The University of Chocolate (UOC), 2005 - a review

Samantha Madell shares serious concerns about the course content and delivery.


Pierrick's Promise:
Pierrick Chouard makes some questionable claims
on the wrappers of his Plantations chocolate bars.

When I made the decision to attend the University of Chocolate (UOC) in 2005, I did so without much information. The information I had access to came from: a friend of Pierrick Chouard; Pierrick Chouard himself; the UOC course agenda; and the internet.
The comments on the internet relating to Pierrick Chouard and his Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate were invariably glowing. It would seem that most people - like me - are very keen to support socially and environmentally responsible chocolate.
Knowing what I do now, I feel that I would have benefitted enormously from reading a detailed review of the course, written by a past student without close ties to Pierrick's business (Vintage Chocolates / Plantations). Unfortunately, no such review was available.
As a matter of public interest, I feel that it is important for an independent review of the University of Chocolate to be made publicly available. It is in this spirit that I provide the following critique.


The information in this review pertains only to what I saw and experienced in Ecuador between September 30, 2005 and October 11, 2005 (inclusive).


Each item below links to a more detailed explanation.

Course highlights:

Concerns:



My background, and my expectations:
  • I attended the UOC as a student, not as a sight-seer or tourist.
    For this reason, I did not appreciate the days spent visiting tourist attractions and relaxing in the rainforest - especially given that none of these activities were mentioned at all on the course agenda.
  • I attended the course part-way through establishing my own chocolate factory.
    I was hoping to obtain lots of practical information, experience, and advice about factory set-ups and cocoa processing. The course provided very little useful content in this regard.
  • I have a degree in agricultural science, and had visited several cocoa plantations before attending the UOC.
    For this reason, most of what I heard and saw amounted to revision for me.
    While the course content (on the five days out of eleven that content was actually delivered) was interesting and enjoyable, I don't believe that is was useful enough to me to warrant the expense of the tuition, on top of air fares from Australia.
  • I am a passionate supporter of organic agriculture and fair trade.
    As such, I was looking forward to seeing a model system of sustainable and ethical agriculture. I was bitterly disappointed by the reality, described below.
  • I speak only a few words of Spanish.
    The UOC website suggested that "a translator will be available", but this was not really the case. The role of the only Spanish speaker on the course was not clear - she appeared to be both a staff member, and a student. In any case, the young lady in question was content to let the non-Spanish speakers fend for themselves when it came to everyday tasks like catching taxis and ordering food. This made me unhappy on a number of occasions. I felt that I would have enjoyed myself much more if either a) I spoke Spanish, or b) the group had a more professional interpreter.



Highlight: The other students.

I will not name or publish photographs of the other students on the course, out of respect for their privacy. But I will say that these people - all from the USA or Europe - effectively redeemed the entire experience of the UOC for me.
I made some lasting friendships, as well as some ongoing business contacts. I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to meet these people, who I probably would not have met without the University of Chocolate.



Jean Luc
Highlight: Jean Luc Battini's three days of lectures.

Jean Luc Battini is a Frenchman who works for CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development). He is an expert on cocoa, with a lifetime of field experience, and a great sense of humour. He has a flair for delivering scientific information in an extremely entertaining manner.
His lectures took place over three days at Kapawi Lodge. Throughout his lectures, Jean Luc regaled us with many memorable stories, ranging from tales about chimpanzees raiding cocoa plantations, to growers using old refrigerators as fermentation boxes.
Jean Luc was generous with his time and knowledge, and put together a 150-page course text book, packed with useful botanical and cocoa processing information, including black and white pictures. Unfortunately, this text book doesn't have page numbers, a table of contents, or an index - but overall it's a very good resource.



Pierrick Chouard

Highlight: The Amazon rainforest.

Experiencing the Amazon rainforest was something I had dreamed of doing since I was a teenager.
Enrolling with the University of Chocolate gave me an excuse to follow this dream, and being there was definitely a highlight of the course.




Concern: Major discrepancies between the UOC agenda, and the course itself.

Below, I have reproduced the course agenda, as published by Vintage Chocolates.
(I have added my own emphasis to the text, and appended my comments in red):


The University of Chocolate 2005 - Ecuador - (Sep 30, 2005 - Oct 11, 2005)

GOALS

Provide the necessary information to chocolate makers and other cocoa industry professionals to increase their knowledge about cocoa as a raw material and help consumers understand the added value of the new cocoa agriculturual methods which allow the production of top quality chocolates. (I don't recall seeing or learning about any "new" agricultural methods whilst on the course)

The goal is to commit key participants in the cocoa market to the defense of agricultural practices which protect the ecosystem of Ecuador and to develop a sustainable social-economic system to help the agricultural sector and the Ecuadorian natives. (This is a questionable claim, that I address in detail below)

Cost Of Tuition: US$2,000.00 **Does Not Include Transportation To Ecuador**

TUITION INCLUDES

  • A 10 day Training Program
  • Maximum of 20 Students
  • Room & Board at Quito, Kapawi, and Guayaquil
  • Round trip from Quito to Kapawi to Guayaquil to Quito
(The promised "round trip" from Quito back to Quito was not provided. In fact, in July 2005, enrolled students were sent the following email message from Michele Haro, on behalf of Vintage Chocolates:
"It has come to our attention that some people have not realized that the itinerary for the University of Chocolate Starts in Quito and ends in Guayaquil.
Please be sure to arrange your flights with this in mind. Airfare is not included in your tuition, nor is transportation from Guayaquil back to Quito.
"
This oversight was an inconvenience for students who had already booked their flights based on the faulty information in the agenda. The fact that this oversight was unfairly blamed on students' lack of comprehension caused me considerable annoyance.)

AGENDA

Day 1 - Sep.30
  • Reception of the attendees at the Caf´┐Ż Cultura (previously used by the Mission Francaise and transformed into a hotel) at Quito.
  • Presentation of the lecturers:
    Mr. JL Battini, From CIRAD;
    Mr. Bruno Brevi, Production Manager of a major Production Plant;
    A Professor of the University of Medicine of Quito; and
    Mr. Pierrick Chouard, Founder of the University of Chocolate.
    (Disappointingly, no course content was provided on Day 1.
    Of the four "lecturers" mentioned above, only Pierrick Chouard was present.)

Day 2 - Oct.1
  • Presentation of the research on plants used alone or possibly with cocoa for any kind of use by the Amazonian natives and the Priests of the Inca Civilization. Presented by a Professor from the University of Medicine of Quito.
  • Visit to a reconstructed ceremonial grounds used by the Incas when using the cocoa beverages and the medicinal plants located in Quito.
    (To my great disappointment, no course content was provided on Day 2.
    At dinner on Day 1, Pierrick informed us that he had never met this "Professor" before, that he did not know what to expect from this event, and that the event was optional, not cocoa-related, and not part of the course.
    Langdon and I decided not to attend this peculiar event, which took place in the late evening. However, the next morning we learned that the event had caused considerable distress for some of the people who did attend. Their main grievance was that the leaders of the group had stayed at the event all night, leaving some students to find their way back to the hotel in a city where they didn't speak the local language, in the middle of the night. From what I was told afterwards, the event itself involved the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs.)

Day 3 - Oct.2
  • Departure from Quito to Kapawi Lodge, Region Oriente in Amazonia.
    (To my growing annoyance, no course content was provided on Day 3. This day was designated a "rest" day, and we did not travel to Kapawi as stated in the agenda.)

Day 4 - Oct.3
  • Beginning class at Kapawi Lodge:
  • Genetics of cocoa tree - Origin, new locations, varieties, characteristics and influences, classical improvements, micropropagation, biotechnologies.
  • Cocoa Tree Agronomy - Agricultural practices in different regions of cacao, shading, pruning, irrigation, fertilization.
    (On Day 4 we travelled to Kapawi and enjoyed our first day of course content. Throughout the 11-day course, days 4, 5, and 6 were the only days that delivered course content as scheduled.)

Day 5 - Oct.4
  • Cultural Defense: Pests, diseases and preventions (integrated, chemical and resistance according to varietal).
  • Cocoa Economy: Micro and macro-economy, sociology.

Day 6 - Oct.5
  • Visit to Local Plantations.
  • Cacao Tree Technology: post-harvest operations, conditioning, stocking, impact on quality.
  • Cacao Tree Biochemistry: Aroma elaboration, the role of polyphenols, torrefaction and conching.
    (The classes on days 5 and 6, delivered by Jean Luc Battini, were a highlight of the course. Unfortunately, they were squeezed around a large number of unrelated extra-curricular activities, such as swimming and bird watching, with the result that several students fell asleep during the evening classes.)

Day 7 - Oct.6
  • Cocoa market classes: Mr. Eduardo Marquez de la Plata, cocoa bean trader.
  • Classes of the cacao chain in Ecuador, bean control and quality rating systems.
    (These classes did not take place as scheduled - Mr de la Plata did not accompany the group to Kapawi. Instead, on day 7 we took a hike in the Amazon, and visited a traditional village. This was an interesting experience which was not particularly relevant to the course - although I did enjoy seeing a cocoa tree in bloom at the village.)

Day 8 - Oct.7
  • Travel back to Guayaquil - Lodging at a former cocoa hacienda.
    (Rain prevented us from leaving Kapawi in time to travel to Guayaquil. Although Pierrick was keen to point out that the rain wasn't his fault, it is only fair to note that Kapawi Eco Lodge offers an explicit warning to its customers:
    "Due to type of weather of the tropical rain forest some delays can be expected. Our recommendation is for you to please consider adding an extra day to your itinerary after visiting Kapawi to make sure you meet your connecting flights to your next destination.")

    When we finally got to Guayaquil, we stayed at a hotel in the city, not at a cocoa hacienda as promised.

Day 9 - Oct.8
  • Tour of the cooperatives where Vintage Chocolates, Inc. purchases its cocoa beans - Guayas region.
  • Tour of a cocoa to chocolate manufacturing facility.
    (These events did not take place as scheduled. Instead, we spent the day travelling to Guayaquil.)

Day 10 - Oct.9
  • Factory site.
  • Cocoa bean torrefaction (roasting), winnowing, liquor processing; "hands on" classes.
  • Conching & Molding classes.
  • Final Exam.
    (Due to our delay at Kapawi, the schedule for days 9 and 10 had to be pushed back a day. Unfortunately, day 10 (October 9) was Guayaquil's Independence Day holiday. Because our program was pushed back onto this public holiday, some of our meetings did not take place as scheduled. We did not have "hands on" classes in roasting, winnowing, liquor processing, conching or molding. We were able to observe the operation of a small roaster, and a factory-scale grinder.)

Day 11 - Oct.10
  • Diploma Ceremony.
  • Training Evaluation Questionnaire



What does
Rainforest Alliance
certification mean to you?
Concern: Seeing Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa plantations with no rainforest, and felled cocoa trees.

Judging by many comments on the internet, made by members of the general public, I know that I am not alone in associating the Rainforest Alliance with ... rainforest.
During the lead-up to the University of Chocolate, I read everything that I could find about Pierrick Chouard, his Rainforest Alliance-certified product (Plantations chocolate), and the Rainforest Alliance itself.
Prior to October 2005, the Rainforest Alliance was promoting Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa as being grown "under the canopy of the rainforest". (On doing reasearch for this review, I was surprised to discover that, some time after my formal written complaint to Pierrick dated October 23, 2005, this particular reference was removed without comment from the Rainforest Alliance website [1]).
On the Plantations chocolate packaging, Vintage chocolate describes its mission as being to "safeguard heirloom cocoa varietals", and to "encourage sustainable shade cocoa cultivation methods preserving the rainforest".
It was for these reasons that I expected to see rainforest trees amongst the cocoa trees during the UOC cocoa plantation tour.
I felt shocked and deceived to discover that there were no rainforest shade trees (other than the cocoa itself) anywhere near the cocoa plantations we saw.
I was equally shocked and disappointed to see that many of the cocoa trees had recently been cut down, apparently (as we were told by locals) to make way for new maracuya (passionfruit) plantations.
Left: The plantations we saw consisted of orderly rows of cocoa trees. There were no rainforest trees (other than cocoa) in evidence.

Right: In some areas, all of the cocoa trees had recently been cut down to make way for passionfruit ("maracuya"). The growers told us that they believed they could make more money from maracuya than they could from cacao.

Is this the kind of risk-taking behaviour you'd expect from growers who are paid "a fair price for cacao"?



Concern: Visiting a Rainforest Alliance-certified fermentation co-op that was using child labour.

I was distressed to see child labor being used at the fermentation co-op we visited as part of the UOC. According to Pierrick, the fermentation co-op was certified by the Rainforest Alliance. This use of child labor prompted me to write a formal letter of complaint to Pierrick on 23 October 2005, which read (in part) as follows:

"Under General Standard 3.2.4 [2], the Rainforest Alliance prohibits the use of child labor.
International law prohibits the hiring of any child under the age of 14.
International law also recognises heavy lifting as one of the "worst forms" of child labor.
Ecuadorian law prohibits children from working on Sundays and holidays.
To our dismay, we saw children who were clearly under the age of 14 working at the Rainforest Alliance certified fermentation co-op, on a Sunday, which also happened to be the Independence Day holiday. They were engaged in heavy lifting.
This is a disgrace for which we believe there is no acceptable excuse."

Although I didn't receive any communication from the Rainforest Alliance, I did notice that their General Standard was substantially re-written and re-published in November 2005, and that a document entitled "Additional Criteria and Indicators for Cocoa Production" was also published in November 2005, with special reference to child labor.

Are you happy for Rainforest Alliance-certified chocolate to be produced using
illegal child labour?


Concern: Being given chocolate containing peanuts, in a factory that makes chocolate promoted as nut free.

This issue is extremely important to me because I operate a factory that is strictly nut free, meaning that no nuts whatsoever are allowed on site. For a person with a severe nut allergy, ingesting a trace amount of nuts can be fatal.
At the time of the University of Chocolate 2005, the packaging on most varieties of Pierrick Chouard's Plantations chocolate boasted:
"Free of traces of peanuts and nuts. This is as pure as it gets!" (whether the packaging still makes this claim, I don't know).
On 10 October 2005, at the factory where Plantations chocolate is manufactured, Pierrick's nut-free claim was questioned by one of my fellow students, who said he had results from scientific analysis showing traces of macadamia nuts in Plantations' plain chocolate.
The results of this analysis were disputed by the factory managers, primarily because they refused to accept that a specific test for macadamia nut proteins existed.
Incredibly, a short time later each of the students was handed a selection of three bars of Plantations chocolate - including a bar labelled "Macadamia". The Plantations Macadamia chocolate contained many pieces of macadamia nuts.
Later on that same day, whilst in the factory's production area, each of the students was handed a few snack-sized chocolate peanut bars. (These peanut bars were not Plantations brand. However, we were told that they were manufactured on site for the domestic Ecuadorian market). We were allowed to eat these bars, containing chunks of peanuts, on the factory floor. At no time was any reference made to Plantations' supposed nut-free status. Nor was any attempt made to avoid spreading pieces of peanut around the factory.
As an acquaintance in the food industry told me: "If allergenic material ever comes into contact with your manufacturing equipment, it's nearly impossible to ensure with 100% certainty that you've removed it." This is why so many chocolate manufacturers provide the warning "may contain traces of nuts" on their plain chocolates when (just like Plantations chocolate) the product is manufactured on the same machinery as chocolate containing nuts.
In my letter of complaint to Pierrick, dated 23 October 2005, I detailed my concerns about the nut-free claims printed on his packaging. I didn't receive a response to my letter until 11 January 2006, but even then Pierrick made no mention of my concerns regarding nut contamination in his products.

Plantations Chocolate: is it really "Free of traces of peanuts and nuts"?

The image above shows segments of two different wrappers, for two different
Plantations chocolate bars - one contains nuts; one claims to be completely nut free.
Both were manufactured on the same machinery.

In general, the chocolate manufacturing industry accepts that when an allergen comes
into contact with manufacturing machinery, that allergen is likely to contaminate future batches of chocolate, no matter how carefully the machinery is cleaned between batches.


Conclusion.
As a person who is passionate about fairness, social justice, and organic agriculture, I was extremely disappointed and disillusioned by almost everything I saw during the University of Chocolate. Given that I had to travel half way around the world (from Australia) to attend the UOC, I feel that the whole experience was a significant waste of time and money. Seeing Ecuador and the Amazon rainforest was a wonderful experience - but one that I would have enjoyed more as an independent traveller, rather than as a non-autonomous member of a group.
I hope that I have provided enough objective information in this review to enable people to make an informed decision about whether the University of Chocolate, or Plantations chocolate, is the right choice for them.



References:

[1] "The Rainforest Alliance Unveils Its First Line of Certified Sustainable Chocolate with a Gourmet Tasting in New York"
http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/news/2004/cocoa.html
At some point between October 2005 and March 2006, all references to cocoa being grown "under the canopy of the rainforest" were removed from this article.

[3] My reference to the Rainforest Alliance's General Standard 3.2.4 is no longer accurate, since the Rainforest Alliance completely re-wrote and re-published its standards in November 2005.






The Cocoa Communiqué

A "safeguarded heirloom cocoa varietal"?

A new method of "preserving the rainforest"?

Valuable habitat for the threatened squirrel monkey?

Freshly felled cocoa trees on plantations certified by the Rainforest Alliance were not what I expected to see when I signed up for the University of Chocolate.



Child labour is extremely common in the cocoa industry, and, as such, is not particularly "shocking" ...

But what about when child labour is used in a co-op certified as not using child labour?

Would you call that certifier's standards "rigorous"?

Lang & Sam meet some cocoa growers in a remote part of Vanuatu

Three reasons not to grow cocoa commercially in Australia

Sam becomes one of 500 million people to catch malaria in 2005