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The stories always make their way around, this time of year. Needles in chocolate bars. Razor blades in apples. Poison.

Tainted candy.

The stories are spread by parents, by church leaders, by local politicians and talking heads. They're spread by the well-meaning, and the ill-informed. They're spread by the fearful, and the paranoid.

“I heard about this one case . . .”

I remember going door to door, as a child, and getting popcorn balls, baked goods, homemade candies and treats. No more. They're all extinct - no parent would allow them, no child take them, no neighbor dare hand them out. We've all heard about the tainted candy, and we're taking no chances.

It’s all bogus. For all these stories persist, there has never been a documented case of strangers maliciously tampering with candy. None. There are no needles, no razor blades, no rat poison.

But there is tainted candy out there – toxic treats that have already claimed the lives of children - and odds are, your child will get some of it this Halloween. Odds are, you will even be handing it out yourself.

Read on . . .

"It is a glorious thing to be indifferent to suffering, but only to one's own suffering." - Robert Lynd

You are a child in Mali – twelve, maybe thirteen. Yours is one of the poorest countries in Africa, one of the poorest in the world. Children here have always worked. They work alongside their parents, or work in the village to help support them. Sometimes, they are even sent off to other families, other villages, if it gives them a chance to learn a trade. They do not wrestle with the choice of school or work – all too often, there is no school to choose.  

One day a locateur comes to you and says you can go work in the rich plantations in Cote d’Ivoire. He says you can make over a hundred dollars to help your family. You will be educated. You will get a bicycle. Maybe he finds you as one of the homeless street children in the markets. Maybe he comes to your family and offers a small “good faith” payment to let you go. Either way, the offer is made. History and culture and simple desperation tells you to say yes, and the locateur takes you the few hundred miles to one of the cocoa farms of the Cote d’Ivoire.

There is no money. There is no bicycle.

You work a hundred hours a week. You carry bags of cocoa beans that weigh more than you do. If you don’t work hard enough or fast enough, you are beaten with tree branches, or bicycle chains. You live on corn paste, or burnt bananas. You sleep in a single room, with almost twenty other boys like yourself. Your toilet is a bucket. To keep you from running away, you are locked in every night.

"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" – Patrick Henry

Well, life and peace, no, but what would you do for a Klondike Bar?

Chocolate is a $50 billion industry, and growing. The U.S. spends about $18 billion, by itself - two-thirds of that from "Big Chocolate" (Kraft, Mars, Nestle, & Hershey). Some of that is probably in your house right now.

Two-thirds of the cocoa beans that go to make that chocolate come from Western Africa. Cote d'Ivoire - the Ivory Coast - produces over a third by itself, on some 600,000 farms.

Over 200,000 children work on those farms. Some small number of those are the farmers' families, or the children of neighboring farmers who all take turns helping each other. Many more are hired . . . but some of the rest are slaves. Solid estimates are hard, but 15,000 is a recurring figure. Of course, the differences between the "hired" children and the slaves can be largely semantic, depending on the farm.

"The greatest crimes do not arise from a want of feeling for others but from an over-sensibility for ourselves and an over-indulgence to our own desires." - Edmund Burke

Big Chocolate buys its cocoa from middlemen - companies that buy cocoa from the thousands of small farms, and then sell and export it. Chief players in Cote d'Ivoire include Minnesota-based Cargill and Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland. Both of them express their commitment to a slavery-free cocoa trade - but if either of them have ever broken ties with an individual farm over labor practices, there's no record of it.

But Big Chocolate itself doesn't have clean hands, either - child slavery in the cocoa trade was exposed by Knight-Ridder in 2001. Ten years ago. The industry's initial defense was that they didn't own the plantations, so it was out of their hands.

Only when Congress edged toward legislative reform, spearheaded by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), did the industry pledge to clean up its own act. In return for a legislative reprieve from a "no child slavery" labeling requirement, they vowed to regulate themselves. By 2005, they said, they would have industry-wide standards on cocoa buying aimed at driving slavery out of the industry.

We are six years past that deadline. Guess how it's going.

Mars has made some "progress" - but that progress itself says a lot. The company partnered with Rainforest Alliance in 2009, and today certain Mars products carry the "RA certified" seal. The seal means that 30% of the cocoa involved is certified to not have been grown by child slaves.

Mars is optimistic that all their products may earn the seal by, oh, 2020.

Thirty percent.

“A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” - Proverbs 13:23

Despite the enormous global market - and the enormous dollar amounts - very little of the money in the chocolate trade makes its way back to the farmers. Most of the cocoa farms in Cote d'Ivoire operate near bankruptcy. Often, they're forced to take out loans from the buyers for fertilizer and supplies, leaving them in a cycle of debt even as the buyers bring constant pressure for lower prices. The farmers, to survive, cut costs wherever they can. . . and child labor cuts costs.

The corruption and incompetence of the Houphouët-Boigny regime that ran Cote d'Ivoire for forty years only made it worse. The civil war that followed, even more so. "Blood chocolate" - cheaply-grown slave cocoa - served as a revenue stream for the warring factions. The politics of Cote d'Ivoire, at least as it effects the cocoa trade, has not much improved (newly installed President Ouattara has voiced support for cleaning up the cocoa trade, but no one's putting money on it yet).

"And who is responsible for this appalling child slavery? Everyone." - Mary Harris ("Mother") Jones

It is easy to call the farmers villains, and many are. Stories of beatings and chains and imprisonment are not tall tales. They are a fact of the West African cocoa trade. But many more are desperate men, who worked the fields themselves as children, taking boys from the locateurs as a last resort - and working them in conditions no worse than their own sons.

The buyers and "Big Chocolate" . . . they're villains, surely, but they're corporations. What did you expect? I do not believe capitalism is inherently immoral. It is, however, most certainly amoral, and expecting corporations with billions in profits on the line to care about such things as labor conditions or economic justice is like expecting a shark to be ponder the morality of eating.

We are the conscience of capitalism, when we bother to be. We are the demand - either for locateurs and slavery, or for the kind of Fair Trade practices that break the cycle.

Yes, Fair Trade . . . boycotts would only hurt the farmers, ultimately - driving more of them toward the lifeline of cheap, child labor and making the whole mess even worse. But Fair Trade means a good price . . . and if you asked any farmer in the Cote d'Ivoire, he'd tell you: only a good price can end child labor.

"Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow." - Abdul Kalam

Look at what's in your cupboard, on your grocer's shelves, in that bowl of treats you'll be handing out in a few days. Where'd it come from? Who grew it . . . and how much say did they have in it? Learn about cocoa, and slavery, and Fair Trade.

The rogue's gallery of slave-tainted candy includes some of my favorite things in the world. Hershey's, who has steadfastly refused to adopt anti-slavery policies or even divulge information on their suppliers, made some of my particular favorites. But I'm done with them. No more Kisses, no more Peanut Butter Cups, no more miniatures.

Fortunately, I have options, sources for chocolate that's Fair Trade. It may not be easy. It may not be as cheap as buying a giant bag of familar treats at Walmart. But what choice do I have?

I heard the story of the tainted candy this Halloween, and I'm taking no chances.

Originally posted to Dark Armadillos of the Soul on Thu Oct 27, 2011 at 05:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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