First published in Franklin Journal

Valentine’s Day is straight ahead. Valentine’s Day has never been on my top ten list of holidays, indeed, even less so as the years have passed. I’m one who enjoys expressions of love every day. I don’t need a particular day to take notice. The idea is nice, however and typically celebrated with chocolate. As I drink my Double Chocolate java this morning and eye the award winning chocolate chip cookies I baked and left out to cool last night, chocolate is foremost on my mind.

Most everyone I know loves chocolate in one form or another. The very word conveys sensuality and pleasure. Visions of truffles, chocolate dipped strawberries, chocolate bars, and more spin crazily in my head. I’m one of the “most”. I’m also one that has a love-hate relationship with chocolate. I’m particular enough about the flavor that I will forgo eating chocolate that I know to not provide a satisfying, taste experience. Overall, chocolate tasted better in earlier years. There are exceptions, but mostly commercial chocolate commonly has a long list of added ingredients, one of which is soy lecithin. Soy lecithin is a cheap emulsifier in the majority of chocolates today and as I have to avoid soy, that narrows my options for chocolate sourcing even further.

Chocolate has an interesting history. Cocoa, as found by Cortez when encountering the Aztecs, was once used as coinage.  Instead of Montezuma’s coffers overflowing with gold, they were overflowing with cocoa beans! Gold was used mainly for architectural purposes and decoration. Only the wealthy, of course, ate the roasted cocoa beans. Montezuma drank cocoa concoctions from gold goblets which were given to the poor after one use. This practice was an icon for conspicuous consumption.

Interesting historical tidbit, but the darker side of chocolate which makes me particular beyond taste was disclosed in 2001 when a series of investigations of Ivory Coast farmers was run by Knight Ridder Newspapers. The Ivory Coast is on the southern coast of West Africa. Cocoa farms number 600,000 and account for a third of the nation’s economy and from where most of the world’s chocolate is sourced. These farms were found to use cheap, child slave labor. The children have been harvested from their parents in poverty-stricken countries. The parents sell their children to human traffickers, because they are led to believe the children will have work and be paid enough money to send home. They work 80-100 hours a week. As in other food industries using child labor, they are fed very little, beaten regularly, and may have their feet cut to prevent escape. These children have no documentation papers, so even if they were to escape, it is unlikely they would make it back to their families.

Child labor in chocolate

As in the United States, slavery is illegal in Ivory Coast. While slave ownership has become illegal, slave rental has become the norm. It is considered rental, as trafficked slaves may be paid a small amount in the form of coinage, food or lodging; certainly not enough to survive on independently. Ownership and rental share the commonality of beatings, exploitation and coercion. Child slaves are disposable and readily sourced. There is typically no legal consequence.  Bribery of politicians and by law enforcement is common.

As we see often in the food chain, distributors and producers see no responsibility in fighting slave labor. They see it as a labor issue which lies with the grower and the country of source. The Harkin-Engel protocol (2001) was signed by Chocolate Manufacturer’s Assoc. and World Cocoa Foundation. Witnesses included Ivory Coast government officials. No longer would slave labor be allowed in the production of cocoa, but words are cheap and enforcement is expensive. Education of farmers is expensive and documentation of age is improbable. The world’s largest corporations, according to human rights organizations, still do not comply.



The scale of human trafficking is large and complex. I believe that once a consumer knows of the issue, they will want to become aware of where it exists in their purchases. Consider Fair Trade certified and other ethically sourced chocolates such as Newman’s, Rapunzel, or Equal Exchange; cooperative sourced; and Dominican Republic or Costa Rica country of origin. The US candy industry is a $70 billion dollar a year industry, so ask yourself why a bar of Hershey’s is $1.29 and Equal Exchange is $3.99. What message will your purchase send to companies? A good resource is

Envision the person behind your chocolate. Is it a child?

2/14/2016 Update Trade loophole closed on slave-labor sourced imports to US.