Ten percent of products in the food and drink category are "adulterated or mislabeled," according to a new study by Ecovia Intelligence, an ethical product research firm. Seafood, parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, herbal tea—all of these products were investigated and outed as oft-disguised and mis-marketed in Larry Olmstead’s 2016 food fraud expose, "Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It."
But what about labeled grocery products we're conditioned to trust? Especially products that can charge a high premium for being "ethical" or "sustainable"? Chocolate, particularly, comes to mind. The bean-to-bar phenomenon can command upwards of $10 for a single chocolate bar, but are we really getting what we pay for? According to an April 2016 study on millennial purchasing habits, the artisanal-loving generation often fails to ask questions about the ethics of their chocolate sourcing, so we asked the questions ourselves.
First, what, other than an arbitrary label, qualifies chocolate as sustainable?
“I see the sustainability discussion from two angles, the socioeconomic — fair prices and labor practices — and the environmental — sound agricultural practices, biodiversity, etc.,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
"Most cocoa farms throughout the world are small family holdings of just a few acres and their output, high costs and intensive labor required often mean cocoa farmers straddle established poverty lines," he explains. "The complex collection and distribution system as cocoa beans travel from origin to factory to consumer compounds the issue of fair farmer prices, who are often left with the smallest portion of a chocolate bar's retail price."
Laiskonis says he's personally unaware of any intentional food fraud or mislabeling in the chocolate industry, but that doesn't mean it’s not happening.
"There are few, if any industry standards (government or self-imposed) when it comes to labeling and understanding the process and provenance of a bar," Laiskonis explains, noting that a few label cues, like an origin or cocoa variety statement, grower information and insight into the manufacturing process can help guide consumers toward sustainable choices.
While third-party certifications like "Direct Trade," "Fair Trade," "Rainforest Alliance" and "organic" may be helpful, they're also cost-prohibitive for small farmers, as well as ineffective, thanks to bureaucracy in several cocoa-growing parts of the world. Pricing can also be an effective way to sort through chocolate bars, knowing that some chocolatiers will inflate their prices because of the popularity of the fine chocolate market, but a cheap chocolate bar probably reflects cheaply sourced beans or low-quality chocolate.
The best way to feel confident that your chocolate is ethical and sustainable is to know your maker.
"I often advise that the more transparent, detailed and credible the story offered by the chocolate-maker, the better chance that the chocolate is of higher quality, produced with greater care, and ultimately, with a greater sense of ethical responsibility," Laiskonis says.
In the case of Greg D'Alesandre, the chocolate sourcer and owner of bean-to-bar chocolatier Dandelion Chocolate, an annual public sourcing report (which includes where the beans come from, how much Dandelion pays and how the operation works) helps him connect to consumers on a traceable human level.
D'Alesandre spends over 20 weeks of the year traveling to visit producers in 25 different cocoa-growing countries in order to find the best possible cocoa for his business, so he can feel comfortable with the farms he’s buying from.
"Most people in the world are trying to do a great job at the thing that they're doing," D'Alesandre told AlterNet, on a rare week he was actually working from his headquarters in San Francisco. He gives producers the benefit of the doubt, building trust with them in order to "be as transparent as humanly possible."
Knowing producers personally, and having point people around the world, allows him to communicate openly with his clients and create relationships. But, he admits, "Trust is a tricky thing," adding that "some people look to certifications [for buying chocolate], but we have a personal relationship with the people that we work with. With a certification, people go to audit what's going on. But it's easy to lie to an auditor; it may be harder to lie to me. An auditor is checking on you; I am buying the beans — lying to me can put our business relationship at risk." And with all the elements he inspects, he says, "lying would become laughably complex."
In one instance, D'Alesandre was relieved that a farm in the Dominican Republic informed him that a fermentory mixed its beans with another farm's beans, making the cocoa to be used in the Dandelion bar a combination of blended beans rather than "single reserve." D'Alesandre still purchased the beans, labeled the chocolate bars accordingly, and continued his relationship with the farm.
Because he only visits most of his producers one week out of the year or less, D'Alesandre knows that the other 51 weeks of the year could potentially look very different at the site, but still attributes on-the-ground research to knowing the true origin of a chocolate bar (he said some large companies, like Valrhona, excel at this).
"It's much more about me understanding the people who we’re working with, to make sure that we have aligned values," D'Alesandre said. "I rarely run into people who have any ill intent. They are sustenance and crop farmers trying to produce good cacao — the land is their livelihood."
Certifications can be prohibitively expensive for farmers, so D'Alesandre will also look to see how well they're treating the environment and using their land, avoiding burning crops and using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Most likely, the farmers can't afford chemicals, nor would they want to use them, as chemicals don't help cocoa grow any faster. D'Alesandre also evaluates how money is distributed among workers, especially based on the cost of labor in each region.
To determine pricing for his chocolate, he looks at what "people need to survive" in a given area—not the standard rate companies are willing to pay for cocoa — in order to keep business ethical and sustainable. "That's the biggest reason we have the sourcing program we have; [we don't use] what the world market says is 'fair.'"
To know if your chocolate is ethically, humanely and sustainably sourced, the best and perhaps only verifiable way is to see the production with your own eyes. With social media, that has become more doable, but the next best thing is speaking with your chocolatier or producer of bean-to-bar chocolate. D'Alesandre can tell detailed stories about the locations he's visited, and he's not going to sugarcoat the situations in cocoa farms across the planet.
While he's never witnessed slave labor or forcible child labor on his site visits, he says it's common to see children working with their families on their family farms. "In some countries, there are no schools; the kids are working with their families on the farm and they don't perceive it as 'labor,'" explains D'Alesandre. "There's no other option for what to do with their child, but they want them to have an education and a better life." Supporting ethical, sustainable small business can hopefully boost a local economy and lead to educational opportunities further down the line.
More than anything, knowing the reality of the everyday lives of the people growing and selling the cocoa will verify what a $10 bar of chocolate truly is. "[Some] people travel for an exotic vacation, rather than seeing what’s actually on the ground,” says D’Alesandre. “It’s just a nice story to tell, until you talk to the people who are actually involved."