Coalition hits Hershey with questions about ethically sourced cocoa products

Diana Fishlock
The Patriot-News

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Saying child labor is still rampant on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, 41 grocer cooperatives and natural-food retailers on Thursday demanded that The Hershey Co. commit to ethically sourced cocoa produced under fair-labor standards.

The letter, unveiled in an advertisement on, imitates the iconic brown Hershey bar wrapper, but with the word “Heresy” instead of “Hershey.”

Hershey hasn’t been as progressive as many of its competitors about committing to purchasing what they call “ethically sourced cocoa,” petition organizers said.

Hershey Co. spokesman Jeff Beckman said the company is working to combat child labor.

“Earlier this year, we announced a $10 million, five-year commitment behind a comprehensive set of programs and initiatives to reduce child labor and improve cocoa supply in West Africa,” Beckman replied in an email.

“This includes making our Hershey’s Bliss products with 100 percent cocoa from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms, which have met comprehensive sustainability standards that protect the environment and ensure the safety and well-being of workers, their families and communities,” Beckman said.

As to the letter, Beckman said, “I’m not going to comment on their campaign. Different groups have different letter-writing projects.”

The letter follows a July report by the Fair Labor Association that found child labor still is rampant on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. The association’s website said it combines the efforts of socially responsible companies, civil society organizations and universities to protect workers’ rights and improve working conditions worldwide by promoting adherence to international labor standards.

In February, the Fair Labor Association added one of Hershey’s main rivals, Nestle, as a participating company, according to the association’s website. In 2011, Nestle was third and Hershey was fifth in worldwide chocolate sales.

Fair Labor Association officials did not return messages Thursday afternoon.

In 2009, Nestle announced it would invest $110 million over a 10-year period to boost sustainability initiatives and address child labor in cocoa production.

“Almost all the cocoa we consume in America is imported,” said Elizabeth O’Connell of Green America, one of the groups involved in the petition and which also took part in the Raise the Bar campaign against Hershey and child slave labor last fall to coincide with Halloween candy buying.

“I would like to know the things I spend my money on don’t contribute to exploiting someone else,” O’Connell said. “I want to support companies that do things I believe to be right. Our world is just so interconnected with trade now. If you eat chocolate, you contribute to this issue.”

Asked how much an American company can be aware of or responsible for what its suppliers on another continent do, Beckman said the answer is complicated because cocoa production involves such a long supply chain.

The cocoa is raised on small, remote family farms across West Africa. The beans are bought and sold numerous times to dealers and cooperatives before large commodity companies import them to the U.S. and sell to companies such as Hershey, Beckman said.

“But nonetheless, we have people who do visit Africa, get into the villages, work hard to understand the challenges and use our influence and develop programs to make a difference,” he said.

O’Connell said it is possible for a company to know the details.

“They really should know where it comes from and how it’s produced. There are ways to do that, such as following the supply chain or getting a third-party certification,” she said.

Candymakers Mars and Ferrero USA Inc. have committed to ensure that 100 percent of their cocoa supply is ethically sourced by 2020, O’Connell said.

According to a release from Green America, other major chocolate companies are addressing the issue.

In addition to Nestle, Green America said Kraft/Cadbury has taken positive steps, according to a news release from the group.

O’Connell noted the concern that Hershey founder Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine, had for children, creating a charitable trust so the company’s profits would fund the education and lodging of needy youths.

“That’s a thing that’s really surprising,” O’Connell said. “Milton Hershey had such a strong commitment to social issues and his communities. It seems like there is a disconnect with the way the business is run today.”