The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Chocolate: guiltiest pleasure of all?
It would be nice if our Easter eggs could be nothing more than an innocent treat, but as Andrew Baker finds out, this is very rarely the case. So what are our options?
What do you want most from your Easter eggs? A quick hit of sugar and fat to get you through until lunchtime, maybe. A taste of your childhood, transporting you with a single mouthful back to happier, more innocent times. Lord knows, right now we all deserve these little pleasures. Perhaps a chunk of that delicious, creamy, silky Galaxy egg...
Wait! Did you know that Ethical Consumer, which has been rating foods for 30 years, gives Galaxy just 1.5 out of 20 when considering its impact on the environment, people and animals? Awful, isn’t it? Reach instead for another egg. Something more comforting, such as that most traditional of British chocolates, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in its time-honoured purple foil. But hold on, what’s this? Cadbury’s is owned by the faceless multinational Mondelez, scoring a collective 1/20 from Ethical Consumer. It’s all too much. Give up on the Easter eggs. Let’s have a break, let’s have a KitKat. No, let’s not. For Nestle’s KitKat scores precisely 0 in Ethical Consumer’s ratings. Nought out of 20.
We came seeking sweet solace, but we taste instead the bitter gall of guilt. Not just the familiar guilt at a waistlinethreatening snack, but the awful weight of global guilt.
It’s not what we want. We don’t want to feel that our little square of joy means misery and exploitation for those who produced it, suffering for those who helped to grow the beans and damage to the planet. But those are the messages coming our way. Chocolate is no longer a carefree indulgence. Even the brightest bars on sale in the supermarket’s aisle of sin, the Dayglo-wrapped chunky wonders from Tony’s Chocolonely, bear an anti-slavery message.
Now some activists are attacking the self-proclaimed virtues of Tony’s, while continuing to criticise the multinationals who produce our most treasured childhood treats. What is going on in the world of chocolate? Is there no such thing as a virtuous bar? Where should the consumer turn for a simple, guiltfree taste of chocolate goodness?
There are no easy answers, I’m afraid. I have spent much time in the last decade with people who grow cocoa and make chocolate, visiting them at work and sharing samples and opinions at festivals, trade fairs and as a judge for the Academy of Chocolate and the International Chocolate Awards. Ethics has been a constant topic at all of these events: how best to enjoy this wonderful food without exploiting those who provide it.
Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch chocolate brand with loud wrappers and a noisy attitude, has caused a big stir in supermarkets and beyond by campaigning to rid the chocolate industry of slavery. It’s not shocking that this is their position. It is shocking that such a campaign is necessary in the 21st century.
But it is. None of the biggest makers of the best-known bars can claim that its supply chain is entirely free of slavery, forced labour and child labour. Cocoa beans in the quantities required by multinationals can only be gathered from multiple sources by middlemen and traders, and assembled into huge, cheaply shippable cargoes. Seventy per cet of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, with Ivory Coast and Ghana by far the largest producers. Given the small rural communities where the crop originates, it would be very hard for the ultimate purchasers of the beans to know how they were grown. As Tony’s put it: “Most big chocolate companies do not know how many cases of illegal labour there are in their supply chain, so they cannot work to remediate them.”
It isn’t only the upstart Dutch questioning the ethical credentials of the chocolate multinationals. The US Labor Department has suggested that more than two million children are engaged in dangerous labour in cocoa growing.
Chocolate fans will have seen Fairtrade logos on bars for years, but while this movement has done good work ensuring better prices are paid for cocoa and environmental care standards have been lifted, it has not been able to ensure better conditions for all and several of the largest manufacturers now prefer to proclaim their own “similar” schemes.
Now Tony’s Chocolonely are themselves under attack, removed from Slavefreechocolate.org’s list of ethical chocolate companies. Not because modern slavery have been found in their supply chain: it has not. But because Tony’s chocolate is actually made by Barry Callebaut, a European giant whose own supply chain has been criticised.
All quite confusing. To tidy up loose ends, Tony’s say that the cocoa they use is all fully traceable, and always kept segregated from cocoa that Barry Callebaut use in other people’s products. Furthermore, they say, they are proud to engage with a major manufacturer as this is the best way to spread their message.
So that’s all right then. Now, how should the consumer proceed? Boycott all the major producers? Buy from ethical producers only? Buy only Tony’s?
You might think that after a decade of research and discussion I might eat only chocolate made on the plantation by certified members of the farming community, and that I would travel to buy it only by sailboat. Not so. I eat a lot of different chocolate from many different sources. There are many virtuous ways to make chocolate, and many fine bars made in an ethically defensible manner (see box).
Some experts go further still. Kristy Leissle is a leading academic in the field of chocolate studies. Dr Leissle lives and works in Ghana, where she is researching a book on Africa’s contributions to global chocolate. Does she feel that consumers need to make hard choices when it comes to the ethics of their treats? She does not. In her blog, Docofchoc.com, Dr Leissle happily admits she eats all kinds of chocolate. She puts chocolate chips on her breakfast oatmeal, and through the day tucks into a variety of snacks from single-origin craft bars to M&Ms by way of Hershey’s kisses and Lindt.
It isn’t the case, she argues, that all the people who work in small-scale artisan chocolate are good, and all who work in the mass market bad. She also points out: “The presumed ‘features’ of artisan chocolate such as higher cocoa prices and transparency efforts are not limited to artisan supply chains.”
Cocoa farming, she tells me, “is an industry of poor people working hard to make a marginal living. Why would I want to exclude any one of them from their best chance at a decent livelihood?”
So... there are as many different arguments in this area as there are chocolate bars. My suggestion is that in order to get the most enjoyment out of any bar of chocolate you should look to find out a little about it. Whether that means reading the small print on a bar of Dairy Milk, exploring the wilder fringes of the Cocoa Runners site or following Kristy Leissle’s blog, you will be broadening your mind as well as delighting your tastebuds.
Easter eggs transport us to our youth, but ethically they can leave a bitter taste