Home / Books / Book Reviews / Book Review: Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet by Carol Off

Book Review: Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet by Carol Off

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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.

It turned out, however, that it was Finkel who was making things up. Questioning by Save the Children Canada eventually led to the New York Times publication of a detailed correction.

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.

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About Bonnie

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • (full disclosure: I’m a worker-owner & Board Director at Equal Exchange, a U.S. based worker cooperative that imports and sells organic, Fair Trade Certified chocolate and cocoa, http://www.equalexchange.coop)

    As you might expect at Equal Exchange we have followed the cocoa/child labor scandal very closely. Consequently we think that 95% of “Bitter Chocolate” is a fantastic, badly needed work of morally-informed journalism. The 5% we think is lacking is what Bonnie was referring to, that the author fails to offer the reader any meaningfully way to respond to the gross injustices that she so thoroughly documents. This is a pity as those alternatives (organic & Fair Trade options) do exist. But I’ll get to that in a second.

    One reason that “Bitter Chocolate” is so important is that Off has gone to great lengths to uncover a story that no one else has really looked at since 2002. And even the work done back then pails in comparison to this book. For understandable, but regrettable, reasons the media (both alternative and mainstream) did not & still have not followed up on the child labor story (or other ugly parts of the cocoa trade)since 2002 and have either regurgitated the industry’s assurances that something was being done, or have put out critical, but thin, articles that offered no new information, and certainly have not provided the grand expose that Ms. Off has put together.

    All along I’ve suspected the worse of the industry, but she revealed that it is so much more tainted than even I could have imagined – and the persistence of exploited child labor is only part of the problem.

    Re: the missing 5%
    Ms. Off does provide a chapter near the end that touches on Fair Trade, but it’s bizarrely lop-sided and gives the reader a distorted, incomplete and strangely negative picture of the efficacy and potential of this ethical alternative. Basically, she goes to Belize to look at the co-op that was the first to export to the Fair Trade market and finds a number of short-comings. Unfortunately she just leaves it at that and casts a pall over Fair Trade in general. What she did not do was to tell the readers that this first Fair Trade project has since spawned about a dozen more Fair Trade farmer-importer partnerships and that most of them are working much more effectively, and on a much bigger scale.

    Nor does she tell readers of how the Fair Trade option is creating change within the marketplace and how it has already demonstrated in other commodities, especially coffee, that consumers can use the power of their pocketbook to nudge corporations to clean up their act (albeit slowly).

    With that one caveat we strongly recommend the book.

    ~ Rodney North

  • I work with Endangered Species Chocolate and couldn’t agree more with Rodney from Equal Exchange. There are certainly options available that support a fair and ethical chocolate market.

    To that end, Endangered Species Chocolate is firmly committed to purchasing only 100 percent ethically traded cacao. ESC’s all-natural cacao grows in Nigeria, and our organic cacao is sourced from the Conacado Co-op in the Dominican Republic. Farmers determine a fair price for their own crops. All ESC cacao is grown on family-owned properties, helping to sustain the habitats and communities in which they operate. The cacao is grown in the natural shade of rich, diverse forests. By purchasing ESC’s chocolate products, consumers help support sustainable forest farmland and the species that flourish there. Further, because ESC purchases ethically traded cacao, customers can rest assured farmers are working in humane conditions and being paid a fair price for their crop.

    In February 2006, four ESC team members traveled to Nigeria’s Ikom regions, where our all-natural cacao is harvested. While observing ethical trade in action, ESC also sponsored the
    provision of school supplies for local children and the installation of water pumps for the two local farming villages.

    Through summer 2006, ESC’s organic products had been Fair Trade Certified through TransFair USA. The company now dedicates the dollars previously earmarked for TransFair certification to directly support the farmers in the Conacado Co-op, where ESC sources its organic cacao. This sourcing program ensures the cacao farmers in that co-op receive a fair wage.