WASHINGTON — The chocolate industry and its allies are mounting an intense lobbying campaign to fight off legislation that would lead to "slave free" labels for their products.
The proposed legislation is a response to a Knight Ridder investigation that found that some boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast, a West African nation that supplies 43 percent of U.S. cocoa. The State Department estimates that as many as 15,000 child slaves work on Ivory Coast's cocoa, cotton and coffee farms.
The House of Representatives passed the labeling initiative 291-115 in late June, and it awaits action by the Senate.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on the issue this fall. "There is a strong consensus in the committee to act," said Chairman Joseph R. Biden, D-Del. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime foe of child labor, also may offer a wide-ranging proposal aimed at eliminating child slavery on cocoa farms.
The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents U.S. chocolate producers, has retained two former Senate majority leaders _ Bob Dole, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat — to lobby lawmakers. It also enlisted allies such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents companies such as Kraft and General Mills. The business coalition is focusing on lawmakers who serve on powerful spending committees and those with chocolate and food companies in their home districts and states.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., author of the House proposal, said, "I am disappointed in the industry, because I would have thought they would have some sort of social conscience. Instead, they are pouring God only knows how much money to continue their profits on the backs of children, and I think they should be ashamed of themselves."
Hiring high-powered lobbyists like Mitchell and Dole can make a difference, lawmakers say.
"There is no question that both Senators Dole and Mitchell have access to their colleagues," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho. "Access doesn't mean influence, but that does mean they can focus the attention on any given issue."
Dole and Mitchell did not respond Tuesday to requests for interviews.
After initially denying that child slavery occurs on African cocoa farms, industry officials say they are doing their best to find out how widespread the problem is and how to respond. They say there is no overnight solution and that the labeling initiative would only complicate their efforts.
A "slave free" label "would hurt the people it is intended to help" because it could lead to a boycott of Ivorian cocoa, said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.
Cocoa is harvested by many small family farmers in Ivory Coast who don't use child slaves, but also by some farms that do. In the multistage chocolate-production process stretching from Ivorian farms to U.S. manufacturers, beans harvested by paid workers are mixed with beans picked by slaves. That makes it impossible to determine what is slave-tainted chocolate and what is not.
Industry representatives emphasize their cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is coordinating a survey of 2,000 farms in Ivory Coast to determine the extent of slavery. The survey initially was part of a project between the chocolate industry and USAID to teach West African cocoa farmers environmental and economic sustainability. It recently has been altered, with help from the International Labor Organization's office on child labor, to address working conditions on the farms. The survey is expected to take six months.
Meantime, the industry is preparing "action plans" that are intended to help end child slavery in West Africa. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association also has reached out to nonprofit human rights groups, such as Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves, to help develop their programs.
"We don't need legislation to deal with the problem. We are already acting," Smith said.
"Oh, I've heard it all before," Harkin said of the industry's protestations.
Unless the industry demonstrates a commitment to eradicate child slavery in the cocoa sector worldwide, Harkin said, he might propose legislation that could cut off agriculture subsidies to the cocoa industry and prohibit the government from buying any cocoa products. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association is working with him to head off any legislation.