PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania has a rich history with chocolate, and while the product’s source may be a world away, U.S. companies can’t ignore social issues like deforestation and child labor associated with the crop.
“It’s truly a global supply chain,” said Denis Harte, head of logistics at Blommer Chocolate Co. “We always source from all four corners of the planet.”
Harte talked about the global chocolate trail, its challenges and Blommer’s role in fighting back during a March 2 meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture.
Blommer brings cocoa to Pennsylvania from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Ecuador. The product moves through the Port of Philadelphia and on to one of the company’s four processing plants, including one in East Greenville.
The company says it is the largest cocoa presser and fully integrated chocolate and cocoa manufacturer in North America.
Blommer’s name may not be common on store shelves, but there’s a good chance it was part of the production process.
The company makes cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and chocolate coatings that other companies use in their products.
Blommer also has its own line of chocolates, but it is used for promotions and not sold. Blommer’s customers include Hershey, Mars and Nestle.
While focused on its manufacturers’ needs and orders, Blommer also faces the chocolate industry’s well-known problems.
Farmers of cocoa and other crops contribute to rainforest deforestation, so Blommer is working to reduce its environmental footprint with help from the Rainforest Alliance.
As part of the Cocoa and Forest Initiative, Blommer has donated cocoa and other trees to farmers located in deforested areas.
The company has begun enforcing best management practices, including limiting use of pesticides around water bodies and properly disposing of waste.
Blommer is also working to improve the lands around its U.S. factories. The company has sponsored One Tree Planted in Pennsylvania to plant buffers along waterways. For every 2,000 pounds of milk chocolate sold, the company funds the planting of one tree.
Child labor is another concern in the chocolate industry. Ivory Coast and Ghana, two of the largest cocoa producers, had 1.56 million cases of children engaged in hazardous work, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent report.
Harte said most cocoa farms are small, family operations, which contributes to the frequency of unsafe child labor conditions.
Blommer is working to address the problem, Harte said. The company funds Farmer Field Schools that teach producers about social problems and expectations, including compliance with child labor laws.
A tiered system helps disseminate information and monitor laborers. At the village level, Blommer relies on child protection committees that work directly with farmers.
The committees work with child labor monitoring and remediation systems, which focus on farms in Blommer’s supply chain.
Blommer encourages families to send their children to school, and has supported the construction and renovation of school buildings.
Agriculture across all sectors has seen a demand for organic products. According to USDA, organic acreage has increased 79% from 2011 to 2021.
Technavio’s 2022 organic chocolate market report said the sector is estimated to have a compound annual growth rate of 2.71%. Harte said Blommer is working to meet the demand by supplying organic chocolate to some of its customers.
“The supply chain has gotten more difficult in that regard because we basically have to keep everything straight, keep it separate,” Harte said.
One never-ending struggle for the chocolate industry is the cocoa plants’ susceptibility to disease. Monilia, witches’ broom and megakarya (a phytophthora species) are all too common and can wipe out a cocoa crop.
By grafting different bean varieties onto existing trees, the industry has been able to select resilient varieties that stand the best chance of survival, Harte said.
Ecuador in particular has made strides with grafting, and now a majority of its trees produce hardier Colección Castro Naranjal 51 beans.
“We all love chocolate, right?” Harte said. “So we at Blommer, we try our best to fill in all the needs of our customers, and they vary because as time has gone on, (the) supply chain has changed.”