Hardcover edition, 2006

When the cover of Bitter Chocolate caught her eye, and a co-worker asked me what I was reading, she said “Well, what else would those kids be doing anyway”.

A brief outline of the child labour practices in the cocoa industry and she could have cared less. She wasn’t asking questions, but making statements. I tried a couple of angles, but she just was not interested.

Those kids, on the other side of the world, in the Ivory Coast, have absolutely no relationship to the chocolate bars that she eats.

And that’s ironic, because “those kids” on the other side of the world have no idea what happens to the cocoa beans that they pick every day.

When Carol Off was in the Ivory Coast to research Bitter Chocolate, she was astonished to find that the child slave workers had no idea that these beans were used to make chocolate bars.

And they were beyond-astonished to learn that what takes them 2 1/2 or 3 days to pick is transformed into a product that someone on the other side of the world will consume in 2 or 3 minutes.

Talk about a communication gap. Not unlike the one I have with my co-worker. What’s to be done?

At an event last week, I heard Samantha Nutt speak about some of the horrors that she has witnessed in her work in Africa, and she was asked how she made the decision to keep working.

She said it was because she believed that once people have the information that they need, they will make decisions that make the world a better and safer place for everybody.

Bitter Chocolate gives chocolate-lovers the information that they need to make this kind of decision.

And, even better, it’s not a book that you will grit your teeth through reading; it’s a startlingly compelling narrative that literally pulls you through, like a good novel.

The focus of the story is the Ivory Coast, Côte d’Ivoire. More than 40% of all world’s cocoa comes from there and the majority of what’s in commercially-produced chocolate bars is sourced there.

There is a long history of cocoa production relying on slave labour, and in the hands of Carole Off this is not the kind of history that made you nod off in school.

The language used is casual, and the phrasing of the sentences, even when long, is such that you feel like you are part of a conversation.

Quotes are incorporated sparingly into the body of the work, and the notes are presented at the end, in a format which invites you to seek out additional reading on the subjects that interest you most.

It’s very readable, and accessible; even if you have no familiarity with the regions she is discussing, you have a clear understanding of developments and trends, as the years pass.

But where the story really gets traction is when she introduces you to Malick, a 14-year-old boy who decided to join the itinerant labour force. He was almost immediately caught up in a child-trafficking ring, which took him to the cocoa plantations.

That’s because, starting in the late ’90s and early 00’s, even adult slaves were too costly for plantation owners to maintain; they began to depend, instead, on child slaves, who not only didn’t require any kind of wage but could be controlled and exploited even more easily than adult slaves.

Sure, the history of this industry is disturbing, but when you take it down to a single person, whose experience is representative of a child in the industry, then it becomes personal.

(Malick is Malick; he is not just one of “those children”.)

And it obviously became personal to Carol Off, who travelled deep into Côte d’Ivoire with others who also care deeply about the future of this industry, this country, these farmers, these workers, these children.

(Other portions of the narrative focus on some of these individuals’ experiences too, which also serves to illustrate just how deeply vested are the interests surrounding this industry; it’s not just about farming, but about systemic corruption, about crime and arms deals, about trafficking and murder.)

Paperback edition 2007

Bitter Chocolate, published in 2006, might have been a different kind of book, had the industry agreed to meet the original deadlines they imposed in response to public pressure at the turn of this century to solve the problem of child slavery: July 2005.

Rather than accept a labelling system which would have identified which chocolate products were produced cruelty-free, they promised to clean up the industry. But that deadline passed and a new one was set for 2008, and the new targets for that new deadline were half of what they had been.

It’s 2011 and the situation in Côte d’Ivoire has not changed. Carole Off continues to be surprised by the degree to which the industry works to cover this up.

All of our great celebrations of life are associated with chocolate, she observes, and yet it embodies suffering and corruption. One would have hoped that Bitter Chocolate was out-of-date by now, but it’s definitely relevant reading.

What is the chocolate-lover to do?

Now that you know that the chocolate you love — the Kit-Kat, the Mars Bar, the Hershey’s Kiss, the Cadbury Eggs — can be traced back to children who live in slavery, what is your alternative?

You could, like my co-worker, tell yourself that those children don’t have anything better to do anyway. Or…

You can turn to a higher-quality product.

(Buying organic chocolate protects the workers from the toxic chemicals used to grow commercially-produced chocolate, and it also offers a premium price for the beans.)

You can put the pressure on Big Chocolate and say that enough is enough.

(You wouldn’t have fallen for Hershey’s old trick of calling his slaves “coolies” so that they weren’t really slaves. You wouldn’t have bought the old “conscripted labour” line that followed. And you’re not buying the corporate story that they’re spinning on their billboards now.)

You can tell your government that it’s not okay with you.

(Canada increased its imports from the Ivory Coast even after the reports of indentured labour were tabled for discussion, even after the war began there in 2002 and it became a question of buying Blood Chocolate when these imports were directly funding the arms purchases.)

But, first, you can read Bitter Chocolate. Don’t just take my word for it. It’s not a grim and dull read, it’s an informative and compelling read; it’s not about “those children”, it’s about our world.

Rather watch than read? Here are some options:

The Bitter Truth Part OneTwoThreeFourFive (BBC Panorama Documentary).

Carol Off in interview with Allan Gregg (nearly 12 minutes, TVO Productions).

Chocolate’s Bitter Side (less than 4 minutes, The FreeBean Campaign).

What do you think?

[Note: This also counts towards my reading for the 2011 Foodie’s Challenge.]