This Halloween, Beware of "Tainted" Chocolate

This Saturday night, as you give candy to the little ghosts, witches, pirates and princesses who've come to your door yelling “trick or treat,” you may get something in return: A piece of chocolate. And an education.

This Halloween, thousands of children across the country will be “Reverse Trick-or-Treating” to tell grown-ups the ugly truth about the chocolate industry. To do so, they will distribute chocolate samples that are Fair Trade Certified and will be accompanied by cards that say this:

Thank you for the candy that you are generously sharing tonight.

Like Halloween, chocolate should be a source of joy for all children, including those in countries where cocoa is grown. Unfortunately, that is not the case today.


Despite years of promises from the major chocolate manufacturers, little has been done to tackle the documented problem of forced child labor on many farms that supply their cocoa. Moreover, low cocoa prices have left cocoa farmers in poverty year after year.

There is a SOLUTION… Enjoy Fair Trade Certified chocolate!

This Fair Trade chocolate is proof that change is possible – today – and represents an important step towards larger reforms. Fair Trade certification prohibits the use of abusive child labor, and encourages the adoption of safer, chemical-free farming methods. Also, the guaranteed Fair Trade price paid for cocoa raises farmers’ incomes and supports a more environmentally sustainable small-scale farming model – which in turn provides hope for a better future for all our children.

Outside an elementary school in Yamasa, Dominican Republic, one of dozens serving the 10,000 families of the Fair Trade cocoa co-op CONACADO. (Photo courtesy of Equal Exchange)Outside a school in Yamasa, Dominican Republic, one of dozens
serving the 10,000 families of the Fair Trade cocoa co-op CONACADO.
(Photo courtesy of Equal Exchange)

Reverse Trick-or-Treating was the brainchild of Global Exchange, a human-rights organization that promotes international fair-trade commerce. They determined that the best time of year to educate people about the consequences of their chocolate purchases is Halloween. That's because chocolate is the number-one candy doled out to American trick-or-treaters, according to the National Confectioners Association 2009 Halloween survey (Reuters, October 8, 2009). Nearly 90 million pounds of chocolate are sold during the week leading up to October 31. That’s nearly as much as the amount sold in the weeks leading up to Easter (60 million) and Valentine’s Day (40 million) combined.

Adrienne Fitch-Frankel, Fair Trade Campaign Director for Global Exchange, says that most of that chocolate – all those M&Ms, Hershey’s bars, Reece’s peanut butter cups, Snickers, Kit Kats, et al – is made with cocoa grown and harvested by West African children as young as nine years old.

“About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa. Due to the dominance of West African cocoa in the cocoa supply, and the prevalence of abusive child labor in that region, it is more likely than not that if you eat chocolate that is not Fair Trade certified, it is tainted by the worst forms of child labor.”

The latest research from the International Labor Organization suggests that the number of children working in the West African cocoa industry is 284,000 – more than the total number of children, age 17 and under, living in Hennepin County: 266,930. Thousands of these children have been trafficked into the area and live as slaves. Each day at a cocoa farm is the same as the one before: 12 hour shifts hacking bean pods off plants with dull machetes, or spraying toxic pesticides without any protective clothing. Their pay is a measly food ration, such as corn paste and bananas, and a hut to sleep in. They are forbidden from leaving, and may be beaten if they attempt to do so.

Many Twin Cities residents who have heard these stories have felt compelled to help. Three whom I talked to are leading Reverse Trick-or-Treating campaigns for organizations or businesses they are involved with.

Julie Kurtz, co-founder of the Aldrich Church’s Arts Collaborative in Minneapolis, has decided to use children’s art classes and an upcoming exhibition to promote the cause of Fair Trade chocolate. “We see this as a natural extension of our work,” she said, “using art to work towards a more compassionate and just society.” She said that kids really get it. “When they hear that other children their age can’t go to school, or play, or live with their families, they want to know what they can do to help.”

Mary Lou Haldorson, a volunteer working on behalf of her church, Christ the King Lutheran in Mankato, said that the 350 Reverse Trick-or-Treating cards they ordered last year wasn’t nearly enough for every interested child. So, this year, she got 700. They're all gone. “Before I leave this earth,” she confessed, “I want every piece of chocolate, every cup of coffee, every product that is served in this church to be fair-trade.” (Mary Lou also manages Fair Trade product sales each Sunday that have grossed more than $4,000 in the past 12 months.)

And Kathy McGinley, manager of the St. Paul’s Ten Thousand Villages – a local, non-profit, fair-trade retailer – has been handing out Reverse Trick-or-Treating cards to her customers for the past three Halloweens. She thinks we should put more pressure on candy manufacturers “to change who they’re getting their cocoa from.” She explained, “It’s consumer-driven, so we have to change our buying habits. It’s what most effectively changes the marketplace.”

Some of the Twin City area food co-ops, e.g. Lakewinds Natural Foods, Linden Hills Co-op, Seward Co-op, Valley Natural Foods, Just Food (Northfield) and the Good Food Store (Rochester), are also getting into the act, distributing cards and samples of Equal Exchange, Fair Trade chocolate. 

If you're interested in participating in Reverse Trick-or-Treating, it’s not too late. Here are some things you can do:

1.    Buy Fair-Trade chocolate to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

2.    If your kids are going trick-or-treating, create a card that they can leave at the homes they’ll visit. Reinforce the card's message by attaching a Fair Trade chocolate sample to each one.

3.    If you’ve already purchased Halloween chocolates that are not Fair Trade, you can try to return them. (Target will take them back -- I know from personal experience -- if they're unopened and accompanied by a receipt.)

4.   Or, send your non-Fair Trade chocolates back to the manufacturers along with letters to their CEOs, explaining why you won't be buying their products again.

5.   As long as you’re writing letters, you can also contact chocolate trade associations, legislators, and retailers that sell chocolate that’s not Fair Trade.

6.   Finally, don't let "tainted" chocolate be a part of your Halloween ever again.