One of the more annoying tendencies of politicians throughout history has been selective outrage. It’s hard to take seriously a politician who fulminates about Situation A while utterly ignoring a parallel and equally outrageous Situation B.
It’s something to keep in mind as governments here and in Europe debate over trade barriers to keep out goods made through slavery.
The European Union is currently considering a comprehensive ban on all products, including foods and beverages, that are made with forced labor. If a product involved slave labor at any point in the supply chain, foreign or domestic, it would be banned from all 27 EU nations.
The plan is in a preliminary stage and will likely take years to implement, if it even survives. But if it does, the compliance divisions of every large food company that does business in Europe will get sudden increases in their workloads.
The EU proposal comes on the heels of implementation of a similar regulation in the U.S.: the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which went into effect in June. That measure seeks to protect the Uyghur people who live in the Xinjiang region of western China by banning products made with their forced labor. The Chinese government has been credibly accused, despite its strident denials, of abusing its Uyghur population through detention, slavery and worse.
There is, however, a big difference between the two measures: The U.S. law specifically targets China, while the EU measure would regulate everything sold on any store shelf in the member countries.
That’s where the implications for the food & beverage industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, start to come in. Forced labor has been an alleged part of the supply chain in a variety of food commodities from the developing world, including seafood, palm oil, coffee and, especially, cocoa.
According one estimate, more than 2 million children work cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, which, among them, produce 60% of the world’s cocoa beans. Many if not a majority of them are trafficked from remote areas and have no option to leave, much less any say over their working conditions.
This situation, and others like it, would presumably be addressed by the proposed EU measures. They are untouched by the Uyghur law or by any other law or regulation in the U.S., even though it’s possible they could be, according to the Wall Street Journal: “In theory, U.S. law has for decades targeted goods from around the world, but that provision has been only sporadically enforced through the years.”
It's not hard to see why. Chocolate is far more popular in America than any foodstuffs that could conceivably come out of Xinjiang. Any attempt to regulate it, in a way that could well end up increasing the price, would probably engender some kind of backlash.
And yet there’s no other realistic way for reform to get done.
The major chocolate companies periodically pledge to “reform” their supply chains, but all that does is generate a lot of press releases that are forgotten about the following year. It’s not hard to see why: The first one to stop buying slave cocoa would go out of business, because it would be forced to raise its prices significantly higher than its competitors’.
In other words, this is a situation where the government has to step in for there to be any realistic chance of reform. Businesses exist to make money; ensuring justice and decency is, at least in theory, the proper purview of governments.
Restricting the chocolate supply chain would be uncomfortable, for consumers as well as companies. But the child slaves of Africa’s cocoa farms are plenty uncomfortable too. It would be a shame to neglect them because China makes an easier target than chocolate.