruit is dissected, beans are dried, and fermented and then sent on. Some beans go direct to small chocolate makers, but many go to huge processing plants where cocoa butter is removed and chocolate is turned into everything from tempered chocolate to powder. Cocoa farmers in West Africa get paid about $1/day (some places, less - $200/year is not an abnormal income). Finally, generalized poverty throughout Africa has led to predatory practices. Many of the children laboring did not get captured or kidnapped - they came on their own freewill with the promise of education and food (from households where food would be an issue, and education nonexistent) agreeing to work in exchange only for food and schooling. It should come as no surprise that schooling is never offered, and food is sparse. And they have no way to escape or return to their families. The days are long - working before sun up and into the dark of the evening. Their only equipment are machetes. There's no way to measure the rate of injury, but interviews with these children speak of constant body aches and pains that one shouldn't expect until mid-life., not when one is 15.

The bad news is since this is occurring in Africa, the US Government (and Supreme Court) have basically said their hands are tied with these practices. If it were occurring on US soil, it'd be different. As is, all they're willing to do is request performative pledges like the one signed in 2001. But there's good news. Firstly, more people are becoming aware of these practices. Secondly, we've never had more choice in the world of chocolate. Craft chocolate makers have been around for a while, including many home chocolate makers, but it's really been the last ten years that there's been a boom in specialty chocolate making. And the majority (but not all) of these craft chocolate makers have gotten involved on an ethical level. Many are working directly with farmers and cutting out middle men who take advantage of the system. They make sure they're paying living wages, which sometimes means paying $13/lb for beans instead of $1.50. There's even been some companies that have built facilities near the cocoa farms themselves to hire locals and increase jobs in the area while they produce chocolate.

And what's really cool about this? Not only is craft chocolate so much better than the big companies chocolates (we offer you take this challenge, try a standard chocolate bar next to a craft chocolate bar and you'll find the regular old chocolate bar that might have an "H" stamped on it somewhere doesn't even taste like chocolate - mostly because it's not, it's made of reconstituted coco powder and bunch of fillers), but it's created this really fun opportunity for laypeople to learn about cocoa - to taste chocolate made from different cocoa bean varieties, to taste chocolate made from different terroirs or from different farmers. It's a lot like wine. There's even some craft makers experimenting with fermentation techniques, roasting (or steaming), and aging (including barrel aging from wine or whiskey barrels).

We slowly got into chocolate selling. Don't be mistaken - we love chocolate. But chocolate & wine is one of those things that is kind of a myth. Wine people tend to roll their eyes (inwardly) when people rave about a chocolate and wine pairing. The reason is that it mostly doesn't work. Usually the wine tastes sour and chocolate might taste good - but not as good as chocolate and coffee, or tea, or milk. None of us are really sure of the reason (well, probably a Food Scientist is), but I like to think that they're too similar. Kind of like close in age siblings that can never get along. So we shrugged off most requests from chocolate makers and distributors because why sell a food product that doesn't really go with our wine?

But we were slowly won over by samples that tasted too good, and chocolate companies/makers that were too cool to not feature. We also started to geek-out over all these new techniques and farm designations (have I mentioned it's like wine?) Now we have a huge wall of chocolate. All of the chocolate we feature is at the very least Rainforest Certified and at best tell us the name of the farmers they're working with. Many of our chocolate bars come with harvest dates (like vintage dates), location and farm information. And - we keep up with it. I've made the call to remove some chocolate (including chocolate that sold really well) from our line up because I wasn't sure of the ethical sourcing. It's become a passion (luckily, a pretty tasty one!).

If you're curious what you can do to help - here are some ideas:

  1. Don't buy from the big guys (easier said than done, i realize - especially if you have kids, or. you know, love things like a particular hazelnut chocolate spread - but consider limiting how much of your hard earned dollars is going towards these treats)

  2. Pay attention to what you are buying that has chocolate in it - ice creams, cookies, cakes, truffles - things massed produced, or hand made. Can you find a better alternative? Can you cut back? Can you ask the local who's making these products where their chocolate is from?

  3. Buy from craft chocolate makers - especially ones that list farms/farming information or that are promoting being ethical.

  4. Expect to pay more for chocolate. We have bars that are $15 - just regular size bar of chocolate. These prices sometimes produce sticker shock from people (but shouldn't, as we know there are $100 bars out there). But it's truly like buying a bottle of wine - chocolate should be more expensive than it is. It's a lot to produce a single pound of chocolate beans and a $1.50/lb for commodity pricing is not enough. One of our $15 bars is from wild cocoa beans in the Amazon - the chocolate maker pays good wages for the native community to locate and harvest wild cocoa in the Amazon river basin. This takes time as it's not a farm, and the cocoa plants are wild, in the jungle. She's noticed a distinct difference in the cocoa from different parts of the Amazon, and she'll produce bars from the various regions. This is all done in Brazil, then sent to the US where a distributor imports it (and pays fees) and then we get it and sell it - it's totally worth $15.

  5. Be wary of labels like 'Belgium chocolate', 'Swiss chocolate' or 'fair trade'. The first two have to do with where the chocolate is made and have zero to do with ethical practices. Most of these chocolates are NOT ethical. And there's no set definition of 'fair trade' - there are many different organizations set up to make people feel better. This doesn't mean that all 'fair trade' labels on chocolate are bad. It just means that if that's the only sign it might be okay - worth doing a bit of extra research (some companies with 'fair trade' on their products truly are advocating for best practices, but there's a lot taking advantage of this as a marketing tool)

  6. This is the big one: Write the big companies or your congress people. It's great to buy craft chocolate and fine to be wary- but let's face it, even if there are small chocolate producers making chocolate from unethical sources - it's not these small companies that will make a difference. It's the big guys. They control the chocolate market, they control the industry, and most are US-based. And they make a ton of money (ones of these families is worth $94 billion). Rather than forcing the signing of a pledge, US congress could come up with some labeling guidelines (like 'made from slave labor', 'unethically sourced') - or maybe an import fee on non-ethically sourced food products - things that would make a difference, not just the 'shame on you' head shaking that has been occurring for over 20 years.


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