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It’s not so sweet when you know where it comes from

I ate a little Halloween candy and I’m sick to my stomach.

It wasn’t that the candy I ate was poisoned, an example of one of those,’“A guy I know who knows another guy who lives in another town said some kid …,” stories that are inevitably floated around this time of year.

No, I wasn’t the unwitting victim of some urban legend suddenly come true, some zombie lie rising to take my brains.

The chocolate I’d ingested was tainted, however. It was tainted by the poison of child slave labor.

And yes, it makes me sick to think about the fact that the candy bar I’d eaten came at such a great expense, such that we can purchase our candy so cheaply.

Imagine that you’re a 12-year-old Malian boy, growing up in one the world’s poorest countries. In your society, working is a part of growing up — children work next to parents on a small farm or in the family business. Sometimes, a child is sent off to work in another village for the chance to learn a trade and improve their lot in life. For a child in West Africa, there is no chance to decide between school or work because, for the most part, there is no school to choose.

One day, you’re approached by a man who says he will employ you in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, where you will make money to send back to your family. You will be educated, you will have a bicycle, you will enjoy your life working among the other happy boys picking cocoa.

The man’s promises never come true. You work sunup to sundown, carrying bags of cocoa that weigh more than you do. There is no money to send home, there is no bicycle, no school. At night, you are locked in a shack with dozens of other boys (many of them orphaned, picked off the streets of African cities), all of you sharing a bucket as a toilet. You and the other boys live on a meager meal of corn paste or, maybe, burnt bananas. If you complain, you are beaten. If you don’t work hard enough, you are beaten. If you try to run away, your feet are cut and you are chained to your bed at night.

Hundreds of miles away, your family not only lacks the means to come to your rescue, but almost certainly has no way of locating you.

U.N. estimates say anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 children are enslaved in West Africa to work in the cocoa fields. Many more are employed in a form of indentured servitude that, for all intents and purposes, offers little more than no chance at escape and a short life.

After child slavery in the cocoa trade was exposed in 2001, Congress acted to enforce a “no child slavery” label on chocolate sold in the U.S., but accepted a compromise after corporations said they couldn’t be held accountable — they didn’t own the plantations, they said, and couldn’t control how growers harvested their product. In the end, Congress accepted an industry pledge to regulate themselves, vowing that by 2005 they would have industrywide standards in place that would put an end to child slavery in the cocoa industry.

In the 10 years since the issue of child slavery was brought to light, little progress has been made. Mars partnered with the Rainforest Alliance in 2009 such that some of their products carry the “RA certified” seal, meaning that 30 percent of the cocoa involved is certified to have not been grown by child slaves.

Mars says that it hopes that, by 2020, 100 percent of its cocoa can be certified to have not been grown or harvested by child slaves.

Among the chocolate candy producing giants, Mars has the most admirable record. Not so with other two, Nestle’s and Hersheys.

Three years ago, Nestle’s made some vague promises that it will move to certify chocolate as not having been produced by any underage, indentured, trafficked or coerced labor. Unfortunately, the company has done little to fulfill that promise.

Hershey has the worst record, refusing to adopt anti-slavery policies or even divulge information on their suppliers.

So, how do we hold a $50 billion a year industry accountable when it comes to ensuring that child labor is not used in the acquisition of cocoa?

The only solution I can think of is to vote with my wallet and not buy products from companies that use suppliers who engage in child slavery. Certified Fair Trade chocolate is available online and at local organic/natural food markets, and that is a good start. Essentially, Fair Trade means a fair price is paid to farmers in developing countries so they don’t have to rely on slave labor to stay in business.

And yes, that means we end up paying a little more to indulge our sweet tooth.

Many of us already go that extra length to pay for Fair Trade coffee (it’s a practice that was developed decades ago), from an industry not known for using slave labor. However, it’s not enough to walk out of the grocery store with a bag of Fair Trade coffee, especially if we’re also lugging a big bag of chocolate kisses or miniatures.

It’s not enough to just feel sick at having raided the kid’s candy stash and eaten more than we should have.

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