Is Your Chocolate’s Main Ingredient Child Labor? Foodie Underground

Is Your Chocolate's Main Ingredient Child Labor? Foodie Underground

Column A new lawsuit charges three major companies with depending on child labor to produce their chocolate. 

If we want to, it is easy for us to have a direct relationship with many of the ingredients in our modern diet. You can commit to eating more locally and in season, engaging with the farmer who grew your carrots, potatoes, and squash. If you want to know how they were produced, you can ask.

But there are other components of our diets that are not so easy to get to the source, because the source is on the other side of the world. Products like coffee and chocolate have become such staples in most of our homes, that we rarely give them much thought. However, it’s the fact that they do originate from so far away that they deserve our attention.

Chocolate production, for example, is tainted with problems, and considering that Americans eat on average 11 pounds of it a year, what chocolate we choose to buy does in fact have an impact on the state of the industry.

Human trafficking and child labor are both things that the chocolate industry have been charged with before, but the latest dispute over chocolate companies’ abusive labor practices is playing out in California. Three class action lawsuits have been brought against the big chocolate players – Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey – for their use of child labor to produce some of the world’s best-selling chocolate brands. The case is actually brought on behalf of private consumers, who said they would not have purchased the chocolate had they known it had been produced using child labor.

The law firm representing the plaintiffs holds that the companies have broken Californian law by not disclosing that suppliers in Côte d’Ivoire depend on child labor to make their cocoa. The lawsuit alleges that in 2014 over 1.1 million children were involved in the most common worst forms of child labor (as defined by the standards of the International Labor Organization). Despite the fact that all of the companies have acknowledged that child labor is an issue that needs addressing, those levels are up 39 percent from 2008/2009, showing how meaningless those intentions can sometimes be.

While awareness for these issues have increased over the past few years, thanks to the work of organizations like Anti-Slavery, so has global demand for chocolate, only exacerbating the problem. In a report published earlier this year by Tulane University, there were 2.1 million child laborers working in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, an increase of 21 percent over five years. “Relative to the size of the challenge, the pace and scale of change is insufficient,” Nick Weatherill, executive director of International Cocoa Initiative, told  in response to the Tulane study.

There are many solutions to this complex problem, including providing better educational opportunities for children in these countries, as well as better pay for the adult workers. What can you as a consumer do? Just like you think about where those carrots, potatoes, and squash come from, think about where that chocolate comes from too.

There are many chocolate brands out there committed to ethical and sustainable sourcing practices, like Theo Chocolate, Dandelion Chocolate, and Green & Black’s. But as a consumer, when identifying what you should and shouldn’t by, it’s also important to know what labels mean and represent; labels like “organic” only address environmental and processing requirements, without calculating in social impacts.

So you have to start thinking about chocolate from a more all-around approach, one that includes sustainable environmental practices and sustainable social ones as well. Do your research, and know what brands are out there committing to ethical practices. The organization Slave Free Chocolate maintains a list of brands that are committed to sourcing slavery-free cocoa. At the store, look for the shortest supply chain possible – “bean to bar.” This chocolate will come at a price, but it’s a fair price.

Think $8 a chocolate bar is expensive? That’s because you are paying the true cost of chocolate. Those $1 chocolate bars? Full of externalized costs, including child labor. And that is not a sweet deal.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Christian Guthier

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.