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Chocolate industry isn't living up to labor agreement, senator says

WASHINGTON—Efforts to get the chocolate industry to adopt policies aimed at eliminating child slavery in the cocoa trade are near collapse and might require mandatory labeling of chocolate products, Sen. Tom Harkin said Friday.

Harkin, D-Iowa, said industry representatives had notified him that they wouldn't be able to meet a July 1 deadline to develop a system that certifies that cocoa bean growers aren't using abusive labor practices.

"We have cajoled, negotiated, held meetings and conducted endless conversations with the various stakeholders," Harkin said. "But the time for talk has passed. Children are suffering. The industry must make clear when and if it intends to live up to its commitments."

In June 2001, Knight Ridder revealed the use of child-slave labor in African harvests of cocoa beans, from which chocolate is made, prompting Congress to persuade the industry to join a voluntary protocol. Harkin took the lead in the Senate.

The agreement required the industry to develop standards that would certify that "cocoa beans and their derivative products have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor."

While at first agreeing to the July 2005 deadline, the chocolate industry has long argued that meeting it would be difficult. Certifying labor practices among cocoa growers would require getting information from more than 1 million cocoa farms in West Africa, many of them in remote regions, according to an industry progress report last year. Industry officials couldn't be reached Friday evening.

Since the outcry in 2001 over forced child labor, human rights groups have reported that abusive labor practices continue and children are still being exploited.

Harkin spokeswoman Alison Dobson said industry officials had agreed to meet with Harkin next month. "We need concrete details and a concrete timeline," she said. Failing that, she said, Harkin will introduce federal legislation that would require chocolate products to carry labels that certify that they have met International Labor Organization principles.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom Harkin

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