Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chocolate's Dark, Dirty Secret: No, It's Not Nougat

To the utter astonishment of friends and relatives, Jim and I quit chocolate cold turkey in 2001. We were chocoholics of the first degree. When I cleaned out the kitchen for all our chocolate we found over 14 pounds- not counting things containing cocoa.

At first I thought I would lose my mind. One night someone walked past me in a Circuit City smelling of Butterfinger bar and my consuming envy made me want to tackle them and bounce their head off the floor a few dozen times. I'm not a violent person, so this bizarre desire definitely meant I had momentarily relocated to downtown, central Crazy.
Chocolate was to me comfort, reward, and love. My beloved grandmother used to keep chocolate bars stashed for the grandkids, so it's hard not to associate a Nestle Crunch with the pure joy of visiting grandma. My grandma loved kids, all kids- so much that she dedicated her life to schools and orphanages in Africa. I'm sure she had similar treats for the kids there.

As a result of my grandparents' work, I always had a heightened sense of Africa. My mom never said "Eat your dinner, there are starving children in Africa." Instead I overheard conversations about war, coups, government closure of schools and orphanages, poverty, famine, police that show up in the middle of the night, imprisonment, execution, and families that had become kin to ours fleeing their nation through dangerous means both legal and illegal. I have always felt thankful not to have been born there, and I deeply respected my grandparents' courage to work in such a dangerous place.

So... when I found out that virtually every American chocolate bar is tainted with child slavery (enacted in Africa), I didn't want to believe it. Knight-Ridder had a series of articles outing the use of child slaves to harvest cocoa and coffee beans* in the Ivory Cost and Mali. It's fallen off most of the news site because it's age (2001), but it's been reprinted here.

After a few months of research, the evidence mounted- and it became apparent that the American chocolate industry was not interested in reform. Bob Dole was hired as a lobbyist for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association as they quashed Congressional energies to mandate slavery-free labeling. Instead of agreeing to voluntary labeling, they offered a alternate plan in which they would monitor cocoa farms and work for reform. Their compromise, the Harkin-Engel protocol was accepted and immediately forgotten. To date, the chocolate industry has not even attempted to meet their own plan. They don't really care about anything beyond their bottom line and big chocolate is banking that the American consumers won't care about the lives of foreign children either.

So Jim and I quit eating chocolate. Honestly, even something so delicious starts to taste like fetid poo when it's produced by companies willingly complicit in child slavery. It seemed to me like every chocolate bar I bought undid my grandparents' efforts to help children in Africa.

On the whole, our friends and family didn't respond well to this decision. Some mocked us for caring too much, others went out of their way to find chocolate industry PR to reassure us, and one close family member broke my heart by saying "Well, what else would those kids do? It probably keeps them out of trouble."

So, we turned our boycott into something secret. Just an "I don't eat chocolate" response. I was tired of arguing with everyone and hearing things that disappointed me. People would ask why and Jim and I started giving dodgy answers. I clearly lack my grandparents' courage.

A recent article in Melbourne's The Age newspaper on chocolate slavery nudged my sheepish social consciousness. Jim sent me links surrounding Tony's Chocolonley (a Dutch man who turned himself in to the police for knowingly buying goods obtained through a crime).

Now I won't ask you to stop eating chocolate on my word alone please Google "chocolate slavery BBC" for a reputable international source.

I am asking that everyone at least bypass gift chocolates this holiday season. Do you really want to feed you children the product of child exploitation? Fair-trade certified chocolate is okay, but everything else- according to the Salvation Army's anti-slavery unit probably contains beans harvested by slaves (thanks to the workings of the commodities market).

Sorry about the soapbox, but I really needed to say something about this issue that's been buried or misrepresented in the American media. I'm just having trouble believing that I live in a country where people are willing to have children suffer and even die for cheap luxury goods.

If you're considering boycotting gift chocolates, we'd love to hear about it...

*We don't drink coffee.

***This post is the independent, unsolicited opinion of Baby Toolkit. Photo: Baby Toolkit, (c) 2007. All rights reserved.


Windy said... Divine Chocolate. Lutheran Fair trade chocolate for those "hungry to change the world." This is sold every week at my church, along with fair trade coffee.

adrienne said...

Thanks Windy!

Here's a clickable link for Divine Chocolate.

MrsStrand said...

Thanks for posting this hard-to-swallow article. I had no idea...

And being a lifelong Lutheran and Lutheran pastor's wife, I can't believe I've never heard of Lutheran World Relief's fair trade chocolate or coffee! I think I just found soapbox to climb on at my church...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for helping to get the word out about this. I'm a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, one of those few companies offering Fair Trade Certified cocoa and chocolate and its been really hard to get the media to pay any attention to this problem, and the Fair Trade alternative.
So I guess its going to have be folks like yourself who spread the message.
Besides Divine, and Equal Exchange, the other 100% Fair Trade cocoa/chocolate brands that people can look for are:
Sweet Earth Organics
Art Bar
Cocoa Camino (in Canada)

Lastly, for folks interested in reprinting an article that summarizes the cocoa/child labor problem (say in their blog or church or other organizational newsletter) we've posted an article for this purpose at:

Anonymous said...

A clickable linked to the Equal Exchange article on child labor in the cocoa industry.

ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

Okay, this is soooooo sad. I love chocolate. I can totally relate to your smell-Butterfinger-want-to-jump-on-the-person experience. But I have never heard of this problem - thank you for bringing it to my attention. At least I live in LA, so it's not like I will have trouble finding fair-trade chocolate.

I will go a step further. My sons' daycare sells See's Candies every Passover/Easter and Hanukkah/Christmas season to raise money. I will ask that we switch to a different type of fund raiser - we have had many ideas in the past, I'm sure we can find one that will work for us. The See's flyer has already gone out for this season but I'm definitely going to be asking the board to switch in the spring.

Kim Moldofsky said...

I haven't even read the entire post yet because, chocoholic that I am, it looks really upsetting.

My synagogue hosted a Fair Trade Gift Fair last weekend and there was a display for Divine Chocolates...they even make the traditional gold coin Chanuka gelt. I bought some. They were much pricier than the typical gelt, but much tastier, too.

Anonymous said...

I saw that Chief Family Officer posted about switching to fair trade chocolate and linked back here.

Unknown said...

I've been eating fair trade chocolate for some time, just thinking it was the right thing to do. I had no idea things were so bad. Thanks for this informative post (too bad it came after Halloween!)

Jeremiah McNichols said...

Thank you for posting about this. You have given all of us something to think about.

Anonymous said...

Hello, my name is Kana, who is currently working as an intern at International Labor Rights Forum.
We are also working for child labor issues in cocoa industry in West Africa, so please check out our website, too.
Let's spread the world!

Mags said...

How about non-American made chocolate? Same issues there?

mod*mom said...

i read this months ago + really appreciate your spreading this information. i'm finally posting about this on my blog, because i have a fair trade organic chocolate sponsor to get the attention of my readers so i can tell them about fair trade vs. slave trade too. i'm linking your post :)
be my valentine + enter my valentine giveaway for $250 of fair trade chocolates
btw i don't drink coffee or eat chocolates since chemo last year.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for revealing this to me and my family...I recently quit chocolate for health reasons and this furthers my determination to keep away from it. (my health has greatly improved I am alot stronger and hardly ever get sick!) I had no idea that this was happening and it is incredibly sad and a shamefull pity that hardly anyone knows about this!

Anonymous said...

Well done on quitting! My friends and I quit about a year ago, some people gave us hell, we are pround of who we are and what we do!

Nam P said...

Its great to stand by your ideals. After reading this article, I m quitting chocolate for 10 years at least, may be even for life. I m also vegetarian and my heart shudders at the pain of killing an animal for taste, who may be someones mother, father, child. I am appalled by the selfishness i see but will do my part and let my heart guide my actions instead of ignoring that inner voice that tells right from wrong. I can be classified as human.