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The University of Chocolate (UOC) – a review
Samantha Madell shares serious concerns about the course content and delivery.
When I made the decision to attend the University of Chocolate (UOC), 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. The views are my own and mine only.
Each item below links to a more detailed explanation.
My background, and my expectations:
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.
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.
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 – Ecuador – (Sep 30, 2015 – Oct 11, 2015)
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**
(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:
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 ).
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.
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 , the Rainforest
Alliance prohibits the use of child labor.
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.
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 2015, 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.
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.
 “The Rainforest Alliance Unveils Its First Line of Certified Sustainable Chocolate with a Gourmet Tasting in New York”
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.
 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.
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