Monday, October 31, 2011

A Peaceful Halloween

Happy Halloween to everyone and safe trick-or-treating to all the kiddos out there!

I read, think, and write regularly about the treatment of animals within our food system. We know huge corporations wield their power over cows, chickens, and pigs, but there is another species whose mistreatment deserves some attention: humans.  It is people who harvest fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and unfortunately those same corporations are guilty of taking advantage of their workers in the form of low wages and miserable conditions.

I love cashews.  They are a yummy topping in stir-frys.  They can be turned into a delicious dessert. But have you noticed cashews are one of the only nuts you can't buy in the shell? Cashews are a cousin to poison ivy, and between the shell and nut lie the same pesky oils that cause severe rashes in many of us.  It is the job of human workers, mainly in subtropical countries like Vietnam and parts of Africa, to remove the shell and toxins from these nuts.

Cashew workers are typically not given gloves or masks, so the oils cause burning and rashes on their hands and eyes.  In May of this year, several hundred workers went on strike in Mozambique because of their low wages (about 56 USD per month) and no access to toilets during their workday. What can we, the consumers, do?  Try peanuts, pecans, or almonds.

The vast majority of candy bars being tricked-and-treated every year are likely to have been made with cocoa beans picked by children. In fact, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimates there are 284,000 children working on cocoa farms along the Ivory Coast of Africa in hazardous conditions.

What companies buy these beans?  Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the U.S. division of Cadbury.  They claim the treatment and age of workers on foreign farms is beyond their control. Could it also be related to this equation: cheaper labor = cheaper cocoa beans? Certainly. 

As any woman knows, giving up chocolate is not an option, but alternatives do exist in the form of "fair trade" products.  Fair trade items are more expensive for the consumer, but they protect the farmer and the workers by making sure more money goes into their pockets. While fair trade food may be a bit harder to find, most specialty stores carry a lot of it and it is quickly becoming more mainstream. Those of us who can find it and can afford it should absolutely be purchasing fair trade when possible.

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