A few years ago, a friend of mine stopped eating chocolate. It was a moral decision, an ethical one. Not only did he resist the lure of the office vending machine, he would demur if you offered him some of your chocolate unless it was fair trade. I admired his conviction.
Recently, when I told him I was reading Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, he looked worried. He thought the chocolate problem was a thing of the past. It's true; after being under the spotlight at the millennium, the issue of slave labour in cocoa was back in the shadows. Consumer awareness was up, legislative initiatives were afoot, and everything seemed to be resolved. My friend went back to eating chocolate.
Carol Off still isn't convinced that all is right on cocoa plantations. The journalist, best known for her work with the CBC, had heard reports that Côte D'Ivoire's chocolate-covered success stories hid terrible conditions of child labour. As she investigated she discovered toothless laws, self-policing industry, corporate-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the disappearance of a journalist, fiction posing as news, and kids who still think a few months of cocoa farming will earn them enough money to buy themselves a bicycle and ride it home again.
The history of chocolate is laced with blood. Off outlines how cocoa came to the Western world, from la noche triste ("cocoa production survived because it was —literally— money growing on trees") to chocolate's medicinal uses to the marketing of chocolate as a token of romantic love.
Off also reminds us that the latest slavery controversy is hardly cocoa's first. In the early days of mass production, Quakers dominated both the British and the American cocoa industry. Cadbury in the UK, and Hershey in the US were both family-run businesses that professed to uphold their religious moral standards as part of their business practices.
Both companies formed idyllic company towns: Bournville, on the south side of Birmingham, England, and Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Quakers were well-known abolitionists, but when Henry Nevison reported on the slave-like conditions endured by the cocoa industry's "contract labour," Cadbury (a Quaker company) did nothing – at least not at first.
A number of contemporary scholars… have concluded that it was the lack of alternative bean sources and not skepticism over Nevison's report that made the Cadburys delay action for so long. The appalling corollary is that the Quaker cocoa companies of Britain dragged their feet and dodged the issue for nine years before they finally stopped using slave cocoa.
Some estimates say that up to eight million Aricans died under the "contract labour" conditions of the turn of the century.
For Côte D'Ivoire, cocoa was part of a success story for many years. Under Fèlix Houphouët-Boigny, the country benefited from rising prices on sugar, lumber, and cocoa, but when the prices collapsed, so too did the country. Amid coups and turmoil, cocoa farmers were forced to cut costs, and slavery became a fiscally expedient option yet again. Attention from NGOs brought media attention. In a climate where food ethics were a hot issue, consumers like my friend were paying attention to the controversy.
In November 2001, along came Michael Finkel, with his New York Times Magazine story, "Is Youssouf Male a Slave?" In the profile he suggested that activists were so determined to find problems in the cocoa industry, they were making them up:
The boys were persuaded [by NGOs] that they were enslaved against their will, suggests Finkel's story, even though they were probably just poor kids looking for jobs and a chance to buy American goods such as Nike running shoes, as Youssouf Male apparently did.
Was it Finkel's piece that made chocolate a guilt-free indulgence again? His article came out at the same time as (what Off calls) "Big Chocolate" had set its PR machine into motion. The US Congress had also stepped in, with the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which aimed to eliminate the worst forms of child labour on cocoa farms by 2005. Most of all, though, war in Côte D'Ivoire made the logistics of chocolate production more complex — and more significant to the industry — than ethics.
The war, which makes it very difficult for journalists to follow up on the issue, also makes child-trafficking difficult, noted Off in a recent interview. Like dolphin-free tuna, the moral quandaries were no longer the focus of gastronomical navel-gazing.
Off details this complicated history and then she reminds us that public awareness and activism around cocoa are part of a larger consumer trend. This trend — green and ethical eating — has been co-opted by the very organizations towards which the largest criticisms have been leveled.
The consumer wouldn't know by looking at the labels that some of the most popular brands of organics in the alternative food stores are now owned by transnationals. Mars, Inc. has acquaired Seeds of Change, which first came on the US market in the late 1980s with the stated objective "to restore biodiversity and revolutionize the way we think about food." … But Seeds of Change is hardly alone.
Off notes that Unilever now owns Ben & Jerry's, Heinz is behind Mountain Sun, Health Valley and others, while Tyson Foods is the parent company for Nature's Farm Organic.
As an educational overview, Bitter Chocolate succeeds with its tour of colonialism through the ages via the particulars of the cocoa business. Yet, for those looking for permission or prescriptives about chocolate consumption, the book might prove maddening. Off seems, ultimately, to be throwing her hands up and declaring, "Biz will be biz."
She states that the cocoa industry is based in injustice, yet she doesn't suggest consumer action, doesn't offer any suggestions to chocolate-lovers wanting to assuage their guilt, nor does she take the step of proposing that we should stop eating chocolate if we want to sleep better at night. Off's final thoughts have the complexity of a fine truffle:
The story of chocolate has a lot to do with what is fair. … Fairness or its grown-up sibling, justice, demanded a better deal for the people who produced the raw aterial for luxuries like chocolate. But they were ignored or vanquished by powers greater than their moral recititude. They were up against elites and the ethical insensitivity of the marketplace. The greatest impediment of all was the moral ambguity of a consuming public that has always been quick to decry injustice, but also deermined to enjoy the fruits of the earth at the lowest prices possible. The right to do so is still considered, by many consumers, to be only fair.
As with so many things, it would seem that nothing is as simple as fair's fair. Off leaves it to the reader to decide whether that ambiguity is something they can stomach.