The Awful Secret Behind Your Food: Slaves in Food Industries

Ryan-Kelly, Jennifer, Food Slavery, 2021.

Slavery and human trafficking are perhaps the biggest problems that plague any industry that produces a product, and food production is no exception. In fact, slavery in the food industry is widespread in almost every country, for products both imported and grown domestically. Food slaves are the secret, brutal injustice behind your chocolate bar and tuna dinner, and it’s up to us to try and break their shackles. 

“I definitely think that we, as a society in 2021, should see an end to human trafficking,” said Martha Mendoza when talking to Cook & Culture. “That’s not a good way for one person to treat another person and I think everyone can accept that.” Mendoza is a two-time Pulitzer winning, one-time Emmy winning journalist for the AP. She won her second Pulitzer—along with reporters Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, and Robin McDowell—for her part in exposing slavery in the fishing industry in Thailand and Indonesia, directly linking the slavery-caught seafood to Walmart, Whole Foods, Iams, and a host of other companies: a report that was responsible for freeing over 2,000 slaves.

Products produced through slavery end up in all kinds of mainstream brands and stores, and are difficult to steer clear from if you don’t know what to look out for. Even with the best intentions, it’s not always possible to avoid slavery-produced goods unless you have the knowledge to back up your shopping. That’s why we’re here to tell you both about some highprofile cases of food industry slavery and some lesser-known ones, so you can make informed decisions on what to buy.

A man's feet bound together by a rope on a dusty floor

Chocolate Slavery: Nestle USA, INC vs Doe


Chocolate is one of the most delicious foods in the world. But unfortunately, it’s also one of the foods most prone to abusive labor practices and slavery. While there are ways to get ethical chocolate (don’t worry, we have you covered with our article of Fair Trade Chocolate: A Guilt-Free Treat With a Mission!), there are many, many more that involve the enslavement of innocent people—often children—as food slaves. 

The most recent high-profile case of chocolate slavery is the lawsuit against Nestle USA and Cargill for child slavery on the farms they source their cocoa from. However, on June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. chocolate companies can’t be sued for child enslavement on those African farms, even if those farms are the major supplier of their cocoa. 

The court ruled against the six former child slaves who filed the lawsuit because the illegal action took place in Ivory Coast instead of America, and the business decisions leading to child slavery happened off American soil.

It’s estimated that 1.56 million children work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, some as young as five years old, many of them enslaved in terrible conditions. Despite the biggest chocolate companies promising to eliminate child labor in 2000, the number of enslaved children has only increased, rising by 14% in the last decade. The plaintiffs of the case described their time as child slaves on these cocoa farms as 14-hour workdays with additional corporal punishment and inadequate living arrangements. 

“They have so much better insight into their supply chains than we do. And we’re still able to find [slavery.]… But if, say, Walmart wanted to end labor abuse in its supply chains, I’m 100% positive that it could do so… The fact that they haven’t eliminated it to me says something about their business models and wage priorities.” – Martha Mendoza
The plaintiffs sued using the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Originally written in 1789, this law has been a popular way to pursue international human rights cases since the 1980s. However, the Supreme Court didn’t want to set a new legal precedent for the ATS, as Nestle did business with these slavery-run farms but didn’t own or run the farms themselves.

Other than buying cacao from farms dependent on child slavery, Justice Clarence Thomas’s decision also reported that Nestle “provided those farms with technical and financial resources—such as training, fertilizer, tools, and cash—in exchange for the exclusive right to purchase cocoa.” Nevertheless, the court decided that the ATS could not be applied to actions that happened outside America, despite the fact Nestle is an American-owned company. 

Nestle USA made a statement after the ruling that the company “never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit, and we remain unwavering in our dedication to combating child labor in the cocoa industry.” However, given Nestle’s financial support of these farms, some have found these claims to be hard to believe. 

When asked about the sincerity of major corporations in general in their anti-slavery actions, Mendoza said, “They have so much better insight into their supply chains than we do. And we’re still able to find [slavery.]… But if, say, Walmart wanted to end labor abuse in its supply chains, I’m 100% positive that it could do so… The fact that they haven’t eliminated it to me says something about their business models and wage priorities.”

This ruling is devastating to anti-child labor and anti-slavery activists, who hoped this case would give them a way to prosecute American companies for their human rights violations abroad. But hope is not entirely lost, as International Rights Advocates, the group that brought the lawsuit against Nestle and Cargill, filed another lawsuit against Nestle, Cargill, Hershey, Mars, Barry Callebaut, Olam, and Mondelēz. This second lawsuit uses a 2017 law against human trafficking instead of ATS and might be a way to gain a different legal precedent against American corporation’s human rights

Two young boys in dirty clothes hold hands

Seafood Slavery

Chocolate is one of the most high-profile food industries with a slavery problem, but similar labor abuses can be found in virtually all of them. Seafood, for instance, can be a particularly tricky can of worms. Because fishermen can be kept on their boats, it creates problems twofold: they have fewer chances to escape when stuck at sea, and laws are a lot more complicated (and easier to avoid) on the ocean.

A case with Hawaiian tuna fleets illustrates this problem. Mendoza said, “The way the boats are set up, in the Hawaiian tuna fleets that do come into San Francisco sometimes, the workers never set foot on US soil. They are boated to the boat where they work… but they never get off the boat so they’re not subject to US labor laws.” 

Slavery is obviously a terrifying problem, one that no one wants to contribute to. So how can you avoid giving to companies that use food slaves? The first step is being informed, both about specific cases and more broad patterns. Luckily, being informed is becoming easier than ever with an increased focus on reporting on supply-lines. Mendoza’s process of following the supply-line was crucial to the Pulitzer-winning report that ended up freeing so many slaves, and she now teaches that supply-line journalism at the University of British Columbia so that others can bring the technique into the world. 

Supply-line reporting tracks goods from start to finish, which allows reporters to see where slavery and human trafficking are possibly being used. This works for everything, from food industries to fast fashion to electronics. Though a newer kind of reporting, it’s a crucial tool in our arsenal to end modern slavery. 

“Robin [McDowell] sent me a photo of a man in a cage and his story, and then I was so all-in at that point, because once we had their stories, we had to do something.”    – Martha Mendoza
A textbook example of supply-line journalism—and how slavery in food industries works—is the exposé that won Mendoza and her fellow reporters—Htusan, Mason, and McDowell—their Pulitzer in 2016. For years before the report, there had been instances of men running from fishing boats when they reached Thai ports, saying that they had been enslaved on the boats. These cases went on, with NGOs sprouting to help the men and AP reporting on the individual cases, but without tying the slave-caught fish to specific products and corporations, not much was done to address the root cause. 

This changed when, by talking to the over 40 escaped food slaves and using satellite data, McDowell and Mason were able to track down a specific Indonesian island, Benjina, where slaves were imprisoned, and brought Htusan onto the team. Some men, deemed flight risks, were even locked up in cages. They were forced to keep 20-hour workdays and were whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained. Some had been there for decades, mourning their families who thought them dead. Bejina is so isolated that even men who had been abandoned by their captains and no longer worked on boats remained stranded there. For many more, it was already too late—when reporters asked to see more men, they were taken to a graveyard with over 70 bodies in it, all buried under fake names to hide their captors’ transgressions. 

The reporters had found the men, but they knew that wasn’t enough to make a story with enough impact to safely free all of them. To stop the slavery, they had to tie it directly to the consumers with the fish itself. They had to find out where this slavery-caught fish was going. To do so, they reached out to Mendoza for her expertise in supply-line journalism.

“Now we have been made aware of people who are enslaved and we have to do something about it, but we knew that if we didn’t track the seafood, it was just going to be an Asia story,” Mendoza said. “Nobody in the United States would pay attention. We had to literally get people to look at something on their plate, or, you know, in their cat food bowl, here.” 

Tracking the seafood was an incredibly dangerous task. At one point, the on-site reporters spent four days hiding in the back of a truck, taking down the names of ships that carried slavery-caught seafood and hiding from mafia gunmen. They tracked the seafood from port to processing plants, trailing them by car to see where the fish caught by food slaves ended up. Mendoza, from California, then used custom records and business databases to track the product to specific businesses. 

And the seafood ended up everywhere. Nestle, Walmart, Safeway, Krogers, Whole Foods, Albertsons, Sysco, Meow Mix, Fancy Feast, Iams, and more: all selling fish caught by slaves. 

“… we knew that if we didn’t track the seafood, it was just going to be an Asia story. Nobody in the United States would pay attention. We had to literally get people to look at something on their plate, or, you know, in their cat food bowl, here.”  – Martha Mendoza
This report helped to free over 2,000 slaves. Multiple arrests were made and slave ships seized. Most of the companies implicated in receiving slavery-caught fish doubled down on their anti-slavery measures, and created a taskforce to prevent future products produced by food slaves from entering the market. The report also prompted a new legislature from the United States to prevent further slavery in the seafood industry. It’s a testament to supply-line journalism and how tracking the goods throughout the entire process can effectively force change. 

Despite the far-reaching impact of this report, seafood slavery is still a rampant problem in ports worldwide—including Thailand, which remains one of the largest seafood producers in the world. In 2019, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) released a report on slavery in the fishing industry called Blood And Water—detailing both the horrific human rights abuses in ports around the world, and how these practices are bad for the environment on top of being morally deplorable.  There’s still reason to hope, though—Blood and Water also outlines policy changes and recommendations for consumers to help combat ongoing seafood slavery, and Cook & Culture has a peice on sustainable seafood.

To learn more about slavery in the fishing industry, the AP team published their report as a book entitled Fishermen Slaves: Human Trafficking and the Seafood We Eat. If you want a shorter book or to hear the story directly from a former slave, Vannak Anan Prum, who was formerly enslaved on both a Thai fishing boat and at a Malaysian palm oil plantation, wrote a graphic memoir on his experience called The Dead Eye and The Deep Blue Sea.

A tangled pile of fishing nets in a port, like ones used in seafood slavery

How Modern Food Slavery Works


Labor trafficking is a common problem the world over, and it usually follows a pattern in how it’s perpetuated. Someone in an economically vulnerable position is lured in with the promise of work. Often people who aren’t fluent in the native language of the area are targeted to add another barrier to their escape. The enslaved workers are usually isolated, preventing outside contact or help. Once the potential worker is at the job, they can be enslaved through several methods. 

Employers will often trap their food slaves in debt bondage, charging them exorbitantly for their food, lodging, or “recruitment fees,” forcing them to work to pay off their phoney debt. At the same time, employers might severely underpay their enslaved workers, giving them a fraction of what was agreed upon, or completely withholding their wages. For workers who are in the country legally, employers often take their visas and passports to threaten them with deportation. Physical violence or the threat of violence is extremely common in these situations as another method of control. All of these methods can be used in conjunction with each other, along with any other form of manipulation or coercion the employer sees fit to use—whatever it takes to make the slaves unable to leave their jobs. 

Human labor trafficking doesn’t just happen abroad. Mendoza was originally invited onto the seafood slavery case because of her experience with supply-line reporting that she gained looking into child slavery in American agriculture. There are currently an estimated 400,000 people enslaved in the US. Most of the cases of slavery in America prosecuted recently were that of people forced to work agricultural jobs. In March 2018, the UK’s National Crime Agency annual report noted a 35% rise in suspected enslaved people in the UK, labor exploitation being the most common form. 

Slavery is unfortunately still alive and well in just about every country on Earth and is upheld by the larger problems in our society. It’s poverty and wealth inequality that pushes these workers into exploitative jobs and gives them no recourse when employment becomes enslavement. Corporate focus on profits incentivizes not looking too closely at the supply chain to benefit from the cheap cost of materials. Anti-immigration laws make it harder for victims of labor trafficking to reach out for help, which is exploited by corrupt employers. Until these big, systemic problems are tackled, some people will always be at risk for exploitation. Luckily, there are also steps you can take as an individual that can help to stop slavery.

A hallow cocoa pod with dirty money stuffed inside, representing how the drive for profit allows for food slavery

How to Stop Food Slavery

Labor trafficking might be a depressingly widespread problem, but it’s one you can do your part to stop. There are a variety of paths to pursue, from the personal to the political. 

“There are a few different ways to end these practices,” Mendoza said. “One is through exposés, news reports, name and shame. A second is policy change. The Obama Administration set up a very massive seafood policy change that is now underway, and we’ll see what impact it has. And a third way that really can push corporations is litigation—sometimes at the end of the day, that’s the most effective. And then, of course, there’s consumer actions… So all these different strategies to end it I think are potentially going to make a difference.” 

An action that is easy for the individual to take is to support slavery-free brands and products! Finding good brands might be even easier than you expect, because some staunchly anti-slavery companies make goods you wouldn’t expect. Patagonia, primarily a clothing brand, is dedicated to being slavery-free and has recently started to expand into the seafood market, something Mendoza appreciates. “Patagonia is just extremely sensitive to that… because they are a trusted source to get products that there’s no labor abuse in, and seafood is just so rife with problems.” Dr Bonner’s, a brand known for their natural soaps, has started producing their own slavery-free chocolate, as they already had the supply lines to slavery-free cocoa.

If you don’t already have brands you know, there’s an easy solution: a label you can look for that guarantees a good product. Whenever you can, buy fair trade. From chocolate to bananas, buying fair trade ensures that the workers who produced your food were not only not enslaved, they were fully empowered and fairly paid. Fair trade is a bit more expensive, but it’s worth a little extra money to ensure you’re not eating the product of slavery. Trust us, fair trade is always worth it. 

Other great slavery-free food brands are:

    • Equal Exchange: The gold standard for companies, Equal Exchange is an organic, gourmet, worker-owned, fair trade cooperative. They work with farmer’s cooperatives in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to make high quality products without exploitation. Their highest paid employees can’t make more than four times that of the lowest, ensuring everyone is paid a good wage. They also work hard to make sure corporate interests don’t erode the legal meaning of fair trade. They sell coffee, tea, chocolate, baking goods, bread, sauces, bananas, avocados, and olive oil. Equal Exchange is truly the go-to for any of their ever-expanding list of products. 
    • Wildly Organic: Family owned, organic, and fair trade—Wildly Organic is the way to go if you want health food. All of their products are minimally processed to keep them as healthy and natural as possible. They’re non-GMO, and many of their products are fully kosher. With an incredibly wide array of products—from dried fruit to gluten-free flour to organic herbs—you’re guaranteed to find something you want from their online shop.
    • Ben & Jerry’s: Ok, ok, this one’s product is a little limited. You’re not going to get much other than ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s, but isn’t amazing ice cream enough? It’s not food you should eat every day, but when you want the occasional splurge, is there anything better than delicious ice cream made from 100% fair trade ingredients? Not to mention their dedication to regenerative agriculture, social and economic justice, and antiracist and pro-LGBT values. Not only do none of their ingredients come from slave labor, but they make sure all their workers, down to the lowest level, are given a fair wage. If you’re going to treat yourself, choose a brand that’s treating the world. 

There are also a variety of lists and tools people have developed, or are in the process of developing, that can help you track which products are slavery-free. End Slavery Now has a list of all kinds of products, food and not, that are completely slavery-free. When it comes to fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, known for its seafood sustainability guide, has a Seafood Slavery Risk Tool that is currently in closed beta, hopefully to be open to the public soon. If you’re a fan of canned tuna, this list by Change Your Tuna not only ranks tuna brands by their environmental practices, but also their human rights practices as well. 

A man reads a newspaper at his kitchen table. The headlines reads "We Need A Change."
Supply-line tracking is one of our best tools in finding and stopping labor abuse and slavery. It prevents it by deterring retailers from buying products produced by food slaves. The Blood and Water report by EJF encourages consumers to “Demand proof of net-to-plate traceability and require clear, specific assurances that products are caught or farmed legally, sustainably and ethically: can your retailer tell you how, where, when and who caught the fish on your plate?” This type of consumer activism can be tied to all food products, and by voting with your dollar and demanding transparency, you can avoid buying from companies that use food slaves. 

For those who want to get involved further, there is no one-size-fits-all activism. You need to find what works best for you. “I think people just kind of need to examine who they are and how they like to take action,” Mendoza said. “So for example, you’re like, you know what, I’m going to write a blog about this, I’m going to inform people. Somebody else might want to donate to a cause, and then they’d have to figure out whether they want to donate to a cause that is more like a group called Free The Slaves—that really works to empower communities so that they don’t have to become victims, because their own community offers enough support that they can stay there and have a great living—or organizations like Greenpeace that might be chasing boats around in the ocean and taking action themselves. Or are you a front line protester? I think people kind of need to decide if they want to try to make a difference in this and then figure out what role they want to have.” 

Regardless of what actions you want to take or how involved you want to be, buying from fair trade or known slavery-free brands—and demanding accountability from brands that aren’t transparent in their labor practices—is an easy way to ensure your food wasn’t made by food slaves. It’s only by refusing to be a part of the system that enables slavery that we can end it.

Help End Slavery Now

On top of voting with your dollar, consider donating to Free The Slaves or Greenpeace, and be sure to show off your favorite fair trade products at our Instagram.

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Written by Katie Merikallio