The leading organization responsible for policing standards in the world’s cocoa industry has regularly approved cocoa from West African farms that use child labor or have contributed to deforestation of the region, interviews and research show.

Utz, a Dutch organization responsible for the audits covering hundreds of thousands of cocoa farms, has had significant lapses in its compliance reviews, casting doubt on the claims by major chocolate companies that the monitoring efforts are eliminating those abuses.

For years, the world’s largest chocolate companies — including Mars, Nestlé, Hershey and others — have advertised that their supply chain has been cleared of abuses because they had been “certified” by one of three auditing organizations: Utz, Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance.

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Many consumers willingly pay more for chocolate made from certified cocoa, and most of the large companies have pledged to certify most or all of their supply. But problems at Utz, which has approved more cocoa than any other auditing organization, undermines those claims, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Washington Post.

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While the Utz guidelines are supposed to prevent environmental degradation, a former employee told The Post that many Utz farms were located inside nationally protected forests in Ivory Coast. Then, in response to questions, an Utz spokesperson confirmed that it has recently discovered more than 4,900 Utz farms located there.

Though Utz has rules against child labor, research reports co-sponsored by the organization in 2013 and 2017 found that Utz certified farms in Ivory Coast were more likely than other farms to have child laborers, with children putting in more work deemed dangerous, such as working with machetes and insecticides.

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And earlier this year, Utz discovered significant problems at four auditing firms responsible for approving a large portion of the world’s certified chocolate. The auditing firms cited for problems had conducted audits for most of the farms in Ivory Coast, the world’s largest single source of certified cocoa.

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In 2017, Utz certified 1.5 million tons of cocoa, or about two-thirds of the world’s supply of certified cocoa, according to industry statistics. Every year, it certifies the crops from hundreds of thousands of West African farmers.

“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.”

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A Post article in June documented widespread child labor 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.

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“You now have to ask, ‘what is the point of “certification” of cocoa?’ ” said Etelle Higonnet, senior campaign director for Mighty Earth, an environmental group trying to stop deforestation. “They’re trashing the forests, and they don’t pay farmers a living income.”

She said the group had asked Utz officials before about certified farms being carved out of protected forests but didn’t get an answer. The admission that more than 4,900 certified Utz farms were located inside protected forests is outrageous, she said.

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Utz declined to offer specifics about the problems at each of the four auditing firms in Ivory Coast, citing confidentiality agreements. But in a March letter, a portion of which was disclosed to The Post, Utz found that one inspecting firm had “insufficient audit activities, repetitive bad audit management practices, and poor certification decisions which are alarming.”

The problems, the Utz letter said, “put at risk the credibility of the certification decision and therefore the credibility of the UTZ program.”

Deficiencies found at two other auditing firms were deemed of equal severity — described as a “yellow card” — and the infractions at the fourth were categorized as even graver by Utz officials, a “red card.”

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In response to questions regarding these troubles, officials with Utz, which last year merged with Rainforest Alliance, emphasized that the problems were discovered during “normal monitoring.” The monitoring did not lead to sanctions of any farmers or co-ops, and no approvals for any batch of cocoa were rescinded. In April, to revamp its auditing practices, Utz stopped issuing new cocoa certifications in Ivory Coast.

Regarding the finding of more child labor on its farms, Utz said: “The whole picture is a bit more complicated.” It said that there were more reports of child labor on Utz farms because those farmers have “more awareness” of the problem. Researchers who conducted the survey, however, said that they took steps in their questionnaire to eliminate any such effects.

Utz officials also noted that while the organization had approved 4,900 farms located inside nationally protected forests, those farms are no longer certified and represent only a small portion of its roughly 423,000 farms in Ivory Coast. The map review that identified Utz farms inside the protected forests, however, is only partially complete.

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Finally, asked about reports from former Utz employees who said auditors are sometimes solicited with bribes and, other times, threatened with violence, the Utz officials indicated that corruption in the system was limited.

“In its fifteen-year history, UTZ Certified has investigated only isolated cases of corruption,” the organization said in a statement.

“We acknowledge that things must change,” the organization said in a statement to The Post, and accordingly, it is adopting a new approach to child labor. “A certification system must adapt and innovate to create more impact and provide more value to producers and companies. We have worked consistently to improve our standards, assurance mechanisms and associated interventions — and will continue to do so.”

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‘Unquestionably a challenge’

The chocolate companies that have boasted of their commitment to buying certified cocoa emphasized, in response to this story, that the certification efforts have helped in less measurable ways — they’ve trained farmers, for example — and that their efforts to halt environmental and labor abuses go beyond certification. Three of the companies issued statements in response to this article.

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Hershey: “Auditing cocoa farms in West Africa, which represents millions of farmers spread across more than 100,000 square miles, is unquestionably a challenge. Before certifiers went into West Africa several years ago, it had never been attempted. The fact that it is a challenge and the processes aren’t perfect doesn’t mean the work is not worthwhile.”

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Ferrero: In addition to certification efforts, “Ferrero Group has monitoring and control systems … and invests in community-based initiatives that address the systemic issues driving deforestation and child labor: poverty, lack of basic necessities, and other social problems.”

Mars: “Our aim is to ensure 100 percent of our cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable by 2025 and we will continue to work with farming communities, suppliers, governments and others to do so. In 2018, Mars launched its Cocoa for Generations strategy, calling for more demanding standards than certification sets today.”

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Officials with Nestlé declined to comment.

The chocolate industry began to embrace certification programs about 10 years ago as a response to two nightmarish public relations issues: First, more than 2 million child laborers were reported to be working on cocoa farms in West Africa; and second, satellite images suggested that those farms were responsible for some of the region’s cataclysmic wreckage of tropical forests.

“We think that this is what we are supposed to do as a responsible world citizen,” a Mars official said in April 2009 as it announced that it was moving toward 100 percent certified cocoa. Mars and most of the other companies continue to tout similar certification goals.

Cocoa is considered certified if one of three nonprofit organizations — Utz, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade — are willing to grant it their label, their seal of approval. The organizations set out rules for farms to follow and then authorize independent auditing firms to check for compliance. In the end, certification offers a little to everyone: Farmers who comply with the rules can advertise that their cocoa is certified and fetch a price premium of as much as 10 percent or more; companies pay a little extra for the cocoa, but it adds oversight to their cocoa supply chain; and consumers feel better about their chocolate.

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Of the three certification groups, Utz, the Dutch label, rapidly became the leader in cocoa, at least in part because the organization had aimed at making Utz attractive enough to reach beyond the niche markets.

The organization began as a certification label for coffee — the original name was Utz Kapeh, a phrase that means “good coffee” in a Mayan language. It moved into cocoa in 2008.

The goal was to bring sustainability to mainstream cocoa production, with chief executive Han de Groot saying, “making a meaningful impact would only be possible if we could reach massive volumes.” Accordingly, the organization took several steps to entice big companies.

For one thing, the price of Utz cocoa was right: The “premium” that cocoa buyers paid for Utz certified cocoa was significantly lower than what buyers paid for Fairtrade cocoa — sometimes just half as much, according to figures published by the labels. Several food industry executives served on the Utz board, among them two former executives from Cargill, a major cocoa buyer.

Last year, about 65 percent of the world’s certified cocoa bore the Utz label.

Four auditing firms cited

While the word “certification” may suggest rigorous enforcement, however, the inspections are patchy and the incentives for fraud considerable, according to interviews with former Utz employees.

The recent trouble in Ivory Coast highlighted just how critical these problems can be.

Ivory Coast is the main source of Utz certified cocoa, and the four auditing firms cited by Utz for auditing problems were responsible for about 90 percent of the Utz farms there, according to figures provided to The Post.

Two of those auditing firms are based in Africa — AfriCert and Bureau Norme Audit; two others, Control Union and Bureau Veritas, are based in Europe. The auditing companies involved revealed little about why they received warnings from Utz.

Utz “found that our local auditors had failed to investigate thoroughly the non-compliances found,” Udi Gabay, regional manager in Africa for Control Union, the auditing firm received the most severe warning from Utz, said in a statement. “This was the result [of] a lack of supervision by local management.”

Control Union is seeking to be reauthorized as an Utz inspector.

A representative of AfriCert referred questions to Utz.

A Bureau Veritas representative said that there had been “weaknesses at the auditors level.”

A representative of Bureau Norme Audit said the firm remains a fully certified auditor for Utz.

The sanctions do not “mean that all activities (audits, certification decisions) were conducted incorrectly,” Utz said in a statement.

Even when the auditing firms are operating properly, however, the inspection system allows many farms to go unchecked.

At Utz — as at other certifiers — when a group of farmers seeks certification, only a small sample of the farms are inspected. For a typical co-op of 1,000 farmers seeking Utz certification, for example, auditors might inspect only about 32. Audits are generally announced in advance, a practice that allows farmers to hide evidence of any deviations from the rules.

Once at the farm, inspectors often face an array of challenges, according to former employees, beginning with the fact that farmers have a substantial financial incentive to fool the auditors: If they pass muster with Utz, they may receive about $80 extra per metric ton of cocoa they sell.

Lenneke Braam, who until June was head of standards and assurance at Utz and Rainforest Alliance, noted that the pressures on auditors can be extreme, including not just enticements such as bribes but also death threats.

“How many I cannot say,” she said of the death threats. “But it happens.”

At the root of the problem is the desperation of the farmers, said Lucas Simons, who was global program director at Utz in 2008. The question, he said, is whether the high-minded certification guidelines drafted in Europe or the United States can be enforced in a setting where illiteracy and poverty are widespread, and where basic infrastructure — roads and electricity — are often missing.

“These people are poor — for them it’s a matter of survival,” Simons explained. “If people cannot read or write, if they make just 70 cents a day, and we come with 35 pages of requirements that they must meet, we are not creating a sustainable economy.”

Marginal difference between farms

Even some of Utz’s own research provides further evidence that the inspection system is weak: In key ways, the farms that it approves in West Africa are little different from those that are not certified.

Twice, in 2013 and again in 2017, researchers from Wageningen University & Research surveyed hundreds of farmers in Ivory Coast and compared farmers certified by Utz with those who were not certified.

The results were not flattering.

On the issue of child labor, the Utz-certified farmers had more child laborers than farmers who lacked certification. About 14 percent of noncertified farmers told surveyors they had child labor; about 16 percent of Utz-certified farmers did.

On environmental issues, the researchers studied general practices, planting of shade trees and waste management. There were some ways that Utz farms looked better: Utz farmers were more likely to have planted shade trees, which are a recommended means to counter deforestation. The researchers also credited the certification program with disseminating agricultural knowledge beyond Utz farms.

But overall, the studies found, the “levels of impacts have generally been marginal for certified farmers.”

“There remains a gap between what certification alone has been expected to deliver and [what] actually has been delivered,” according to an academic paper the researchers published.

Other researchers were more blunt.

Charity Ryerson, co-founder of the nonprofit Corporate Accountability Lab, visited five cocoa villages in Ivory Coast over the past year and found little evidence of anyone checking that “certified” farms were operating according to standards. For example, she said, a checklist requiring clean bathrooms was fully checked in one report even though none of the farms has bathrooms.

“From our experience talking to farmers, it was clear that certification meant almost nothing,” Ryerson said. “It’s an open secret in the Ivory Coast that almost no one checks the certified farms for compliance.

“Certification misleads consumers to believe that farmers earn a living wage, their children go to school, and labor conditions are decent. From the perspective of a farmer living in abject poverty, this is morally outrageous.”

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.