Confessions of a Chocoholic — It’s All in the Bean

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting friends and noticed a Christmas catalogue from a German chocolatier on the table. Thumbing through it my mouth watered with the turn of every page. This visual distraction was converted into a topic of conversation. Soon, the only recourse was to raid the pantry of its Belgian chocolates and indulge our chocolate fetish. Wow!

Beyond the selection of finely-crafted chocolates featured in the catalogue, there was a section on the history of the company, some tidbits about chocolate-making and general comments about the source of chocolate – the cacao bean. I decided to research chocolate a bit further. This turned out to be quite a learning experience.

Information about chocolate is easy to find. Google has 66,500,000 hits on “chocolate” and 3,410,000 on “cacao.”

Wikipedia

The theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods,” is an evergreen tree, native to the tropical regions of South America. Each tree has 6,000 flowers that produce maybe 20 pods. Each pod contains 20 – 60 beans. It takes 300 – 600 seeds to produce 1 kg of cocoa paste.

Field Museum

There are 592,000 Google hits on cacao production. Like most agricultural products, there is a general production process for cacao that is millennia in the making yet heavily influenced by scientific and technological developments over the past two hundred years. The pods are harvested, cut open, fermented (sweating), dried (cured), and packed in the first phase of processing. Then, the seeds are sorted, cleaned, roasted, cracked, fanned, and winnowed to separate nibs from shells in the second phase. In the third phase, nibs are ground into chocolate liquor (cocoa paste). Then, some of the liquor is pressed to render fat (cocoa butter) and the coarse leftovers are dried and ground into cocoa powder. The remainder of the un-pressed liquor is mixed with condensed milk, sugar, and extra cocoa butter form a crumb which is refined, conched, tempered, and molded into chocolates.

Much of the first phase of processing – harvesting, opening the pods, fermenting, drying, and packing – is done the same way it has been for centuries. It remains labor intensive since mechanization is not possible and several steps can only be done by hand. In addition to the physical work there is considerable human judgment involved in deciding which pods are ready to be harvested, monitoring fermentation, and controlling drying so that the result – the bean – captures the full richness of flavor and quality possible. This requires considerable skill and experience on the parts of those who are involved in this phase.

Designer Traveler

Because the cacao bean, the key raw ingredient required for making chocolate, can only be grown in certain tropical regions around the world, it’s price per pound is exceptionally high. That price is driven up by overseas buyers from Europe and North America who process the cacao but cannot grow it themselves. This is the reason cacao-growing countries like Ecuador don’t have a strong chocolate-making culture despite having the perfect cacao-growing conditions. The cost of the raw ingredients is just simply too high for the local consumption.

The cacao “Nacional” is sold in Europe as an elitist gourmet-product and gets prices up to 50 Euros per kilogram, whereas at the beginning of the production one kilogram costs only 0,58 Eurocents.”1

The post-harvest phases are highly mechanized thereby substantially reducing operating costs and improving consistency of quality and output. Considering a nearly 100:1 ratio of finished chocolate to packed cacao beans, this concentrates revenue AND profits in the later phases. It leaves very little for skilled labor conducting first phase work.

Because of high labor content, keeping the cost for labor low is an imperative. It can lead to abuse of the workforce without respect for the value and criticality of their knowledge. The most severe form of this abuse is slavery.

Food Empowerment Project2

There are 940,000 Google hits on slave labor chocolate industry. Slavery is not a new problem. Still, it challenges one’s sense of assumed social, economic, and political progress to think that the institution persists.

Dissident Voice

There are 6 hits on Google News about slave labor in the chocolate industry. There is nothing available that shows the current situation in real-time – a ground truth benchmark – but indications suggest the practice continues. It is, as it turns out, an engrained part of a colonial system setup centuries ago to facilitate exploitation. That system will not change easily because it pays-off.

TransFair USA

There are 1,330,000 hits on Google for fair trade certified chocolate. It suggests that if a sufficient number of people buy from stores or sources that sport the Fair Trade Certified label the system will change because the pay-off changes. That means changing the buying patterns of people. This means informing them about critical factors they need to take into consideration when they buy certain products, making the process of buying the products they need and want through alternative channels as easy, or easier, than conventional channels, and assuring availability with competitive prices. A tough call.

Ithaca Fine Chocolates

Equal Exchange

There are 7,900,000 hits for chocolate bars on Google. Two weeks ago I would have taken any of them. Now, I’m keeping time to a different drummer. A system changes one conversation at a time. In this case, it is one chocolate bar at a time!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Friday, November 25, 2005

  1. http://www.ecuadorline.com/ecuador/newsletter/Newsletter200501.htm Original article quoted no longer available
  2. http://www.showmenews.com/2005/Feb/20050214Busi010.asp Original article no longer available