A Louisiana public pension fund is suing confectionery giant Hershey Co. over the company's alleged use of cocoa sourced from West African plantations using child slave labor.
The Los Angeles Timesreports that the Louisiana Municipal Police Employee's Retirement System, a public pension fund with holdings in Hershey Co., filed a lawsuit against the company in Delaware Chancery Court.
The suit aims to force Hershey to open its company files so that investors can learn which cocoa suppliers it uses.
The pension fund claims that Hershey's board knew for as many as 11 years that its cocoa came from West African suppliers that used child slave labor to harvest crops. The fund accuses Hershey of "flout[ing] domestic and foreign" human trafficking laws.
"That one of the world's leading confectioners-- whose primary market is children-- could exploit child laborers to meet its bottom line is an outrage," Jay Eisenhofer, counsel to the pension fund, said in a statement.
The fund has been joined by more than 65 retailers in expressing concerns over Hershey's involvement in African child slave labor.
Whole Foods Markets, an upscale supermarket chain based in Austin, Texas, has announced it will stop selling Hershey's high-end Scharffen Berger brand chocolate products over the issue of child labor.
Hershey Co. issued a statement claiming the company "takes it commitment to responsible sourcing very seriously and has been supporting cocoa-growing communities for more than 50 years."
"We have been involved with on-the-ground programs, working with public and private partners, to help eliminate inappropriate labor practices in cocoa communities," the statement continued. "As part of these efforts, Hershey is engaged with the US Department of Labor and the United Nations' International Labor Organization in programs to address these labor issues."
Indeed, Hershey Co. recently announced new plans to combat child labor and said it would use 100 percent "certified cocoa" by the year 2020.
A January CNN investigation found that child labor, trafficking and slavery were rife in the West African cocoa industry, one that provides ingredients to some of the world's best-known chocolate brands. UNICEF estimates that hundreds of thousands of children are employed on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast alone, which produces about 40 percent of the world's cocoa supply.
"In West Africa, where the Hershey Company sources much of its cocoa, over 200,000 children are forced to harvest cocoa beans every year," Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) told the Raw Story in January. The plight of those child slaves was brought to Americans' attention in a TV ad that aired during the 2012 Super Bowl.