BBC Panorama: Chocolate – The Bitter Truth

On 26th March, the BBC’s Panorama series ran an exposé of bulk cacao farming in West Africa – the source of the cocoa used in most  ‘chocolate’ confectionery. (This is a rather delayed reaction as I’ve been trying to finish this blog entry ever since.)

In the programme Panorama reporter Paul Kenyon investigated the use of child slave labour in cocoa farming while raising some questions about Fair Trade.

Thankfully, Panorama has not succumbed too much to the modern TV disease of ‘reality’, so the programme was both quite watchable and informative. (Other bastions of BBC documentary strands, such as my once beloved ‘Horizon‘ have become totally dumbed down and unviewable.)

If you’ve read ‘Bitter Chocolate‘ by Carol Off, the state of cacao farming in Ivory Coast and the forced ‘migration’ of children from Burkina Faso to be used as unpaid labour will not come as a surprise. (You can listen to an interview with Carol Off about her book here.)

Panorama covered a lot of the same ground, but did include a lighter touch with it’s ‘made with child labour label’ logo chocolate bar.

The right target?

Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) is pretty much run by the big cocoa processors – ADM, Cargill, Callebaut, etc. The nature of commodity crops tends to make them corruptible, so it’s no surprise that the country that provides 50% of the world’s cocoa might have some issues.

Ghana has a much better track record. It’s more stable politically, has a good reputation for the treatment of it’s cocoa (if not the genetics) and in Kuapa Kokoo one of the most famous and reputable Fair Trade cooperatives.

While I’m sure that no cooperative will be perfect, Kuapa Kokoo was a bit too much of an easy target – because of its visibility. Apart from the admitted problems and suspension of some farmers, the cooperative came out fairly well. This didn’t exactly feel like the sharpest of journalism. Even when more ex-child labourers were found, this was a result of Kuapa Kokoo’s own investigations.

The Ivory Coast Fair Trade schemes were another matter, and I would have like to have seen the programme spend a lot more time here, especially given the complete and apparently uncooperative denial of any problems from the likes of Nestlé. Investigative journalism is not so easy in Ivory Coast though, as the disappearance of French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer illustrates.

Apart from Kuapa Kokoo, Fair Trade cocoa is fairly new to Africa. Most of the cacao used in the Fair Trade bars that have sprung up over the last ten years has come not from Africa, but from the South America and Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic.

In the fine chocolate and cacao worlds there are many stories and rumours about wheeling and dealing, bad deals and corruption in Fair Trade, or whether the scheme is appropriate for the premium end of the cocoa market. Some time spent checking out the voracity of these rumours in Latin America would have been really useful.

The cocoa trader

We heard from a cocoa commodity market trader. This was very telling. The trader was quite happy to admit that he had no interest in quality of the cocoa or how it was harvested. Well, that explains why most chocolate doesn’t taste very good then.

More shocking was the blunt admission that although he cared ‘personally’ whether child labour was involved in the production of the cocoa he was trading, he told us it ‘doesn’t matter’ from a business point of view. We’d have to ask – if the trader really did care personally – whether he was in the wrong job.

The problems with the cocoa commodity market were pretty much summed up here – banks of monitors with disconnected figures while a trader makes gambles that bring his company profit, condemning cocoa farmers to lives of poverty. Ok, it’s not all his personal fault, but this is symptomatic of how the cocoa trade functions.

It was good to see the Harkin-Engel protocol covered (a failed Washington initiative to label candy bars ‘child slave labor free’), though this will be old news to readers of Steve Chung’s ‘Hot Chocolate’ column from our old Chocolate Connoisseurs Club newsletter.

Making chocolate

The programme did rather commit a disservice to actual, bean-to-bar chocolate makers by misrepresenting the chocolate making process.

It was great to see Marc Demarquette get some airtime in the programme. All due respect to Marc though, he is NOT one of the UK’s most respected ‘chocolate makers’ as we were told in the introduction. (Nor is he pretending to be ). He is in fact one of the UK’s most respected chocolatiers (an artisan who buys high end chocolate and makes fresh bonbons and ganaches.)

Chocolate making, while simple in principle, is a complex and marginally economically viable process – especially at the fine end of the spectrum. I guess I say this at almost every turn, but there are currently only three companies that I know of making chocolate directly from the bean in the UK. They are: Cadbury Kraft, Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s Delectable and Duffy Sheardown’s Red Star Chocolate.

In fact it was Duffy who roasted (and I assume winnowed and nibbed) the cocoa used by the programme. Marc told me that he further cleaned the beans, then created a fine powder that was ground into a liquor. This was then mixed with cocoa butter, sugar, dried milk power and conched in a small granite conch for 51 hours. Marc describes this as “a very rough process which had achieved a respectable result”.

The recipe mimicked mass-market confectionery chocolate, but didn’t use any vegetable fat. As Paul Kenyon told us ‘this is chocolate as we know chocolate to be’. Well, if you mean the newsagent kind.

I know it wasn’t the point of the programme, but we didn’t really see how chocolate was made, especially the very important aspects of bean handling and treatment and most crucial of all, roasting.

The whole ‘made with child labour label’ gag was pretty good though – the chocolate Marc made was moulded and wrapped up in bars with a ‘made with child labour’ logo proudly displayed on the front. Members of the public were interviewed on the street as to whether they’d buy these bars or not. Of course the answer is ‘no’, which just shows how people might react if they were more aware of problems in the cacao production chain. (Or am I being optimistic here?)

Factual errors

Where cacao grows

A basic error came in the first few minutes of the show – we’re told that cacao grows in conditions ‘found only in a narrow belt of jungle just ten degrees either side of the equator’. I’ve never seen that figure quoted anywhere in any chocolate reference – the tropical 20 degrees being more common.

Ten degrees of latitude either side of the equator excludes both Madagascar – an African country famous for it’s quality cacao, and the regions where the Aztecs and Maya grew their cacao. Thus contradicting the statement made a few scenes earlier, when we were told that cacao originated in Central America. (It didn’t – recent genetic research confirmed the Upper Amazon region as the origin. Chocolate, however, is a Central American invention.)

The ‘chocolate earth’ graphic running under this part of the programme was a little more accurate, but still managed to miss out the Dominican Republic.

Next we’re told that ‘cocoa pods ripen quickly in the heat of the sun’. It takes a cacao pod about 5-6 months to mature. Is that ‘quickly’?

The first Fair Trade chocolate bar

Another error later on – we’re told that only 1 in 10 chocolate bars in the UK carry the Fair Trade logo and that ‘the first to do so was Divine chocolate, back in the later 90s’. The UK Fair Trade website begs to differ. Green & Black’s Maya Gold was the first ever certified Fair Trade product in 1994.

Maya Gold is a product still very popular today with a loyal following. (Though not without it’s own issues, and is dumbed down from it’s original 70% to the current 55%. If G&B’s PR department happen to be reading this, please check with your founder, Craig Sams before contacting me to tell me otherwise!)

Some of that loyal following might be Panorama viewers. Some of them might even remember buying Maya Gold before the name ‘Divine’ had ever been heard of in the chocolate world. Just how hard is it to research this stuff?

All this might seem like nitpicking. The worry is though that if some of these basics are wrong, just how far can we trust the research for the rest of the programme?


The final point of the programme is about transparency and tracibility, and here I’m in absolute agreement that this is the way forward for ‘ethically sound’ cacao and chocolate. Fair Trade might be part of the answer, but it is not the whole answer.

The only way we can truly trust our food is to understand where it came from and how it was produced. For foods made from commodities grown in other continents, this is particularly pertinent.

Luckily, there is a virtuous circle that exists in the production of the highest quality chocolate. You can only make really good chocolate if the source cacao is of the right kind and well cared for. That only happens when farmers are paid a decent amount for their cacao, and it also only happens when the sources are known and very specific.

This of course makes chocolate more expensive (about three times as much is my guess). The good news though is that we don’t need to eat as much if chocolate tasted better (less than a third?), and we don’t get addicted to a sugar rush. So we get better flavour, more pleasure and all the health benefits without the downsides and farmers get a higher price for their cacao.

Doesn’t that sound like fairer trade?

Marc Demarquette


  1. Duffy Sheardown April 19, 2010

    I only saw some of the programme but from what I did see there was little in the way of alternatives offered. Is “Fairtrade” any better than the standard bar? Any better at all? What else might a concerned consumer do? Is there any point n trying to help?
    I do have issues with the Fairtrade people – I pay a premium for Fairtrade sugar, for example, yet can’t mention this in the ingredients list. I still buy it but no-one knows – is that correct? Fairtrade now is a strong enough “brand” in its’ own right to throw more weight around – maybe they need to introduce “Fairtrade 2” to tidy up some of the loose ends.
    Farmers currently can lose money in a rising market by being tied to a cooperative agreement. Farmers have to be in cooperatives to join the scheme in the first place. I also am aware of farmers being offered the certification for a price – even though they aren’t in a cooperative. There are other documented problems with the scheme.
    Marc Demarquette and I spent an hour or so trying to decide what the correct approach is – do we refuse to use all cocoa from Africa because corruption is apparently so rife? Are the Fairtrade schemes in Asia and the Americas squeaky-clean?
    Eventually I will visit the farms I buy cocoa beans from and try and see for myself – but if they can pull the wool over Fairtrades’ eyes what chance do I have? Until their is a better scheme in place then I will carry on supporting Fairtrade – at the same time as paying a premium for good quality beans from as close as I can get to the actual farmers.

    Red Star Chocolate

  2. michael April 21, 2010

    I watched the programme with great interest and your excellent observations have improved my understanding of the issues. My question is: are there any companies that make chocolate from beans which are not produced using child labour. I love chocolate, but was completely ignorant about its origins. I won’t be eating it again until I can be assured that what I am eating is child labour free.Are my chocolate-eating days over? .

  3. Alexander Rast April 22, 2010

    The cocoa commodities trader probably justifies his actions that have the net effect of supporting child slavery under the very dubious IMHO but very widespread ethical principle that it is possible – no, indeed, ethically *necessary* to make a clean separation between one’s *personal* ethics and one’s *professional* ethics. You can see the problem with this – that this gives you a convenient way of quietly ignoring or justifiying morally repugnant outcomes. I think it results from a confusion with a much more sound ethical principle: that a person cannot be held *personally* accountable for moral or legal wrongs that happen as an indirect effect of actions on their part – if they had no control over the possible indirect outcomes. Well yes, you can’t and shouldn’t punish somebody for unintended consequences, but by the same token, once you are aware of the probability of unintended consequences of actions on your part, it seems to me you have a moral responsibility to avoid such actions – to an extent that trumps any “responsibility” you may have to an employer. Yes, that employer might punish you (by firing) for openly refusing to take certain actions but that merely illustrates that moral uprighness isn’t always easy. In a larger context, it’s questionable whether a company’s only moral/ethical responsibility should be to the financial interests of shareholders, but that’s another argument for another day.

    I tend to agree with Duffy – you do what you can. Exposing the fact that even well-intentioned systems may have flaws can be edifying, but that doesn’t mean one should throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject any well-intentioned system along with any other simply because abuses occur, which they inevitably do. To do so would imply that you could have a God-like omniscience about all the potential ramifications of buying choices you make.

    Finally, however, intelligent choices are important. It’s usually possible to get a sense of whether “Fair Trade” means anything in a local context. In the end you get what you pay for. A quality chocolate from a top-end manufacturer almost by its nature is going to have more implicit guarantees than any certification – and there is the additional reward of getting something you can actually *enjoy* rather than the more hypothetical satisfaction of believing you’ve made an “ethical” choice. It’s the same everywhere: there is no substitute for personal discretion and common sense.

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