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Trick or Treat? Your Chocolate in Disguise

How ethical is your Halloween chocolate?


Trick or Treat? Your Chocolate in Disguise

The cocoa beans used to make the chocolate treats you hand out at Halloween may have been harvested by child labour. Choose ethical chocolate instead.

Halloween is once more around the corner. This annual sweet-fest sees costumed children searching out precious bounty. Among their haul will be the staple sweet we know as chocolate. What many people don’t realize is that the vast majority of these cocoa-based treats hide some considerably ugly realities. Ethical chocolate provides the health benefits of chocolate minus its dark side.

This year when the masked youths in our neighbourhoods reach out to us with their pillow cases and garbage bags, consider this: many chocolates on grocery store shelves may owe their start to what some organizations refer to as the worst forms of child labour.

An ongoing issue

Cocoa is the primary cash crop in West Africa, which makes up 70 percent of the world’s cocoa production. It is estimated that within West Africa, 90 percent of cocoa is grown by small farming operations that employ 7.5 million people.

Sparked by a BBC investigation in 2000, the International Labour Organization and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour supervised a survey, published in 2002, which found 284,000 children working in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms in West Africa.

This work often required children under the age of 14 to operate dangerous tools and machinery and apply chemical pesticides without protective equipment. The work involved long hours with no pay and interfered with many children’s opportunities to go to school. There were also cases of child trafficking and abuse.

Among the many follow-up studies conducted over the decade following the BBC investigation, the most comprehensive report was published by Tulane University (New Orleans) in 2011. It concluded that initiatives from various stakeholders to eliminate the problems of child labour in the cocoa industry had been insufficient.

The report found 819,921 children in Cote d’Ivoire and 997,357 children in Ghana working in cocoa-related activities during 2008 to 2009. Only a small percentage of the children worked for pay, and children working in the industry were frequently involved in hazardous child labour. There was again evidence of children exposed to trafficking and forced labour.

A symptom of poverty

Many of the issues faced by African communities, including child labour, stem from a larger issue of poverty—both among the families that send their children to work and the farmers who use child labour. Because labour is often the only cost controlled by producers, it is frequently where employers will cut costs by taking advantage of children.

Risks to the environment

The sustainability of the cocoa industry itself may also be at risk. A typical cocoa crop requires five years to mature and will then yield about 18 years of harvest. There are many threats to cocoa crops, such as pests and disease and the depletion of suitable growing areas.

Establishing and maintaining a profitable growing operation requires substantial knowledge, planning, and resources. Without these, many cocoa farms are pressured into making use of child labour and incorporating unsustainable farming practices that often lead to deforestation and run the risk of reducing biodiversity, which is crucial for maintaining a versatile crop.

Product certification supports communities

Many fair trade product certifications require not only sustainable and organic farming practices, but also strict labour standards to protect against unethical forms of labour such as child exploitation. These standards are enforced with rigorous auditing. Fairtrade certification aims to empower smallholder operations with the knowledge, relationships, and resources to develop localized and community-based goals.

The Fairtrade Labelling Organization’s (FLO) aim is to rid the industry of undesirable, and often criminal, practices by going beyond regulation and policing. It provides the means for producers, through minimum price guarantees and Fairtrade premiums, to create more sustainable and ethically minded projects.

What does FLO certification guarantee?

Fair trade helps to reduce poverty and prevent child labour by also providing a number of monetary mechanisms and trade supports.

Price guarantees

Minimum price guarantees ensure producers can afford to operate both ethically and sustainably.


The Fairtrade premium provides additional funds for small producer organizations to invest in their own community infrastructure or business operations. These premiums essentially go toward improving the standard of living within communities and developing better business practices to allow for improved quality and productivity.

Long-term relationships

Fairtrade certification facilitates long-term trade relations and cooperation with other partners and stakeholders.

Credit and loans

Fairtrade certification also provides smallholder operations with access to better credit and loans, which can be essential in establishing a productive and credible farming operation.

This Halloween

While many large companies have implemented stricter regulations about how they source their cocoa, others can still not guarantee their products are free from child labour. When looking for ethical treats to give out this Halloween, look for products that are fair trade and organic certified. Many health food stores and supermarkets now offer fair trade certified chocolates in single-serving packaging—perfect for trick-or-treaters.

Buying certified products not only guarantees the use of ethical and sustainable standards, but also sends a message to industry representatives that these are the kinds of practices that we support. a

Health benefits of chocolate

Chocolate doesn’t need to be a guilty pleasure. Numerous studies in recent years have shown cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, to have promising health benefits in many areas:

  • reducing risk factors for heart disease
  • lowering blood pressure
  • increasing HDL cholesterol
  • reducing inflammation
  • boosting mood
  • improving symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome

Chocolate can be a significant source of fat and sugar, so make sure to eat in moderation. Darker chocolates are a safer bet, as they contain more of the key ingredient, cocoa, and the most health benefits.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD