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April 17, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Only ethical chocolate at PCC

Hershey bars and Swiss Miss cocoa were already out at PCC Natural Markets, of course. The local cooperative focuses on natural groceries at its nine locations, and artificial flavors or high-fructose corn syrup aren’t allowed in any products.

But the standards for chocolate just got even tighter, and even some brands thought of as more “natural” or artisanal have been booted from the PCC shelves — not for inferior ingredients or flavors, but because the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t show they met new ethical standards the grocery chain adopted for chocolates and cocoas.

Vendors must now guarantee (through independent certification or affidavits) that their chocolates comply with International Labor Organization Fundamental Conventions, which “include strict prohibitions against child slave labor, as well as provisions about age, working conditions and fair wages for all workers.”

Scharffen Berger, the higher-end brand now owned by Hershey, isn’t being stocked at PCC anymore, and even Portland-based Moonstruck, known for beautifully crafted seasonal truffles and candies, was cut. (A Moonstruck spokesperson said the company’s looking into the policy and believes its commitment to source cocoa ethically exceeds the PCC standards.)

Whole Foods Market removed Scharffen Berger in the fall as well, and the chain is “currently working on a responsible sourcing standard for cocoa.”

Child slavery and labor violations have been an ongoing scandal in the chocolate industry for years. Hershey and Mars have both pledged to source cocoa that’s certified as free of those problems — by 2020. On a faster timetable, chocolate was a logical category when PCC’s quality-standards committee looked at what issues to take up next, said committee member Eli Penberthy, associate editor of the market’s Sound Consumer newsletter.

“It was something our customers would expect. If they expect that the milk doesn’t have rBGH (an artificial growth hormone) and they expect the meat was raised humanely and the seafood was sustainable, (they would expect) chocolate would meet the same ethical standard. It seemed it was time for us to step up to the plate,” Penberthy said. Market administrators believe PCC’s the first U.S. grocer to hold such requirements.

“We tried to get our heads around how big the problem was in our stores. We have a ton of brands of chocolates,” she said. They decided to narrow the field to chocolate bars, candy, cocoa powders, baking chocolate and house-made bakery products, rather than extending the field to items like packaged cookies. They sent affidavits out to all vendors and told them of the decision.

“We were actually excited to see PCC … bring this out into the open and take a stand on it,” said Andrina Bigelow, CEO of Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolates. “It’s something we’ve all been thinking about for a long time, being in the business.”

Fran’s already had policies in place requiring its suppliers to guarantee they do not tolerate child labor on cocoa plantations, and met the market’s standards without making any changes to its practices. But their custom blend is sourced from “very specific plantations,” Bigelow said. “The beans we are sourcing are incredibly high-quality beans, coming from places where they’re being taken care of properly. We’ve seen that those also happen to be plantations where they are treating their people the right way and following these policies.”

In all its sourcing decisions, from shrimp to bananas to yogurt, PCC has to balance convenience and cost against mission and morals. In the end, chocolate was a simpler challenge than others.

To the committee’s delight, about 90 percent of the about 60 brands the store carried already met the new requirements. Seattle-produced Theo Chocolates, for instance, is based on fair-trade standards. But even companies who didn’t necessarily market themselves on those grounds were able to comply — including Blanxart, which at first thought it didn’t, but then researched its products and learned that it did.

The brands that were cut weren’t necessarily the bargain-brands, so it didn’t turn into a situation where higher standards meant higher prices, Penberthy said. “We were able to follow our hearts, so to speak, and still offer a great selection.”

Can they guarantee that customers can get a chocolate fix with a clear conscience? Is an affidavit enough?

“That’s an ongoing issue in the food industry … it is the best we can do for now,” Penberthy said.

It’s not a perfect solution, but — no pun intended — “it’s definitely raising the bar.”

Photo by John Lok/The Seattle Times

Comments | Topics: chocolates, ethical standards, fair trade


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