WASHINGTON – Before you pop that Valentine chocolate in your mouth, consider whether it could have been produced by child slaves (search), lawmakers said Monday in admonishing the chocolate industry for its pace in monitoring labor practices on West African cocoa farms (search).
"If we can have our tuna fish dolphin-free, we can have our chocolate slave-free," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said at a news conference where he pledged to abstain from chocolate and refrain from buying Valentine's Day (search) chocolate for his wife and daughter.
A can of tuna fish as the ultimate guilt-free gift for one's valentine?
Engel and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who in 2001 helped negotiate an industrywide protocol on child labor practices, said industry representatives told the lawmakers they would miss a July 1 deadline for certification that children were not being exploited on cocoa-growing farms.
It was a "show of bad faith," Engel said, adding that he and Harkin were considering legislation that could require labeling on chocolate products guaranteeing they were not made with child labor.
The Chocolate Manufacturers Association (search) is "puzzled and surprised" by the charges, and is fully committed to meeting the July 1 deadline, said industry spokeswoman Susan Smith.
She said the industry to date has complied with every deadline in the 2001 agreement, and it has initiated a large-scale test of a cocoa farm labor monitoring program in Ghana (search) and the Ivory Coast, the source of more than 40 percent of the world's cocoa beans.
More than 650 hamlets are included in that pilot program, she said. Progress has been good in Ghana but somewhat slower in the Ivory Coast (search), where civil strife and lack of roads make it hard to reach many areas.
Human rights activists estimate that as many of 90 percent of cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast use forced child labor, Harkin said in a statement.
"The chocolate companies have the leverage and clout to stop this suffering. But if corporate responsibility is lacking, Congress will be obliged to act," Harkin said.
In 2001, Engel and Harkin were promoting legislation to ensure against child exploitation in cocoa production, but pulled back when the industry agreed to take voluntary steps to monitor labor practices in producing countries.
Of the missed July 1 deadline, Engel said, "They have to convince us that they are not just stringing us along."
Harkens said he was buying his wife flowers instead of chocolate this Valentine's Day.