Hershey, PA—A coalition of independent natural food stores and co-ops, along with several human rights and consumer groups, has sent an open letter to The Hershey Company, urging it to make a substantially larger commitment to relying upon ethically-sourced, Fair Trade cocoa for its chocolate products. The letter comes in the context of reports that illegal and often forced child labor is a major issue with overseas cocoa production.

According to the letter, signed at press time by 65 stores such as Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets and organized by groups including Green America and the International Labor Rights Forum, the U.S. State Department has estimated that over 109,000 children work in the cocoa industry of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). 10,000 of these children, by the same estimate, are victims of human trafficking and slavery.

Hershey has shown outward signs of acknowledging the problem by getting its Bliss and Dagoba chocolate lines certified by Rainforest Alliance, an organization focused on sustainable and economically beneficial raw materials sourcing. The company has also pledged to invest $10 million in West African sustainable cocoa programs by 2017. But critics point out that these commitments represent a small percentage of the company’s overall sales and profits, and they also point to the pledges made by Hershey competitors regarding ethically-sourced cocoa. Both Mars and Ferrero have committed to 100 percent ethically-sourced cocoa by 2020, and Nestlé is working with the Fair Labor Assocation to see if it needs to improve its supply chain

The retailers claim that they will consider removing the Hershey-owned Dagoba and Scharffen Berger chocolate from their stores along with any other Hershey products until steps are taken. The letter concludes, “We appeal to you and the Hershey Company’s legacy of caring for disadvantaged children. Please consider our concerns so that we can continue to work together in the future to meet the growing demand for socially and environmentally responsible chocolate.”

Jimbo Someck, owner of Jimbo's...Naturally!, four natural retail outlets which appear as signees of the letter, says of getting involved in the issue, “It goes along with our values. I just believe that treating workers fairly and taking care of the community and environment should all be parts of the equation. Unfortunately too much emphasis is put on the bottom line at the expense of others.” Other retailers echo the sentiment. Says Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, “Supporting chocolate companies with ethical sourcing and production practices is in line with PCC’s mission to provide sustainable food and build healthy communities.”

The groups organizing the campaign, which is centered on a Web site called Raise the Bar Hershey! (www.raisethebarhershey.org), are calling on other and larger natural food industry players to sign the letter, including Whole Foods Market and UNFI.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2012 (online 8/28/12)