Hershey pledges $10 million to improve West African cocoa farming, fight child labor


David Ariosto

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The Hershey company, one of the United States' leading chocolate producers, says it's pledged $10 million over the next five years to educate West African cocoa farmers on improving their trade and combating child labor.

The region is home to about 70% percent of the world's cocoa but has also been the source of recent scrutiny over its alleged use of child labor. (More about the issue)

Hershey's announcement Monday heartened activists, who say the company is finally focusing efforts on improving the root cause of the issue.

"It's a start," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. "We see this as a welcome first step toward accountability."

The company said in a press release that chocolate consumers will later this year be able to purchase a new version of Hershey's Bliss brand, which will be 100% made from Rain Forest Alliance-certified farms mostly in Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Gearhart's organization, which had planned to run a Super Bowl advertisement denouncing Hershey for its alleged use of child labor, has since decided to pull the commercial because of Monday's announcement.

"We feel (Hershey's) joining with Rain Forest Alliance sends the right message, but its just the start," said Gearhart.

Rain Forest Alliance, a New York-based conservation group with whom Hershey has partnered, says it employs monitors in West Africa to conduct random audits of cocoa farms to ensure they are pursuing sustainable practices without the use of child labor.

Following such audits, the organization issues certificates to farmers or group certificates to collections of small farmers, using "several dozen auditors" for tens of thousands of farms across the region, according to Alex Morgan, a Rain Forest Alliance senior manager.

Currently, between 1% and 2% of Hershey products are certified, said Andy McCormick, the company's vice president of public affairs.

"Hershey is extending our commitment with new programs to drive long-term change in cocoa villages where families will benefit from our investments in education, health and economic opportunities," said J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey President and CEO in a statement.

The move follows a recent CNN documentary entitled "Chocolate's Child Slaves," that explored a human trafficking network and farmers using child labor in Ivory Coast.

-CNN's David McKenzie contributed to this report.