WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives Thursday adopted a measure requiring that candy bars and other chocolate products carry labels assuring that no slave labor was used to harvest the cocoa beans used to make them.
The measure, an amendment to a massive agriculture spending bill, would set aside $250,000 for the Food and Drug Administration to develop the labeling requirements. It passed 291-115.
For the FDA to act, however, the measure must survive a House-Senate conference where differences on the agriculture spending bill will be resolved.
The House action came in response to a recent investigation by Knight Ridder Newspapers that found that African boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest beans on some of the more than 600,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer.
It isn’t known how many children are enslaved, but the U.S. State Department human rights report for 2000 estimated that 15,000 child slaves toil on cocoa, cotton and coffee farms in Ivory Coast.
“Slavery is continuing to rear its ugly head in the year 2001,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who sponsored the amendment. “I don’t think the American people would want to knowingly eat chocolate or cocoa that was harvested by children who were tricked into slavery.”
It’s impossible to know whether specific chocolate products are made from cocoa beans picked by slaves because slave-picked beans are jumbled together with others harvested by free field hands in warehouses, ships, trucks and rail cars.
The chocolate industry objected to the House action.
"The amendment of this type is hurting the very people it is trying to help . . . because it puts a country that is producing all these beans at the risk of people saying, ‘We don't want to buy cocoa from your country’ although the majority of the farmers are not using slave labor," said Larry Graham, the president of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a Vienna, Va.-based trade group for American chocolate makers in an interview.
"The impression of these members of Congress have is that 600,000 farmers have slavery and it is rampant all over the country. That's just not true," Graham said, adding: "It puts a very complicated problem down to one industry, which is not fair and it isn't true."
The cocoa trade drives one-third of the Ivory Coast’s economy, and the CMA is working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to survey 2,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast to determine how extensive the practice is. It also plans to develop projects to help eradicate child slavery.
Engel rejected the argument that his labeling requirement would hurt Ivorians. "We always hear that nonsense . . . . We heard that over time about apartheid in South Africa."
Engel said he plans to find a senator to sponsor his measure in the Senate. "We are not going to stop until we end child slavery," Engel said.
The CMA is planning to fight the effort, Graham said.------
To learn how your representative voted on the Engel amendment, you can go to Congress’s website: http://www.house.gov and click on “roll call votes.” Then click on “107th Congress, 1st Session (2001),” then click on “roll 210” to see how individual members voted.