The Scary Reality of Chocolate

I don’t normally blog about political issues as I have a strong dislike for the uninformed, misinformed or half-informed, holier-than-thou, preachy types, and never want to be one myself.

And while I know I risk becoming one of these people by writing this blog post, I think it’s worth the risk.  I learned something last night that I found so absolutely abhorrent I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It rattled me and I felt the need to share it with others.

Last night, my girlfriendBrittany and I went to a talk about food justice by Raj Patel, author of the book Stuffed and Starved, The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  He spoke for over an hour on various subjects like food deserts, climate change, and locally sourced foods, but what struck me the most was something he said in passing about fair trade coffee.   Although he didn’t go into any detail about the labor practices of  the coffee  industry, he referred to non-fair trade coffee as ‘blood beans’.  It seemed a bit hyperbolic to me but the phrase stuck in my head.

In an odd coincidence, yesterday I also happened to buy Brittany her favorite treat – dark chocolate. She has a big presenation at work today and I figured she could use a stress relief in the form of delicious chocolatey goodness.  Now mind you, Brittany is the ultimate dogooder and doesn’t eat chocolate unless it is clearly labeled FAIR TRADE.  I had never really dug into why she does this and I didn’t really care.  To each their own, I thought.

When we got home from the talk, I gave her the bar, but unfortunately it was not labeled FAIR TRADE so she politely declined the gift.  It kind of bothered me.  I thought she was being stubborn.  But having just heard the term ‘blood beans’ a half hour earlier I decided to at least find out what FAIR TRADE actually meant.  So I googled Lindt (the brand of chocolate bar) + FAIR TRADE to see if perhaps the bar was actually FAIR TRADE chocolate, so she could nibble on a bite or two.

What I discovered was frightening.  I learned the actual meaning of FAIR TRADE chocolate.

FAIR TRADE chocolate means the cocoa beans were not picked using child slaves.

What the FUCK?!?! Child Slaves?????????????!!!!!!!!!

The truth is that 40% of the world’s cocoa, including nearly 100% of the cocoa that goes into Nestle, Mars, and Hershey products comes from the Ivory Coast where they literally enslave stolen children from other countries (Mali and Burkina Faso) and force them to pick cocoa beans for little or no wage in dangerous and unhealthy, pesticide laden conditions. The US government estimates that there are up to 100,000 children in the Ivory Coast forced to work under these conditions.

“Holy Shit!!,” I yelled out.  “Non-FAIR TRADE chocolate is grown by slaves??”

“Yeah, of course.  What’d you think it meant?” she responded.

“I don’t know.  I thought it meant, you know, like that shade grown, organic coffee stuff.”

“Nope, it means it’s not grown using child slaves.”

“Uggghhhhh.”  I winced

Now, here’s what really blew my mind.   I had NO IDEA that slavery still existed in 2012 and that huge companies like Nestle and Hershey were complicit in this horrendous practice. Had it not been for a weird coincidence of seeing that talk yesterday and then accidentally purchasing the wrong type of dark chocolate for my girlfriend, I would have continued eating mass produced chocolate in ignorant bliss.  But now that I know the facts, it’s going to be impossible for me to ever eat another candy bar or other mass-produced chocolate product in good conscience.

It got me thinking…I consider myself a relatively intelligent and informed human being, but still had NO IDEA that this was going on.  I wonder how many other people have no idea that this is going on?  My guess is that it’s a lot, and that’s what compelled me to write this blog post.
With our busy lives and The Facebooks and the Twitters and all that jazz that comes out of the pipes and tubes of the Interwebz, we’re constantly on the go, moving from one thing to the next, bumping into people and other inanimate objects on the street as we type out one last email on our smart phones before we head into the next meeting.  We grab ‘get me through the day foods’ like candy bars, fast food, and Red Bull on the go without so much as thinking twice about how that food was made or where it came from.  In short, we live in a state of blissful ignorance, completely divorced from the not-so-pleasant realities about the world around us.

This whole experience has served as a bit of wake up call for me. From here on out, no more chocolate, and I am at least  going to make a effort to better understand where my food comes from.  It’s just a tiny step but I think this change is necessary.  I know I’m never going to be perfect, but I can at least ask questions and become more inquisitive about the world around me.

I’m not going to ask everyone to stop eating chocolate.  That’s a personal choice.  But I will encourage others to start thinking a little bit more about where their food actually comes from.  Ask questions. Learn facts. Start make food decisions based on knowledge and not just what advertisers tell us. And if you think this is important, share it with someone else who probably has no idea that slavery still exists in 2012.

*Stepping off my soapbox now*

For some further info on the cocoa trade, here’s a short film from CNN called the Human Cost of Chocolate.


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21 thoughts on “The Scary Reality of Chocolate

  1. Ethan you should use your power for good and blog about political issues! Good for you and Brittany! Just so you know slavery still exists in the good ole USofA. Read Tomatoland and/or my blog book report on the farming community in Florida. Let alone Food Inc! If you have not changed the way you select your food, you should.

    Thanks for sharing as always.

  2. Tom says:

    Be sure to follow @JustinDillon and his movement:

  3. Thanks for sharing this Ethan! I was completely unaware of blood beans and shared the same ignorant bliss about Fair Trade chocolate. A few years ago I learned about blood diamonds and the diamond industry – I vowed to never wear a diamond again.

    The thing that just enlightened me the most about reading this:

    Everything we consume or purchase is most likely a product of slavery. It’s not just the diamonds, coffee and chocolate that we need to pay attention to. And if that is in fact the case, what can we do as individuals other than doing something as an individual?

    This is something that need BIG attention and BIG action to create actual change.

    When I’m famous (which I really don’t want to be) I’m going to cause some serious havoc.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      “Everything we consume or purchase is most likely a product of slavery. It’s not just the diamonds, coffee and chocolate that we need to pay attention to. And if that is in fact the case, what can we do as individuals other than doing something as an individual?”

      That’s absolutely true. I’m going to try to look more into the source of my food but absolutely stick to giving up chocolate. I think change is doable when people commit to baby steps.

  4. Highly recommend you and everyone else check out the (short) documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate.” You can watch it free here: My wife’s nonprofit, Global Exchange, has been using it to raise awareness about these very issues. It’s unbelievable and inexcusable in 2012.

    Retweeted. Ethan thanks for this post — I agree with Barbara that you should make your voice heard on such issues even more. It’s well said, with your characteristic honesty and passion.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Thanks Omar. I appreciate it. As much as I think there are a lot of important issues to talk about, I would need to change the name of the blog if I were to start talking about them all. This just shocked the hell out of me that I was so naive about this issue and felt I needed to share it.

  5. bill says:

    Hi Ethan, I had a similar experience with my girlfriend about 12 years ago and it turns out, like your “discovery” to the dark side of food, will more than likely open your mind more than any other issue as food is life. the good news is you will be better for it! for a consistent, non-corporate look at food, i found the website by weston a price a great source!

  6. Thanks for this post Ethan.
    I just checked the Trader Joe’s Swiss Chocolate I have at home and it’s too, not Fair Trade!
    I’m shocked. I left Trader Joe’s Feedback on this.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Dude. Awesome. 99% of people would have looked at the candy bar and either ignored it, or at the most protested in silence. Emailing/calling Trader Joe’s and telling them what you think is the right thing to do. You rule.

      • Divine Chocolate is my favorite fair trade chocolate. Available at some While Foods and online. Stock up! Great gifts and I am sure Brittany can add some other brands.

  7. […] Ethan Austin recently wrote in his blog about The Scary Reality of Chocolate. A number of folks commented on his blog and left some great resources about fair trade chocolate, […]

  8. pinkbarbara says:

    Great post. I’m writing a blog about practical ways that we can fight injustice and I’m always looking for new ways that I can tweak how I live. It seems that I am constantly finding things that I “can’t have.” Whenever I find new products I like, I am posting them, I hope it’ll help you as you get started in making changes.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Thanks so much Barbara. Very true. The more I learn, the more I realize how eff’d up things really are. Sad, but it’s better to be informed than to be in the dark. At least this way we can make better informed choices.

  9. […] The Scary Reality of Chocolate ( […]

  10. Kristen says:

    Thanks for sharing, Ethan! You didn’t know, but now you do and you’re spreading the word. That’s the first step :)

  11. Joanna says:

    I loved your blog! I work with a non-profit called eye see media, a magazine on a mission to raise awareness on injustice issues such as modern day slavery. Your blog was a refreshing antidote in my chocolate slavery research. thanks for the candid way you expressed your discovery of something as atrocious as modern day slavery. If more people like you have their eyes opened and start talking about these issues we could see modern day slavery ended in our lifetime.

    • Ethan Austin says:

      Thanks Joanna. I’ve actually had a lot of people tell me they had no idea before reading but have since stopped buying non-fair trade chocolate. It’s a start, right?

  12. […] what if you start a candy company that uses child slaves in Africa to pick the cacao so you can sell a Snickers for just 99 cents? High-five for you, you savvy […]

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