Harkin and Engel focused their piece around the story of Aly Diabate, who they claimed was forced into slavery at 11 to harvest cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast, and criticized western consumers for being unaware of such problems.
"Few realize that most of the cocoa beans that go into Nestle, Mars and Hershey candy bars come from Ivory Coast, where thousands of enslaved boys - some as young as 9 - work in the most squalid, brutal conditions imaginable," said the politicians.
They cited the Harkin-Engel Protocol, signed in 2001, as a supposed solution to cocoa slavery, whereby chocolate manufacturers agreed on the need to eliminate the worst forms of child and slave labor throughout the chain of chocolate production. The producers also decided to implement a voluntary certification system to give a public accounting of labor practices in the cocoa-growing countries.
However, according to Harkin and Engel, last month the food companies said they would not be able to meet the certification deadline of 1 July 2005. They planned instead "to initiate a small pilot program in Ghana and, perhaps, in Ivory Coast".
The US based Chocolate Manufacturers Association speaking on behalf of producers around the world vehemently denied that they were to planning to miss the deadline.
"The industry will complete development of effective, credible standards of certification for cocoa farming by 1 July, 2005 - as required by the Protocol," said spokesperson Susan Smith. "These standards will form the basis for expanded farm labor monitoring and independent verification across the West African cocoa region during the 2005/2006 crop harvest, with the first certification report issued in early 2006."
She also emphasized that the association and chocolate manufacturers want to work closely with local populations to create "long-term improvements in social and economic conditions".
She agreed that there were problems concerning cocoa farming families that needed to be solved, such as children being made to work on the farm rather than attending school and unsafe working practices, for example, but cited an independent survey, conducted by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture as part of the Protocol, that found that the vast majority of farmers were farming cocoa responsibly.
The association also denied that they had received any specific information about any group or individual in an "abusive labor situation."