The Real Halloween Horror: Trick or Treat Candy's Bitter Human Toll

Halloween candy
Halloween candy

One of the joys of the Halloween tradition is to dole out confections to costumed kids calling out, "Trick or treat!"

But while we're celebrating all things spooky and scary and sweet-tasting, the bitter reality behind the candy most Americans hand out for the holidays is who suffers getting that chocolate from cocoa-producing countries into your child's plastic pumpkin bucket.

The Dark Side of Chocolate

According to the National Confectioners Association, in 2011, Americans spent a record $2.273 billion on Halloween candy. Just look in any plastic pumpkin on Nov. 1, and you'll see that chocolate is a pretty standard Halloween treat of choice.

Before you bite into that chocolate bar, though, consider this: About 35% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa's Ivory Coast, where the day-to-day life of many children is terribly bleak. According to the Department of State, 109,000 children work "under the worst forms of child labor" there. They are subject to beatings, long hours, dangerous work implements, and pesticide exposure for cocoa production.

The International Labor Rights Forum has embarked on several campaigns to urge all chocolate providers to convert to 100% Fair Trade policies to even better address this heartbreaking problem.

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Some big candymakers -- like Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, and Kraft's (KRFT) Cadbury -- have made concrete moves and/or set goals for providing ethically sourced cocoa. But not all companies have been quick to respond.

It took quite some time for candy giant Hershey (HSY) to come around to the idea that it needs to address ethically sourced cocoa. The maker of iconic candy brands like Reese's, York Peppermint Pattie, Kit Kat, Mounds, and, of course, Hershey bars and Hershey's Kisses recently agreed to certify all its cocoa by 2020. But it's stopped short of vowing to provide only Fair Trade cocoa, which is the most rigorous certification for avoiding child labor in the supply chain.

Candy Gets a Conscience

It's nice to report that Hershey has at least caught up with its rivals in devising a more responsible stance on its cocoa sourcing. Still, to really remove the guilt from Halloween goody bags, Fair Trade treats are the way to go -- and this isn't quite as tricky to accomplish as you might think.

If you live close to a Whole Foods Market (WFM) store, you'll find the organic grocer puts major emphasis on Fair Trade chocolate in its candy aisle. Whole Foods carries hundreds of Fair Trade choices, helping farmers in cocoa-producing nations.In fact, its sales of Fair Trade chocolate have climbed 350% in the past five years.

As for handy Halloween-ready treats, consider the company's EnviroKidz treats, which help endangered species and conservation efforts. Whole Foods also carries bags of small Endangered Species chocolate bars that are perfect for trick-or-treat purposes (these are also Fair Trade chocolates ethically sourced from family cooperatives on the Ivory Coast).

Fair Trade brands are available at other stores, too. The Directory of Ethical Chocolate Companies lists specific brands available in a variety of grocers; these include Green and Black, Newman's Own Organics, and Trader Joe's Organic Chocolate Bars, just to name a few.

Treats That Keep on Giving

Fortunately, more big-name confectioners are responding to the pressure to address the issue of child labor in the supply chain. Such moves definitely help protect their brands from the distastefulness of supply-chain problems, and protect their shareholders from fallout from consumer boycotts.

This Halloween, shoppers can push for an even greater positive effect in cocoa-growing countries by buying Fair Trade options for trick-or-treaters. Helping contribute to improved conditions, particularly for children, in the countries that provide the core source of one of the most universally loved sweets is a treat that keeps on giving, after all.

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Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods Market.

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