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The weeks between Valentine's Day and Easter are usually the sweetest time of year for the chocolate industry. But confectioners are nervous because of political unrest in Ivory Coast. The West African nation produces 40 percent of the world's cocoa beans, and a recent ban on cocoa exports there is raising concerns of a shortage here.
NPR's Joel Rose has the story.
(Soundbite of machinery)
JOEL ROSE: For now, cocoa beans from Ivory Coast are still arriving in U.S. ports.
Mr. JEFF WHEELER (President, Camden International Commodities): This ship here is the Star Tramp. She's discharging about 7,000 tons, which probably represents about 50,000 individual small hold farmers in the Ivory Coast.
ROSE: Jeff Wheeler is president of the Camden International Commodities Terminal in New Jersey. We watch while burlap sacks filled with reddish brown cocoa beans are hoisted off the ship then trucked to nearby warehouses. Wheeler says these beans are already contracted to big chocolate producers.
Mr. WHEELER: I think the processor and manufacturers are in okay shape, but I'm sure that we need to get more cocoa out of West Africa to really get comfortable for the rest of the year.
ROSE: Wheeler says these beans left Ivory Coast before an export ban there went into effect.
The internationally recognized winner of last year's election, opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, called for the ban in order to starve incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo of tax revenues. That's pushed cocoa prices to a 30-year high, and it's left chocolate producers wondering what will happen when their current cocoa supplies run out.
Barry Parkin is vice president for chocolate at Mars Inc.
Mr. BARRY PARKIN (Global Commercial Vice President, Mars Inc.): It all depends how long it goes on for. If it went on for more than three or four months, then there would be a serious impact on the supply to -that's needed around the world.
ROSE: No one expects chocolate to suddenly disappear from store shelves. But there are concerns about whether the cocoa supply can keep pace with growing demand as India and China develop a taste for chocolate.
Cocoa trees only grow near the equator. And with as much as 10 percent of the world cocoa crop tied up in Ivory Coast, Barry Parkin at Mars says chocolate makers may have no choice but to pass higher prices on to the consumer.
Mr. PARKIN: The whole industry is facing some pretty severe cost pressure this year. If prices stay at this level, then you should expect that will get passed on to the consumer, either with some level of price rises or some package size reductions.
ROSE: High cocoa prices are already a fact of life for smaller producers.
Mr. RICK MAST (Co-Founder, Mast Brothers Chocolate): Right here, right in front of you, you can see the beans from Madagascar.
ROSE: Rick Mast is the co-founder of Mast Brothers, an artisan chocolate maker with one small factory in Brooklyn. They roast the beans themselves on-site, then they separate the precious cocoa nib from the shell in a custom-built machine composed of two enormous glass bottles and some metal plumbing.
What's it doing?
Mr. MAST: It's chopping up all the beans. And just through the power of this suction and wind, it's separating the lighter shell from the inside, the meats of the bean, which we call the nib.
ROSE: The beans in Rick Mast's chocolate come from sustainable farms in Madagascar, the Dominican Republic and South America. They cost two or three times as much as typical cocoa beans from Ivory Coast, but Mast says they're worth it.
Mr. MAST: It is, in my mind, a bit absurd to expect chocolate to be provided at every gas station for a buck, buck fifty, when here it is, this, like, very exotic product that's only grown around the equator, around the world. It's not grown in Iowa. You know what I mean? It should be thought of as an affordable luxury, as something that's decadent.
ROSE: In the not-too-distant future, chocolate may be less affordable and more of a luxury, regardless of how the current situation in Ivory Coast plays out.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.