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Read This Before You Buy Chocolate

I love chocolate as much as anyone. In moderation, chocolate is good for your body and soul.

But I have a nightmare that this Halloween one of my daughters is going to pull a piece of chocolate out of her candy bag and ask, "Daddy, is it true that child slaves made this chocolate?"

Gulp.

If the chocolate is from one of the major U.S. brands, I'll have to say, "Yes, it's possible, sweetheart. Whether this particular piece of chocolate was made by slaves, it's impossible to tell."

The West African country of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the world's leading producer of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate.

In 1998, a U.S. State Department background report on the country acknowledged the existence of child slavery there. In 2001, Save the Children Canada reported that 15,000 children between 9 and 12 years old, many from impoverished Mali, had been tricked or sold into slavery on West African cocoa farms, many for just $30 each.

This summer, a Birmingham civil rights law firm filed a federal class-action suit against chocolate-maker Nestle and several of its suppliers on behalf of former child slaves.

The suit's three teenage "John Doe" plaintiffs allege they escaped from Cote d'Ivoire cocoa farms after they were forced to work 12-14 hours a day, six days a week, without pay, given little food, beaten often and guarded at all times. They say some who were caught attempting to escape had their feet cut open or were forced to drink urine.

There seems to be no dispute that "the worst forms of child labor" (code for child slavery) exist in Cote d'Ivoire. The burning question is: How widespread is it? A Cote d'Ivoire government report says 7 percent of child cocoa farm workers it surveyed this year could be forced laborers. But the survey covered only 240 of the 600,000 cocoa farms in the country.

In 2001, after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to study requiring U.S.-sold chocolate be labeled "slave free," the industry agreed to develop a certification system to "identify and eliminate any usage of the worst forms of child labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans."

This system was supposed to be in place by July. Now the industry says the best it can do is certify half of the world's cocoa farms by mid-2008.

My guess is that with so many tiny farms in remote locations and thousands of middlemen, certifying all cocoa is proving to be a nearly impossible task. Complicating the job is Cote d'Ivoire's political situation: Rebels rule half the country, its government is reportedly one of the most corrupt in the world, and October elections were recently suspended.

So what is a conscientious parent to do this Halloween? Or Christmas? Or Valentine's Day?

I've bought a stash of Fair Trade-certified organic chocolate, most of which is from democratically run co-ops in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. It costs about 40 percent more than the big-name stuff.

I'll offer to trade this Fair Trade chocolate ounce-for-ounce for all the big-name possibly tainted chocolate my kids collect on Halloween. I'm not sure what I'll do with the questionable stuff. Maybe I'll just throw it away.

Probably my kids will discover what I've learned: You can not only enjoy Fair Trade chocolate with a clear conscience---some of it actually tastes way better.

Meanwhile, I'll root for the chocolate industry to find a way to clean up its act. When that's done, maybe we can figure out how to free the estimated 26.9 million other slaves on the planet today.

This article was published on 10/24/2005 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. An online version is here. The AJC discussion forum thread on this article is available here.

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