As we hurtle towards another seasonal celebration that requires the consumption of copious amounts of chocolate (also known as Easter), we thought it would be good to take a look at what goes into the candy/confection that we take for granted.
The stuff of love and love lost
To much of the western world, chocolate is synonymous with celebration. It is one product you will find in gas stations, airports, corner dairies and even in space. There is a dark side to our love of chocolate though: criminal activity, child labour, environmental degradation and personal health consequences. On the other side of the equation, it is a product that offers hope and employment to those in developing nations (and for whom there are programs to ensure sustainability and welfare issues are addressed). It is also something that is consumed in staggering amounts; in fact, the annual worldwide consumption of chocolate is estimated to be around 7.2 million metric tonnes. So, what is this stuff that brings a feeling of comfort and home to astronauts, enables love to be proclaimed and mourned, symbolizes all-sorts of national and international celebrations and, as scientists tell us, makes us feel happy?
A bit of biology
Cocoa and chocolate are both derived from the fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The fruit (in the image, above) is a rather strange oblong shaped thing that is processed to remove the bitter seeds. These seeds are, in fact, the cocoa bean – these are dried and fermented and then cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted from the bean. All commercial chocolate products have a required amount of both of these (solids and butter) and this has been determined by the international food standards agency, Codex Alimentarius. Why is this important? Because the way that chocolate can be described (for example, semi-bitter chocolate, milk chocolate) is formulated with minimum levels of ingredients to protect consumers from adulteration (more on that later).
The cocoa tree is native to the tropical regions of the Americas but it is now cultivated in a narrow band, specifically within 20 degrees north and south of the equator; with most cultivation occurring in West Africa (70% of the world’s production). Harvest occurs over several months and in some parts of the world can occur all year round. The cost of production is, however, high. The large chocolate companies are dependent upon a small number of countries to meet their insatiable demand for the raw ingredients and farmers within those countries struggle, usually earning considerably below the poverty line, and this, in turn, contributes to a need for a cheap and controllable labour force.
Child labour and trafficking
Part of the humanitarian cost of cocoa production is the reported 2.1 million children who are still involved in the production of cocoa in the West African countries of Ivory Coast and Ghana. For these children there is no school, often no pay, physical punishment and gruelling work hours and dangerous conditions. A 2011 BBC documentary reported on the impact of agreement by the chocolate industry to stop ‘hazardous child labour’ – the success of that agreement? A 21% increase in child labour over the five years up to 2016; in other words, the situation had deteriorated even though awareness of the problem had increased. Another aspect of the child labour crisis is where the children come from. A 2002 International Labour Organisation (ILO) study concluded that there were 12,000 child labourers in Ivory Coast who had been trafficked.
The supply chain for chocolate is complex – many thousands of small farmers produce cocoa that is then aggregated by suppliers and sold to the multinationals who then transform it into our chocolate Easter bunny or Valentine’s truffle. Accurately determining where the cocoa originated from is not an easy task, and to a certain extent, provides the large chocolate companies with ‘plausible deniability’ in that pinpointing exactly which farm the beans they use come from is extremely complex. That being said, a number of companies and non-profits / NGOs are working to improve transparency and reduce the number of children working in the industry by working with growers, but the scale of the problem is immense.
Where does the consumer fit?
Consumers have a bit of power in this issue – if they choose to use it. A great example of the power of consumers (and also related to chocolate) occurred when multinational Cadbury ‘reformulated’ their products to include palm oil; the response from consumers was rapid and unequivocal – the result was a reversal of the formulation and admission from Cadbury of the error of their judgement. However, the Cadbury example was only successful because of consumer pressure and the consumer pressure only occurred because consumers were aware of the problem and were willing to take action. The role of the consumer then, is one of awareness and using their purchasing power to drive transparency and integrity within the industry; but that is extremely limited – we are only able to assess the way in which raw ingredients are obtained through third party certifiers such as FairTrade, UTZ certification and other international bodies. That, however, is not straightforward with eco-labels being considered one of the most ‘at risk’ for fraudulent type behaviours. Amid high global prices for cocoa (although these prices do appear to be quite volatile), increasing demand, and differentiation of price based on social values (organic, fair-trade, etc) it is likely that cocoa, or at least the end products, will remain in a vulnerable position for food fraud for the foreseeable future.