VEVEY, Switzerland (AP) — The world's biggest food company, Nestle SA, announced Monday it will work with a nonprofit group to investigate child labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms that supply its factories, a new approach to a problem that has tarnished the industry for years.
Little has changed in the decade since the Swiss company and other major chocolate makers signed a U.S.-brokered international agreement in September 2001 to rid their supply chains of child laborers.
Now, Nestle says it is joining the Fair Labor Association, an international group that evolved out of a U.S. presidential task force in the Clinton White House, to probe cocoa fields that supply its products.
It's the first time a food company has joined FLA, which used the same approach with sweatshops when big-name apparel and shoe manufacturers wanted to overcome criticism over child labor in their operations.
Fair labor campaigners and academics expressed cautious hope that the new strategy might finally make a difference.
"If it's really an independent investigation of the supply chain, it would be a good thing," said Flurina Doppler of the Swiss-based Berne Declaration, one of the advocacy groups that have criticized chocolate makers for allowing child labor to continue since they signed the U.S. protocol.
Auret van Heerden, president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association, said the audit will be independent, with unannounced visits to a sampling of farms. He said Nestle's costs will amount to less than a half-million dollars and the results will be made public in spring 2012.
Ivory Coast produces 35 percent of the world's cocoa. Its coffee and cocoa sectors account for 15 percent of GDP. The nation's cocoa production hit a record 1.48 million tons last year despite a political crisis that almost brought civil war.