Washington The chocolate industry and its allies are mounting an intense lobbying campaign to fight off legislation that would lead to "slave free" labels for their products.
The proposed legislation is a response to a Knight Ridder investigation that found that some boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast, a West African nation that supplies 43 percent of U.S. cocoa. The State Department estimates that as many as 15,000 child slaves work on Ivory Coast's cocoa, cotton and coffee farms.
The House of Representatives passed the labeling initiative 291-115 in late June, and it awaits action by the Senate.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on the issue this fall. "There is a strong consensus in the committee to act," said Chairman Joseph R. Biden, D-Del. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime foe of child labor, also may offer a wide-ranging proposal aimed at eliminating child slavery on cocoa farms.
The Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., a trade group that represents U.S. chocolate producers, has retained two former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat to lobby lawmakers. It also enlisted allies such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents companies such as Kraft and General Mills. The business coalition is focusing on lawmakers who serve on powerful spending committees and those with chocolate and food companies in their home districts and states.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., author of the House proposal, said, "I am disappointed in the industry, because I would have thought they would have some sort of social conscience. Instead, they are pouring God only knows how much money to continue their profits on the backs of children, and I think they should be ashamed of themselves."