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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.


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.”

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. 


If Boss Trump is headed for defeat, he's getting his revenge early. His revenge upon his deluded supporters and the people they love, that is. Trump's re-election campaign now consists mainly of what epidemiologists call "super-spreader" events: large-scale rallies of unmasked, non-socially distanced Trumpists yelling in each other's faces while the Big Man emits a non-stop barrage of falsehoods, exaggerations, and barefaced lies.

Let me put it this way: If, say, the Rolling Stones decided to put on free concerts at airports around the country, they'd likely end up being taken into custody and deported as undesirable aliens. Of course, they'd also draw far bigger crowds than Trump, but that's not the point. The point is that Trump's actions are reckless and immoral; the peacetime equivalent of war crimes.

"Covid, covid, covid, covid, covid," he hollers. Trump claims that the United States is "turning the corner" on the pandemic, and that the accursed news media will quit reporting Covid-19 fatalities come November 4. He claims that health officials are motivated by greed because "doctors get more money and hospitals get more money" if they report that the virus was the cause of death.

Surveys have shown that more than a thousand physicians and nurses have died fighting the disease nationwide.

As ever, what he accuses others of doing is an excellent guide to the question: What would Trump do? Answer: he'd steal the silver dollars off a Covid victim's eyes and demand an investigation of Joe Biden

According to the Washington Post, the Trump campaign organization signed an agreement with officials in Duluth, Minnesota to limit attendance at a September 30 fly-in rally, in accordance with public health guidelines. Hours before the event, it became clear that no effort was being made to honor the agreement; some 2500 Trump supporters bunched up without masks on the tarmac, ten times the agreed limit.

Health Department officials' protests were simply ignored. Three days later, Trump himself was taken to Walter Reed Hospital by helicopter. Three weeks after that, the following headline appeared in the Duluth News-Tribune: "St. Louis County sees another record-breaking week of COVID-19 cases."

Any questions?

The Trump Circus subsequently performed in Janesville and Waukesha, Wisconsin in the midst of a record-setting pandemic outbreak there. "It took us 7 and a half months to reach our first 100,000 cases, & only 36 days to reach our second," the Wisconsin Department of Health tweeted. "In just two short months, the 7-day average of new confirmed cases has risen 405%."

But the show must go on. Trump regaled his Janesville audience with a veritable torrent of lies. The New York Times did a thorough fact-check of his October 17 speech. Reporters documented 130 false statements during Trump's 87 minutes onstage. Nearly three-quarters of his factual claims were untrue. The most egregious concerned Covid-19, probably because the disease represents his single greatest failure and most damaging political liability.

Another question: Does Trump count upon his supporters' invincible ignorance or simply share it? I fear it's a little of both. In Janesville, Trump made this absurd claim two minutes into his harangue: "When you look at our numbers compared to what's going on in Europe and other places," he said "we're doing well."

Any regular newspaper reader knows that this is simply nonsense. As the Times reports, "America has more cases and deaths per capita than any major country in Europe but Spain and Belgium. The United States has just 4 percent of the world's population but accounts for almost a quarter of the global deaths from Covid-19."

Germany, to choose the most striking comparison, has suffered only 122 deaths per million of its population, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has recorded more than five times as many: 686 per million. Neighboring Canada, meanwhile, is at 264 per million. Several Asian countries, have handled the pandemic even better.

It's a matter of capable leadership and public cooperation.

No wonder Trump appears to have succumbed to a case of dictator envy. "COVID, COVID, COVID is being used by [the 'Fake News' media] in total coordination" he tweeted the other day "in order to change our great early election numbers. Should be an election law violation!"

Yeah, well they all report the same World Series scores too. Furthermore, if Trump had good election numbers, he wouldn't whine so much. Has there ever been a bigger crybaby in the White House?

(In related news, Vladimir Putin has issued a mandatory mask mandate after a surge in Russian Covid infections. Go figure.)

Meanwhile, the rallies go on; a bizarre spectacle people treat as if it's normal. Trump has become Covid-19's Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook who unwittingly infected 53 people back in 1906.

But unlike Mary, he should know better. If anybody should be locked up, as his rapt admirers chant, it's the Super-Spreader in Chief.