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A Grassroots Changing of the Status Quo in Cacao Supply Chains: Taza Chocolate

When looking for bean to bar chocolate companies that are part of the solution to the inequalities and labor exploitations in cacao farming, look no further than to Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Massachusetts.  To provide a wholistic analysis, this blog will examine what bean-to-bar is, the labor issues that exist within cacao production and the process used by Taza Chocolate.  This will provide a contemporary understanding of chocolate production and the cacao supply chain while highlighting a firm that is approaches the challenges in an effort to promote equality for farmers.  While Taza is only a small part of the solution to these problems, it helps lead small chocolate companies that provide high quality products while paying their farmers premium prices for their work. 

            According to Professor Carla Martin, bean to bar chocolate companies “transform cacao beans into finished chocolate products in-house. This is different than the work done by chocolatiers, who transform chocolate from another manufacturer into different finished products like truffles, bonbons, barks, or bars.”[1]  In addition, bean to bar chocolate companies use beans that are considered ‘specialty cacao’ in the production of ‘craft chocolate.’  In order for cacao to be classified as specialty cacao, it has both tangible and intangible characteristics.  Martin states that these range from flavor and variety to sustainability certifications and environmental protections.[2]  Although there is still research being done on cacao genomes, three main types of cacao trees, the forastero, the trinitario and criollo trees exist,[3] with the latter two being considered ‘specialty cacao.’[4]  The forastero variety is known as ‘bulk cacao’ which is sold at the market price without a premium and is used by a larger companies like Hershey and Mars.  When searching for specialty cacao, the five major producers are, but not limited to, Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador and Belize.[5]  As we will see later on, some of these countries are sources for the beans used by Taza Chocolate. 

            In terms of issues at play in the chocolate market and cacao production, there are several glaring issues that have caused calls for change in the industry.  The first to be examined is slavery, in particular, violations of child labor laws.  Although many of these accusations occur in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana (countries that do not produce large amounts of specialty cacao), it is still important to understand that these are the realities of many chocolate producers.  When examining labor practices in Ghana relative to cacao production, Amanda Berlan points out that just because slavery doesn’t exist in a legal sense, stark violations of human rights can still occur.  She writes, “labor processes typically fall somewhere within a spectrum of unfreedoms rather than under neat dichotomous labels and these should not be homogenized.”[6]  Anything that is found to deprive a child of the potential to have a fulfilling childhood is seen as a violation of labor laws and sadly, many children often face no choice but to work on cacao farms to support themselves or their families.  In an attempt to bring these abuses to light, the Harkin-Engel protocol was adopted by big chocolate companies, yet to little effect.[7]  While companies have acknowledged that these abuses exists, they have “insisted that the cacao chain is outside of their control.”[8]  It is an open secret that labor abuses exist in the cacao industry, but many large corporations do little about it.  It is only smaller producers that purchase higher quality cacao, like Taza Chocolate, who are not only aware of these dangers, but also buy from farms that do not exploit workers.

            The second issue that arises from the cacao process derives from the extreme poverty that many small farm families live in.  Carol Off points to this poverty as being a contributor to child labor violations.[9]  Since farmers are already incredibly poor, the need to save costs on labor exacerbates the need for children to work since parents do not need to pay them.  In terms of all the revenue that cacao brings in, farmers only see a measly 3% of all of the profits, earning under a dollar a day in income.[10]  Off points out that this exploitation is egregious and that despite reforms in the Harkin-Engel protocol, there is nothing in the protocol to pay farmers more.  She writes, “Nowhere in the agreement does it suggest that the cacao companies might simply undertake to make sure the farmers received a decent price for their beans.”[11]  Therefore, better practices could help to solve the poverty that farmers live in and also mitigate the need for cheap labor, which would help prevent child labor abuses.  Berlan argues that a grassroots approach, as opposed to a top-down approach, is best to attack the child labor laws.[12]  It is reasonable to believe that due to the correlation between the poverty of cacao farmers and child labor abuses, a grassroots approach would likely help solve the income inequality that the farmers face.  How will this approach be accomplished?  Taza is one of many bean to bar to chocolate producers that pays a premium to farmers and avoids child labor abuses in their farms through transparency.  To quote Taza co-founder, Alex Whitmore, “We believe both farmer and chocolate maker should share the reward of making a great product.”[13]  With this background in mind, let’s examine Taza Chocolate’s process to see why they are part of the solution to the problems present in the cacao supply chain. 

            In order to achieve these goals, Taza Chocolate employs what they call ‘Taza Direct Trade.’  The objective of Direct Trade is to remove “predatory middlemen and abusive labor practices,” while “ensuring quality and transparency for all.”[14]  The five commitments of Taza Direct Trade are as follows: develop direct relationships with cacao farmers, pay a premium price to cacao producers, source the highest quality cacao beans, require USDA certified quality cacao beans and publish an annual transparency report.[15]  By developing relationships with the farmers who grow their cacao, Taza is able to observe how the farms are run, allowing them to meet the goals that they have set forth to solve the problems that exists in the cacao supply chain. 

            In terms of setting better child labor standards, Taza Chocolate’s commitment to transparency, although being only a small producer, is a step in the right direction in an attempt to rid the cacao supply chain of labor abuses that sadly still occur in the 21st century.  This serves as a strong juxtaposition to big chocolate companies, recalling the writing of Carol Off, where larger producers claimed that they could not control their supply chain and thus, were not at fault.[16]  If small companies like Taza are the ones making an impact, why aren’t the large corporations also doing something about it?  This lends more credibility to the belief that a changing of the status quo in the cacao supply market will come via a grassroots movement, not big chocolate.  In addition to the transparency and direct relationships that Taza develops, the other key objective of Taza Direct Trade is paying a premium price to cacao producers.[17]  Not only does this reduce the need for cheap labor, but it also helps farmers immensely who often receive very little for their labors.

            As mentioned before in greater detail, when it comes to who gets the short end of the stick in terms of profits in the cacao market, the famers are the ones who hurt the most economically.  According to their Transparency Report, Taza employs two strategies, premiums and price floors, to ensure their producers receive top dollar for cacao beans.  The premium paid is “$500 per metric ton more than the NYICE (market) price.”[18]  In the event that the market prices are low, Taza has a fallback plan through the use of a price floor of $2800 per metric ton.[19]  The premium paid to farmers allows for many benefits as they are able to pay their own workers more as well as improving technology that is required to care for the cacao trees.  With increased funding, better labor practices exist on farms sourced by Taza in addition to considerations for sustainability and the environment.  In return for the premium they pay, Taza gains the “highest quality cacao beans,” another commitment of their direct trade.  The beans are classified with a 75% fermentation rate and dried to no more than 7% moisture.[20]  What makes Taza different than most chocolate makers is the fact that they stone roll[21] their chocolate which is an ancient Mexican process that is rarely practiced today.  According to Jesse Last, Taza’s Direct of Cacao Sourcing, conching, the process used by most chocolate makers, removes a portion of cacao’s bold flavors.[22]  Thus, the combination of stone rolling and high quality cacao allows Taza to achieve a unique[23] taste relative to most American products, while paying a premium to their suppliers. return for the premium paid to farmers. 

            The final area that shows Taza is helping improve the cacao supply chain is the spillover effects that they have had with other smaller chocolate producers.  They reinforce the idea that it will take a grassroots movement to achieve change.  Their Direct Trade commitments are no longer applicable to just them.  When Taza first published transparency reports, they were in contrast with the status quo, potentially jeopardizing the company with their high premiums.  Last writes “Sharing our sourcing partner relationships and the cacao prices we paid them struck many in the secretive chocolate industry as unusual at best and bad for business at worst.”[24]  Despite the risks taken by Taza, they appear to be ahead of the curve when it came to their Direct Trade protocol and have seen other small bean to bar producers adopt similar practices.  According to Last, “As it turned out, consumers appreciated our transparency, and other chocolate makers took note.”[25]  Although Taza isn’t one of the big chocolate companies, their model is an excellent blueprint for grassroots companies to help change the problems in cacao supply while maintaining a strong business with elite products.  When Taza was first founded, cacao brokers were not selling cacao that was both high quality and organic.[26]  Since Taza’s creation, that status quo has begun to change in this sector of the chocolate industry.  Following in Taza’s footsteps are the likes of Askinosie Chocolate, Madecasse Chocolate and Dandelion Chocolate which appeared in class. 

            Despite facing an uphill battle to change the cacao supply chain, Taza Chocolate’s evolution over the last decade offers hope for the future of the chocolate industry.  Smaller producers who follow a similar model will help to combat in the income inequality that threatens farmers by paying a premium for higher quality beans, coupled with higher quality products.  In addition, premiums and transparency practices, like those employed by Taza, will reduce the need for cheap labor and provide greater awareness into working conditions on cacao farms.  These practices promote the evolution of the status quo away from a longstanding tradition of inequality, dating back to the 1500s.  In the cacao market, bean to bar producers are working to shift the supply chain from one of abuse and inequality to one where farmers and laborers are treated fairly.  This blog serves to highlight the efforts and business model of Taza, but it is only a microcosm of the larger, gradual shift in the cacao supply chain.  The development and growth of companies like Taza offer solace in the fact that things can change with time.  Despite years of negligence to these issues, something is finally being done.  It is nice to hear that right here in Massachusetts, there are small business working to alleviate the problems that have been brought to our attention in class. 

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda.  “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on          Child Labor in Cocoa Production in Ghana.”  The Journal of Developmental Studies 49.8          (2013): 1088-1100. 

Giller, Megan.  Chocolate for the Table: How Taza Transforms a Mexican Drink Into a Bar With            Bite (blog).  http://www.chocolatenoise.com/taza-chocolate

The Gourmet.  “TAZA – Stone Ground Organic Chocolate.”  YouTube.  YouTube, 2 November   2012.  Web.  30 April 2019. 

International Cocoa Organization.  ICCO.  Last modified February 22, 2019.         https://icco.org/about-cocoa/fine-or-flavour-cocoa.html

Juan Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace de Silva a Mota, Rey Loor, David Kuhn, J.    Steven Brown and Raymond Schnell.  “Geographic and Genetic Population             Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree.”  Plos One.  Plos.  1 October 2008.       Web. 12 March 2019. 

Martin, Carla, “Sizing the craft chocolate market,” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (blog),     August 31, 2017, https://chocolateinstitute.org/blog/sizing-the-craft-chocolate-market/.

Off, Carol.  Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.  Toronto:        Random House Canada, 2006. 

Taza Chocolate.  Taza Chocolate.  Last modified April 2019.  https://www.tazachocolate.com/.


[1] Martin, 2017

[2] Martin, 2017

[3] Motamayor et al., 2019

[4] ICCO, 2019

[5] Martin, 2017

[6] Berlan p. 1089

[7] Off p.161

[8] Off p. 140

[9] Off p. 143-146

[10] Martin Jan. 30 Lecture slides 7-8

[11] Off p. 146

[12] Berlan p. 1098

[13] Taza Chocolate, 2015

[14] Taza Chocolate, 2015

[15] Taza Direct Trade Commitments, 2017

[16] Off, p. 140

[17] Taza Direct Trade, 2017

[18] Taza Direct Trade, 2017

[19] Taza Direct Trade, 2017

[20] Taza Direct Trade, 2017

[21] Taza Chocolate, 2019

[22] Taza 2018 Transparency Report

[23] Giller, 2019

[24] Taza 2018 Transparency Report

[25] Taza 2018 Transparency Report

[26] Taza Direct Trade “Learn” Tab

A Natural History of Cacao: From Bitter and Sweet to Monetary Value

When examining the natural and botanical history of cacao, its origins, uses and significance throughout time need to be evaluated.  Although this is will primarily highlight the history of cacao, chocolate will also have some focus as it has become the dominant use of cacao in today’s world.  Looking at the cacao bean, the origins start in South America and it will have a vital role in trade from 1500 AD onward as it evolves into the chocolate as most know it know today.  As discussed in class, it has been viewed in lights that are both good and bad and the same continues today.  To say chocolate is the end destination for cacao is nearsighted in a historical sense considering its original uses and only recent centuries developments have brought us to the modern use of cacao.

            When beginning the history of Cacao, we find ourselves in South America.  According to the work of Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn Sampeck, a “number of archaeological and linguistic analyses indicate that people domesticated Theobroma species first in the Americas, probably lowland South America” (Sampeck 76).  The general consensus is that cacao was first cultivated here, but it was not until it made its way north to Mesoamerica where its true rise to prominence began.  Despite the difficulty in cultivating it due to its fickle nature, Cacao was more broadly used and “came into its own once it reached Mesoamerica” (Martin 39).  As a result of this cultivation and the value of the bean, those in Mesoamerica who could grow it were considered wealthy, “where money literally grew on trees” (Sampeck 76).  Cacao’s use in bitter flavored drinks was common in Mesoamerica, but it was this monetary value that was most important in the Americas.  When looking at its history from a big picture standpoint, the value derived by the cultures of the Aztec and Maya are integral to the history of the fruit.  By the time of the Spanish arrival to Mesoamerica, cacao was in use as a currency and a symbol of “ritual and high-status” (Martin 40).  Upon the European discovery, it was the pecuniary nature of cacao that was originally desired, and not the culinary uses of the bean. 

            Due to a currency crisis in Europe in the sixteenth century, cacao was appealing as a currency when Europeans realized its value to the Mesoamericans.  Martin writes, “Cacao as a commodity money was taken on enthusiastically by Europeans, with the Crown quickly adopting cacao as legal tender for transactions” (Martin 41).  When cacao was used as a food in Europe, it did not carry over its Mesoamerican flavorings of traditional bitterness.  Sampeck and Schwartzkopf find the following about European flavoring for cacao: “The lack of corn, combined with the much greater variety of pungent floral and citrus-flavored ingredients as well as nuts, is decidedly different from the American flavor profile” (Sampeck 85).  In terms, of the importance of the history of cacao, it is the Europeans who really give way to what we know cacao for today (chocolate).  Driven by both the availability of flavors and desired tastes, these stronger and less bitter ingredients began to highlight the sweeter contrast that can be made with the bitterness of the cacao bean.  As industrialization began to take off, the availability of chocolate did as well.  Greater production and availability gave way to many of the trends that we still see today in the world of chocolate and cacao. 

            When assessing cacao’s importance in the modern world, it is impossible to ignore the chocolate market.  That said, there is still ongoing research on the plant itself as farmers look to increase yields and protect against diseases.  Considering its modern history, both should be considered.  As observed previously, although Mesoamerica was at the heart of cacao’s origins, it is in Europe where cacao consumption gradually transformed from bitter drink to the sweeter chocolate that it is known for today.  It is no surprise then, that Europe is the biggest processor of cacao (60% of the world) and the largest consumer per capita (50%), yet Africa provides most of the cacao for these producers and consumers (Martin 50).  Due to chocolate’s popularity, it is no surprise that it seems to be the only use for cacao today.  That said, there is still research to be done in an effort to design better crops.  The common, long held understanding about cacao was that there were three genetic clusters: criollo, forastero and trinitario.  However, recent research suggests that this is not the case.  Through statistics, Motamayor et al. were able to show that there are in fact 10 major groups of germplasm in cacao beans (Motamayor 2008).  With the continuing research into cacao, there will be ways to better innovate and grow the product given the land restrictions and potential diseases.  Although chocolate appears to be where the history of cacao is in present day, there are still other important things being done.

            In examining the history of cacao, there are three significant areas that come to mind. First, its cultivation and domestication in Mesoamerica where it developed as a bitter drink and gained intrinsic value.  Upon European colonization, the fruit made its way to Europe where two distinct developments occurred.  First, stronger and more pungent flavors were added which would eventually yield the chocolate we know today.  The second is the industrialization which allowed for cacao to be more accessible and no longer only a commodity of the wealthy.  Finally, in today’s world, chocolate seems to be the endgame for cacao, but scientific research shows that there is still work to be done in regard to our knowledge of cacao.  While still holding value as a luxury type of good, modern industrialization has given access to cacao for almost anyone who desires it.    

Works Cited

“The Cocoa: Fino De Aroma.”  Graphic.  Chocolate. SAVIC Services, 2019.  Web.  15 March     2019. 

“A Concise History of Chocolate.”  Timeline.  C-Spot.  C-Spot, 2008.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck.  “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.”  The Social            Meaning of Food.  Socio.HU, 16 June 2015.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Juan Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace de Silva a Mota, Rey Loor, David Kuhn, J.    Steven Brown and Raymond Schnell.  “Geographic and Genetic Population             Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree.”  Plos One.  Plos.  1 October 2008.       Web. 12 March 2019. 

“Figure 1.”  Graph.  Plos One.  Plos, 1 October 2008.  Web.  12 March 2019. 

Pucciarelli, Deanna.  “The History of Chocolate.”  YouTube.  YouTube, 16 March 2017.  Web.    12 March 2019. 

Kathryn Sampeck and Stacey Schwartzkopf.  Chapter 3.  Substance and Seduction: Ingested        Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.       72-95.  Web. 12 March 2015.