The bitter truth behind the chocolate in your Easter basket

Posted at 7:57 PM, Apr 04, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-05 16:02:25-04

(CNN) — Chocolate is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but for the children working in slavery conditions in cacao fields across West Africa’s Ivory Coast, the reality behind it is anything but sweet.

Some 70 to 75 percent of the world’s cocoa beans are grown on small farms in West Africa, including the Ivory Coast, according to the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Initiative. The CNN Freedom Project reports that in the Ivory Coast alone, there are an estimated 200,000 children working the fields, many against their will, to satisfy the world’s hunger for chocolate.

The average American eats around 11 pounds of chocolate each year, and the weeks leading up to Easter show the second biggest United States sales spike of the year next to Halloween – 71 million pounds according to a 2009 Neilsen report. A recent press release from Kraft claims that worldwide, more consumers purchase chocolate during Easter than any other season.

So how does a chocolate lover ensure that the treats filling their family’s Easter baskets are not supporting a life of slavery for a child half a world away?

Opt for organic

Gene Tanski, a supply chain expert and CEO of Demand Foresight says that the most basic way to ensure that you don’t purchase chocolate that is made with slave labor is to insist on organic.

“There are no organic growing techniques, capability, or much interest in West Africa or the Ivory Coast or Ghana. Most of the trees there were planted about 25 years ago and they’re on the downside of their productive life,” Tanski says.

“If you’re buying organic chocolate or cocoa you’re nearly ensured that there is no slave labor involved in the growing or production of that chocolate, and you can track the chain.”

Consider the origin

Tanski says to pay attention to where the chocolate is grown and produced. Because of measures like the Harkin-Engel Protocol or “Cocoa Protocol” which was enacted in 2001 to enlist companies to voluntarily certify they had stopped the practice of child labor, as well as some of the components of free trade, consumers are starting to be able to track where cocoa comes from.

“If it comes from Africa, there is most likely slave labor involved. If it comes from South America or Asia, chances are that there is not. That’s not to say there aren’t poor conditions, but it’s not the slave labor that’s highlighted in the CNN report. The tracking is getting better and better all the time,” he adds.

Look at the label

“You should be looking for chocolate that’s a bargain for you, that’s delicious for you, and that’s good news for people who took part in the production,” Stop the Traffik founder Steve Chalke tells CNN’s Richard Quest. He says to look for a Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance symbol on the packaging, because it shows that there was no slavery involved in the production of the bar.

Later this year, chocolate consumers will be able to purchase a new version of Hershey’s Bliss brand, which will be 100 percent made from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms mostly in Ivory Coast and Ghana, according to a press release from the company.

“It’ll still make you fat,” Chalke jokes, “But you’ll be ethically fat.”

Go straight to the source

Kristen Hard, the owner of Cacao Atlanta, puts her money where her customers’ mouths are and travels to farms in places like Brazil and Venezuela to deal directly with the growers. For her, it’s a matter of quality control – both for her product and the lives of her producers.

“Whatever you’re purchasing is funding something; it’s a choice that you’re making every day,” she says. “Buying fair trade can benefit the environment and the social status of the farmers. Or, you can do the opposite and promote child labor.”

While Hard believes that fair trade is better than the commodity system, with the recent rise in small-scale chocolate production, direct trade is a better solution, and pays off for customers in the form of a better product. She says, “We purchase beans from farmers at a much higher price than commodity, so they can value what they do, stay happy, and not just put food on the table. What we negotiate is quality and a schedule, and all of the things that should be important to a consumer.”

Develop a taste

Hard knows that people form a passionate bond with the flavor of chocolate early in life, and it’s most often the inexpensive and widely available kind. Still, she believes, people will be willing to pay more once they taste the difference.

“Once they taste the quality product, they’ll understand,” she says. “A lot of times when people are farming a commodity, they’ll cut corners because they want to make their money faster and it can can destroy the flavor. But, if this more premium chocolate is not what you’re used to, the initial reaction can be, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ It’s like having fresh juice rather than sugar water. Whatever you grew up with programmed to like, your body is going to say, that’s unfamiliar; I don’t like it. Once you try it, you’ll wonder where it’s been your whole life.”

More resources for buying ethically produced chocolate

Stop the Traffik

Slave Free Chocolate

Fair Trade Finder App

The CNN Freedom Project sent correspondent David McKenzie into the heart of the Ivory Coast — the world’s largest cocoa producer — to investigate what’s happening to children working in the fields. Watch an excerpt of “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and see all Freedom Project coverage on the topic.

Once you’ve gotten the goods, try these delicious recipes from iReport’s Fair Trade Chocolate Challenge