Contemplating a triple chocolate layer cake after dinner? While considering calories, cavities, and your already-stuffed stomach, you might want to give some thought to who harvested those cocoa beans: There’s a good chance that child slaves in the Ivory Coast did the work.

Purchased from their destitute parents, forced to work 12 hours a day, regularly beaten, inadequately fed, and locked up at night, these children, some as young as 9 years old, help this West African country supply 43 percent of the world’s cocoa. It sure makes a decadent dessert harder to swallow. As reported by noted food activist John Robbins in Earth Island Journal (Summer 2002), many chocolate manufacturers tried to sidestep responsibility for these abuses once word of them began to spread in the mainstream press last year. Because they didn’t own the Ivory Coast farms or even buy directly from them, the companies claimed they had no way to control labor practices among suppliers.

Fortunately, rising public awareness–and outrage–led last year to an agreement that is designed to end child slavery in the chocolate industry by 2005. The Harkin-Engel Protocol–Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) drew it up in 2001–sets new industry standards that have been endorsed by the Ivory Coast government, the International Labor Organization, and the world’s major chocolate producers. These firms include Hershey’s and M&M Mars, which together control two-thirds of the U.S. chocolate market.

Besides keeping up the public pressure, what is the ethical chocolate lover to do in the three years before the slave-free certification standards take effect? Don’t assume that high-end chocolate is more humane: Godiva and other specialty brands are just as guilty as the two big American producers. And even the supposedly conscientious Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t get a clean bill of goods.

One option is to buy products made from organic cocoa beans, which Robbins says, “are unlikely to have been tainted by slavery.” (The Ivory Coast apparently doesn’t grow any organic chocolate.) Another approach would be to buy Fair Trade chocolate, which guarantees living wages and no child labor, among other things. In addition, some chocolate companies have managed to keep a sharp eye on their suppliers’ labor practices, despite the failure (or refusal) of other firms to do so.

Rapunzel Pure Organics, for instance, buys only fair trade chocolate from cooperatives in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, an arrangement that features strict guidelines governing the company’s business partners in those countries. Dagoba Organic Chocolate Company has similarly rigid trade criteria, which, according to company founder Frederick Schilling, protects farming communities–and children.

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