Ebola and The Cocoa Industry

Ebola and The Cocoa Industry

November 5, 2014

If there’s one topic on everyone’s minds these days, it’s Ebola. The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, affecting multiple countries in West Africa. And though it may seem strange to talk about the connection between Ebola and the chocolate, the reality is that West Africa is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans – with an estimated 73% of the world’s beans coming from the area, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO). Could the world’s supply of chocolate be in danger?

According to Jeff Beckman, Director of Corporate Communications at The Hershey Company, the answer, for the time being, is no. Hershey does not have cocoa operations in the affected areas of West Africa (Hershey sources their cocoa from Cote d’Ivoire, which produces 40% of the world’s cocoa, and Ghana), but their global commodities team talked with their cocoa suppliers to understand the situation, its potential to impact cocoa supplies and the actions being taken to prevent disruption. To date, the disease has not affected cocoa production, and their suppliers’ cocoa operations continue uninterrupted – even as cocoa farmers on the Ivory Coast ramp up exports as a preventative measure.

“Our suppliers have assured us they will be able to continue to supply our cocoa orders without interruption, even if the disease begins to impact the major cocoa-growing countries in the region. The suppliers have contingency plans and procedures ready to continue the export of cocoa from West Africa. In addition, more than 50 percent of the annual cocoa supply needed for the entire United States is already here in the U.S., which will allow for uninterrupted supply well into next year,” says Beckman.

Susan Smith, Senior VP of Communications at the National Confectioners Association, concurs. She says that to date, the outbreak has had little effect on candy and chocolate production – as Ebola hasn't reached the major cocoa producing countries of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. She also points out that the main fall cocoa harvest is being harvested right now without disruption. A spokesperson at Cargill said, similarly, "We can confirm that we have had no impact on our businesses in West Africa to date."

Unfortunately though, African cocoa farmers in the affected areas continue to face much larger threats. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) saidrecently that Ebola is already reducing the purchasing power of tens of thousands of those vulnerable households in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, 47% of those asked in a recent survey said Ebola was considerably disrupting their farming activities. 

“For the three affected countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the ongoing situation is having a serious impact on their economies. These countries are already among the most challenged in Africa, and any reduction in living standards as a result of this crisis must be addressed, so that ordinary people do not have to cope with the economic impact as well as the risk of the disease. The ICCO supports the work of the International community and the specialized agencies that are aiming to deal with these broader issues,” says Michael Segal, Information and Media Officer for ICCO.

A number of agencies, including UNICEF, Save The Children and World Vision (among others), are actively involved in alerting the public in order to increase the awareness and improve preventive measures in the affected countries to counteract the spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, with Nigeria and Senegal recently being declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization, it is fair to assume, says Segal, that the measures introduced by the neighboring countries have been effective.

“While some foreign workers are employed on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the two largest producing countries, the vast majority of these are already living within these producing countries, and most of them emanate from Mali and Burkina Faso, two countries that have not been affected by Ebola,” adds Segal.

The priority of FAO and the UN is of course to stop the epidemic and end the loss of life. Still, they have recommended immediate action to avoid a potential food security crisis, which includes stopping the spread of disease, boosting incomes and agricultural production, improving early warning systems and response, and reinforcing food security.

What about the concerns regarding the potential spread of Ebola through the cocoa beans themselves? Thankfully, those are unwarranted as there is no scientific evidence to suggest that insects are a vector in disseminating the disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, Ebola is a virus and is not spread through the air, water or by contact with food products (including cocoa beans). The only way that the virus is spread is through direct exposure to the blood or bodily fluids of individuals with the virus and by objects like needles and syringes that have been contaminated with the virus used by these individuals – not by food. And certainly, not by chocolate.

“Cocoa is a vital economic driver in the region and past challenges, including political unrest, have not stopped the export of this critical source of revenue and livelihoods for these countries. Hershey also sources cocoa from other tropical regions in the world and, if needed, we will adjust our sourcing to continue to meet the consumer demand for our chocolate and cocoa products,” says Beckman.