Why I left The Chocolate Life forum

I joined Clay Gordon’s discussion forum The Chocolate Life in mid 2008. In late 2010 I left The Chocolate Life forum because I was being asked to censor myself by Clay Gordon. As a consquence, I felt that The Chocolate Life was no longer a place where I could speak the truth and encourage high standards of honesty and integrity in the chocolate industry.

Since I joined the chocolate industry in 2003, I’ve worked very hard at discovering, making sense of, and freely sharing the facts of whatever chocolate-related issue I’ve been researching at the time. In addition, I’ve tried to be a strong advocate for cacao growers and the environment, and, to that end, I’ve actively encouraged concerned chocolate lovers to promote truth and honesty in the industry by asking questions. For example, in a 2006 article about pesticides in the cocoa industry – titled Chemical Cocoa – I wrote:

“[…] most chocolate manufacturers want you to believe that their chocolate is free of pesticide residues. But simply saying that cocoa has been grown without chemicals doesn’t make it true. Demand evidence from artisanal chocolate makers. If they can’t – or won’t – provide evidence, then you are entitled to doubt their claims.”

In December 2010 I had cause to take my own advice, having developed serious doubts about a claim being made by a small Australian chocolate manufacturer, Zokoko, on their website, that “all the beans we source are certified organic”. (I’ve written a more detailed post about Zokoko’s “certified organic” claim and the use of dangerous insecticides by Zokoko’s supplier here).

Hence, in 2010 I did exactly what I’d been advising others to do for several years: I questioned Zokoko’s “certified organic” claims on The Chocolate Life. (The owner of Zokoko, Michelle Morgan, was an active member of The Chocolate Life at that time, so it seemed logical to raise my questions on the forum). When my inquiry was ignored, I became increasingly suspicious. I had some very strong evidence supporting my doubts about Zokoko’s organic claim, so, after a few days of my questions being totally ignored, I threatened to take Zokoko’s “certified organic” claim (which I had good reason to believe was illegal) to the NSW Office of Fair Trading – at which point the claim in question simply vanished from their website. Nobody from Zokoko ever provided any response to my questions.

Although Clay Gordon publicly prides himself on questioning and criticising chocolate manufacturers’ claims that “don’t match reality”, he responded very negatively to my questioning and criticism of Zokoko (despite the fact that my position was supported by strong evidence). Clay’s response to me, via email, was to state (in part):

“… TheChocolateLife is not a peer-reviewed scien-fucking-tific journal.”

“… you carry this chip on your shoulder of “scrupulously truthfulness” and wield it like it were a blunt instrument.”

“… You’re not wrong, but you’re not right either, and you fail – at least apparently – to consider anything from any perspective but your own.”

“… People in Australia might start wondering what your motivations are”

In saying these things to me, I felt that Clay betrayed both our friendship and his own integrity, and, by attempting to make me worry about what “people in Australia” might think of my motives, he implied that bluntly exposing the truth is somehow dirtier than attempting to profit by deceiving your customers. This disdain for the truth is a surprisingly common (but not universal) attitude in the chocolate industry, and I am thoroughly sick of it.

Clay continued his criticism of me over 5 separate emails, listing my numerous personal and professional failings, and basically pressuring me to stop asking “awkward” and “difficult” questions – but, above all, to stop presenting facts in the blunt manner that feels as natural to me as breathing.

In other words, Clay was pressuring me to stop being me, which I took exception to – so, I left The Chocolate Life, and took my 150-odd posts with me.

When you leave the Chocolate Life forum, the relevant software automatically asks whether you want your posts to remain on the site, at which point I simply clicked “No”. Clay was clearly very unhappy with the way I had presented my information on his forum, therefore I felt absolutely no obligation to leave my content on his website.

However, he became even more upset when I deleted my posts. As he said in response: “That really, really, really sucks […] you’ve consistently been one of the strongest technical contributors”.

In fact, I believe that I was the strongest technical contributor to The Chocolate Life by a wide margin, because, while there may be a small number of Chocolate Life forum members who know as much as I do, I believe that no one has shared their knowledge in as much volume or detail, or with as much concern for accuracy and supporting evidence as I did.

Am I exaggerating the value of my contributions to the online chocolate community? I don’t think so. For example, in December 2008 (when I was still a member of the forum), Volker Lehmann – the man behind the beans behind Felchlin’s famous Cru Sauvage chocolate, as well as the brains behind the fermentation of the beans in some of Zokoko’s more well-received chocolate – made my day when he wrote:

“Samantha: You are somehow the reason why I am in this forum. I am always looking for your contributions!”

And, as Jim Haro very kindly posted on The Chocolate Life forum after I left:

“whatever the reasons are, I am very saddened by Samantha’s departure from the forum. I have always found her posts and contributions well documented, insightful, enlightening and I have often found myself coming back to them for reference. In my still short journey from bean to bar she has been a reliable source of information and advice. Clay, this is a field where information has long been in the hands of few big players, and the repository of knowledge you have made possible with Chocolatelife is extremely valuable for as long as it counts with contributions of well informed people like Samantha.”

I will always work to uphold the principles of honesty and transparency in food production. And I will continue to shine a light on people who don’t. I do this because the things that we say and do as chocolate manufacturers and as consumers have consequences for the environment, and for other people, including the cocoa growers who use dangerous pesticides in an attempt to raise their yeilds, or chocolate lovers who unwittingly eat chocolate that contains residues of those same pesticides.

These issues (and many more) are important, and should be discussed publicly, and fearlessly. I won’t shy away from that, but I will choose a forum that is supportive to do it in. Sadly, The Chocolate Life is, in my experience, not such a place, so I will continue my work on this blog instead.

A final note: I anticipate that, sooner or later, someone will claim that Zokoko simply made an honest mistake by claiming that all their beans were certified organic. But here’s the thing: when you really care about organic production, and the health of cocoa growers and the environment – as I do – you don’t accidentally buy beans grown on a plantation owned by a large corporate chemical trader, where chlorpyrifos is sprayed quite openly, and then accidentally tell your customers that all the beans you buy are certified organic. So, just to be perfectly clear, I do not accept the “honest mistake” excuse.

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