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Slick Willie Wonka? Chocolate, Oil and Slavery

December 8, 2009

Milk chocolate fanatics can now be assured that European companies are not committing food fraud by selling overly oil-adulterated bars, thanks to a new test created by the international lab JRC. The lab has previously created tests that can determine the quantity of added oils in dark chocolate, since EU rules allow no more than 5% of other vegetable oils in chocolate.

Adding oil to chocolate has long been controversial. In 2007, consumer opposition beat back industry attempts to oil-down FDA standards which prohibit any added oil to products labeled as chocolate. Just this summer, consumer pressure forced candy giant Cadbury to end its substituting palm oil for some cocoa butter in its chocolates.

Added oil is just one dark controversy in chocolate making. In 2001, European environmental and consumer groups exposed the industry’s use of the pesticide lindane, a chemical linked to breast cancer, endocrine disruption and other health hazards, in African and other chocolate plantations. Lindane is banned in the EU.

Corporate chocolate production has also long been linked to labor crimes, including the use of slaves and child labor, in West Africa. In 2005, the human rights advocacy group CorpWatch noted that in the Ivory Coast, where half of the world’s cocoa is grown, “hundreds of thousands of children work or are enslaved on cocoa farms.” Major chocolate pledged to a voluntary “Cocoa Protocol” to end “the worst forms” of child labor (permitting them to continue using whatever types of child labor they decide are not the worst) by 2005, but the companies missed their own deadline, and have also missed the three-year extension they granted themselves.

Chocolate lovers interested in responsible production can look to Fair Trade brands, which require fair compensation to chocolate growers and workers. In addition to labor standards, Fair Trade chocolates are required to meet environmental standards that prohibit harmful pesticides and GMOs. Many Fair Trade chocolates are also organically certified. A student group from the University of California San Diego also surveyed several chocolate producers and developed a useful online guide to slave-free chocolate.

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