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Blood and Chocolate

The Grist

While I was waxing euphoric last week about Fair Trade and ultra-fancy chocolate ahead of Valentine’s Day, interesting things were happening in the chocolate world.

Regulators in Germany raided the offices of seven corporate chocolate makers — including Nestle, Kraft, and Mars — investigating allegations of price fixing. Six food conglomerates process half of the world’s cocoa, giving them tremendous leverage on price. Usually, they use their market power to squeeze farmers in the global south; evidently, they may now be using it to squeeze consumers in the global north. Canadian and even U.S. antitrust regulators have launched similar investigations, Bloomberg reports in the above-linked piece.

U.S. consumers spent $323 million on chocolate products during the week of Valentine’s Day alone, Nielsen estimates.

Very little U.S.-sold chocolate — estimates I’ve heard hover around 1 percent — carries Fair Trade certification. Another small fraction is “direct traded” — i.e., when an artisanal chocolate maker deals directly with cocoa-producing farms, paying a price well above the commodity cocoa price. Upwards of 97 percent of that $323 million went to the conventional chocolate market, where trade terms are anything but fair. And last week, Fortune Magazine ran an exposé of conditions in the Ivory Coast, source of 40 percent of the world’s cocoa. The farmers who grow the cocoa beans for Hershey’s Kisses, it turns out, work under conditions of persistent poverty, and are often forced by low prices to use school-age children in the fields. And the industry’s well-publicized efforts to address these problems turn out to be as frivolous as a supermarket bonbon. Christian Parenti, author of the Fortune report, appeared on the Democracy Now radio show on Valentine’s Day, along with a chocolate-industry flack. Parenti demolished the flack’s doubletalk about “successful education projects,” riposting that “if the industry cared about child labor and poverty, it would simply pay farmers more for cocoa beans.”

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