Nestlé SA, the world's biggest food company by sales, is commissioning third-party investigators to probe its supply chains in Ivory Coast, underlining the failure of industry and government initiatives to weed out child labour on cocoa farms.
The move also shows Nestlé tackling a new front in consumer activism – spawned in part by social media – decades after it faced mass boycotts over controversial sales of baby formula in Africa.
While consumers have yet to ditch chocolate altogether, growing pressure from protests and TV documentaries on child labour in cocoa plantations are spilling on to social networks, prodding manufacturers into action.
The move by Nestlé, which buys one-tenth of the world's cocoa, acknowledges the lack of progress on child labour, said Jose Lopez, chief operating officer.
"There's a sense that maybe we have tolerated something like this for too long. That's shared by us … we want to be more effective than we have been in the past."
Chocolate manufacturers were galvanized into self-regulation – enshrined in the Harkin-Engel Protocol – in 2001 when the U.S. proposed legislation calling for a 'slave-free' labelling requirement on all cocoa products.
But the agreement is seen by many, both in the industry and among non-government organizations, as having failed to deliver. Almost 2 million children worked on cocoa-related activities in Ghana and Ivory Coast in 2007-08 according to a U.S. government-funded project carried out by Tulane University.
Nestlé is working with the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating sweat shop labour. The FLA, whose investigators are going out to Ivory Coast in January, will receive a percentage of Nestlé's turnover, capped at $300,000 (U.S.) per year.
Mars Inc. has also formed partnerships with NGOs and others to address the issue. But the privately owned chocolate-to-pet-food group said: "Ultimately, making progress in eradicating the use of the worst forms of child labour in cocoa production requires the support, co-operation and commitment of governments of cocoa-producing countries, cocoa farmers and others from within the cocoa community."
Mr. Lopez agreed – "the reason [for relative inaction]is we don't run these countries" – but also pointed to the long and complex supply chain, which sees cocoa pass from farmer to trader through a range of middlemen and co-operatives.
But he holds out hope for getting governments in cocoa-producing countries on board. If they fail to address the issue, he said, "we will go away and buy cocoa in Indonesia. Because we are not going to tolerate this any more."
However, as the industry discovered when Ivory Coast descended into turmoil earlier this year, it is a difficult country to replace. It accounts for one-third of global cocoa production, and 10 per cent of Nestlé's supplies.
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