In chocolate we trust

Whittaker’s Chocolate has again scooped the top spot in Reader’s Digest’s annual Trusted Brands survey.

But what does ‘trusted’ mean, really?

Do certain chocolate brands deserve our distrust? Woah, stay away from me Nestle, sneaky bastards! Really?

I get it – there’s mould growing on the integrity of our food supply. Which spray was used on my kale (organophosphate acephate, an insecticide banned in the EU because of concerns about its toxicity, as it turns out). And what’s up with all the bleached woody ginger from China, Countdown?

But back to the business of chocolate bars. We’re talking about sugar, cocoa, milk powder and, in the case of Whittaker’s “iconic original” Peanut Slab, nuts. What can go wrong?

Presumably the chocolate bars hiding at the bottom of your shopping basket are free of stray fragments of glass and Coronavirus. I mean, the managers at Foodstuffs wouldn’t stand for that kind of sloppiness.

Commenting on the award, Whittaker’s co-chief operating officer Holly Whittaker said the company was committed to making world-class chocolate, and that meant not compromising on quality, taste, or size.

That’s nice, but is there a chocolate maker who wouldn’t say that? And are such claims a solid basis for winning ‘most trusted’?

Perhaps there are clues in a recently released report examining 31 global chocolate makers, in which Whittaker’s ranked in the top four for producing a product that was free of deforestation, farmer poverty, and child labour.

Top four, eh – looks like there’s room for improvement. Still, anyone leading the pack on reducing the number of trees cut down, impoverished farmers, and exploited children in their supply chain should be commended.

University of Auckland senior marketing lecturer Bodo Lang said the core of trust was the belief that the brand did what it said it would do.

What is it we expect Whittaker’s Peanut Slab to do, other than to taste like dark chocolate and nuts? Surely that’s simply a matter of following the recipe. It’s not brain surgery. Now there’s someone you need to trust – the chap with the drill and the knife. Takes real skill, that. No fudging credentials in that line of work.

Trust it turns out is mostly about honesty, which knits rather conveniently with Whittaker’s strapline: Good Honest Chocolate. The idea is that we should trust Whittaker’s because an international non-profit organisation called the Rainforest Alliance assures us that the cocoa beans in Whittaker’s chocolate are farmed sustainably and the farmers are treated and paid “more” fairly.

Sounds good in theory, but how much can we trust the arbiters of trust and honesty when Utz, the largest cocoa certifier, found “alarming” problems at four firms responsible for auditing a large portion of the world’s supply of cocoa?

“Consumers believe that by buying certified cocoa they are doing something good for the environment, or children, or farmers,” said François Ruf, a researcher based in Ivory Coast and a co-author of a 2013 study co-sponsored by Utz. “But that is a fiction.”

A Post article in June documented widespread child labour on West African cocoa farms, despite years of promises by the chocolate industry to eradicate it. The industry also has been blamed for a role in the region’s epochal deforestation. The certification programs, which the major chocolate companies embraced several years ago, were supposed to address those problems.

I don’t mean to pick on Whittaker’s specifically – and I sincerely hope their beans stand up to scrutiny. But when your brand mantra is rooted in honesty, you’ve got to do better than buzz words and blind assurances provided by certifiers who it seems aren’t doing their jobs.