A report that was recently released by Consumer Reports (CR) found potentially harmful amounts of heavy metals lead and cadmium in 28 popular dark chocolate brands. Heavy metals are linked to health problems in children and adults. CR based their study on California’s standards for daily intake, which are stricter than those recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA has not issued a recall at this time.
The co-op is aware of CR’s findings and we’re grateful to CR for shining a light on the issue of environmental contamination. According to Pascha, a brand sold at Oryana and implicated in the CR findings, this is an issue that the chocolate industry, as a whole, takes seriously and has been working on diligently for years to ensure product safety. The National Confectioner’s Association also stated that the products in question are all in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements.
Generally accepted standards of levels of lead and cadmium in products derived from cacao were established in 2018 in a settlement between the chocolate industry and advocates of California’s Prop 65 law.
We believe CR raised an important issue that deserves attention, but there are several shared concerns regarding CR’s research methodology.
- CR show their test data in percentage terms instead of meaningful actual numbers, which distorts the differences between products and makes the amounts seem much higher than they really are.
- CR tested only 28 individual chocolate bars and did not conduct tests on multiple production runs, additional brands, and did not test products like brownies and hot cocoa that use cocoa powder.
- The CR study also does not use the standards established in 2018 by the main consumer advocates of Prop 65 protection and the main industry companies.
- Although it is true that there are no FDA defined maximum metal levels in chocolate, there are some international levels that CR ignores. In the EU, the maximum level for cadmium in chocolate with more than 50% cocoa content is 0.8 parts per million (ppm,) which is much higher than the limit that Pascha allows.
How do Environmental Contaminates Collect in Cacao Beans?
What we know for sure is that lead and cadmium present in polluted air, soil, and water tend to collect in cacao beans – the same way they tend to collect in root vegetables in the U.S. That means any product with cacao potentially contains these heavy metals depending on concentrations of beans that have been exposed to different environmental conditions on different days. Because of the aforementioned methodological concerns on the CR Study, it’s near impossible to get an accurate picture of which products on any given day might be higher in lead and cadmium than others.
Oryana’s Boycott Policy
In alignment with Oryana’s Boycott policy, we will not be pulling the chocolate varieties implicated in the study until legitimate concerns are elevated to the FDA. Removing implicated chocolate varieties also would not accurately reflect or remedy the root cause of environmental contamination and could give shoppers a false sense of security.
The Complexities of Environmental Contaminates
You might also be wondering how it’s possible that a brand can be Certified Organic and test higher in environmental contaminants. That’s because organic farmers can’t control their crop’s exposure to environmental contaminants that are carried by wind and water. The good news is that organic farmers don’t add new pollution to our environment. For example, much of the cadmium that contaminates soil is from conventional pesticides. Since organic farmers avoid pesticides, they are helping to reduce overall cadmium soil contamination, which ultimately reduces human exposure to it.
There may be some steps chocolate companies could ask growers to take, like putting a plastic barrier under the beans as they dry to help reduce contact with contaminated surfaces, but of course, the use of additional plastic only compounds pollution issues.
The Social Implications of Environmental Contaminates
This situation presents an opportunity to consider the complex issues of environmental racism. Based on our current understanding, lead dust from the air, soil and ground surfaces settles on cacao beans as they are drying, soaking into the wet, freshly harvested beans and absorbing into the beans as they dry. This means it’s not just the beans that are exposed to lead – the people in that community are also being directly exposed to lead in their air, soil and water. Removing brands from our shelves would impact the farmers who grow chocolate, and we’d like to give the farmers themselves a chance to say how they could reduce contamination of their cacao beans, and also for themselves and their families. Otherwise, we’re putting chocolate brands in the position of telling cacao farmers that, in order to preserve their livelihoods, they will need to somehow shield their cacao beans from the lead that their children are exposed to, so their product meets American consumers’ standards. We don’t believe this approach would be consistent with our cooperative values, given that these farmers’ homes and families are also impacted by heavy metal contamination beyond their control.
What is Oryana doing about it?
The complex nature of this issue is why we are working with brands that generally do a lot of things right (like meeting Certified Organic standards and engaging in Fair Trade practices) to understand what steps they could take that would be effective. Oryana is a member of National Co+op Grocers, which is engaging dark chocolate bar brands we work with and requesting their response to the report and details on their actions to mitigate the presence of heavy metals in their supply chains. Rather than pull the 23 varieties with bars that tested higher in CR’s study, we intend to inform shoppers about the issues, so they can have the information they need to make their own decisions. For example, the co-op has posted informative signage near cocoa products. We are also educating our staff on the issue to be able to best help shoppers.
What can concerned consumers do?
Ultimately, it may be the case that certain populations will decide to avoid dark chocolate and products made with cocoa powder in the same way that certain populations avoid tuna and shellfish due to environmental contamination. Additionally, some will continue to support organic and fair-trade brands, which are helping to address the root cause of environmental contamination by reducing overall pollution and lifting farming communities that are exposed to pollutants out of poverty. Outside of conscious consumption, concerned parties can:
- Contact chocolate companies with their concerns directly.
- Contact their U.S. Representative and Senators and specifically ask them to:
- Strengthen regulations related to heavy metals and increase testing for heavy metals in our food, including chocolate.
- Advocate for manufacturers to report levels of toxic heavy metals on labels.
- Express support for federal policies that strengthen environmental regulations prohibiting companies from using processes and products that increase the level of these persistent environmental contaminants (and many others) in our environment and ultimately, our food supply.
- Consider supporting organizations that assist with environmental clean-up internationally, particularly in chocolate growing regions.