Chocolate isn't the only American staple tainted by slavery. In addition to being the king of cocoa, Ivory Coast is the world's fourth-largest Robusta coffee grower, after Vietnam, Indonesia and Uganda.
The two crops often are grown together, so the taller cacao trees can shade the coffee bushes, and on some farms, young slaves harvest coffee beans as well as the cacao pods that yield cocoa beans.
Robusta beans are blended with milder Arabica beans to make ground coffees and also are used to make espresso and instant coffees. About 5 percent of Robusta beans come from Ivory Coast. During the first three months of this year, nearly 1,844 short tons of coffee beans were shipped from Ivory Coast to Charleston, Houston, and Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., according to the Port Import Export Reporting Service.
As with cocoa, there's no way to tell whether a shipment of coffee beans contains beans picked by slaves or those picked by paid workers.
Some industry executives say that who picked the coffee beans is no concern of theirs.
"This government and this industry is not responsible for what happens in a foreign country at all," said Gary Goldstein of the National Coffee Association, which represents the companies that make Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafe and other brands. "We don't enforce their labor laws. . . . Isn't it the Ivory Coast government's job to enforce its own laws?"
Others say they don't think slaves are picking coffee beans in Ivory Coast.
"I am 99.9 percent certain that you are not drinking coffee from a farm that exploits child labor or uses slavery," said Celcius Lodder of the London-based International Coffee Organization.
"It might be the case but I don't know," Lodder added, saying he doesn't underestimate the problem. "If it is happening, then by all means let's fight them."
Some companies already have turned elsewhere for their coffee beans.
"We buy no coffee from Cote d'Ivoire (the official name for the former French colony), and we have not for approximately five years," said Sylvia Wulf, the vice president of marketing for the coffee and tea division of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. The company supplies more than 200 million pounds of coffee to more than 100,000 restaurants in the United States. "We made a decision that it was not an area of the world we wanted to do business with, based on some of the practices that we are learning more about."
Glendale, Calif.-based Nestle USA, which makes Nescafe, said it doesn't use Ivory Coast Robusta beans in the coffees it sells in the United States, though it does use them elsewhere.
Maxwell House, a unit of Phillip Morris' Kraft Foods, based in Northfield, Ill., did not respond to inquiries about the origins of its coffee. Neither did Folgers, part of Cincinnati-based Procter and Gamble. Shipping records show that 337 short tons of green Ivory Coast Robusta beans were sent to Folgers through Houston on March 18. There were no listings for Maxwell House in the shipping records examined.
Many coffee companies are reluctant to divulge the sources of their beans because they blend them according to their own recipes, known as "signature taste profiles."
"The signature taste profile is considered proprietary," a company-held secret no different from the formula for Coca-Cola, said Goldstein of the National Coffee Association.