Should You Stock Up On Chocolate Bars Because Of Ebola?

Oct 15, 2014
Originally published on October 20, 2014 8:16 am

Jack Scoville was buying himself a chocolate bar a few weeks ago — Hershey's, milk — at a corner store in Chicago. And he noticed the price was just a bit higher than he's used to paying: 5 or 10 cents more. His first thought was not to blame a greedy store owner or the executives in Hershey, Pa.

He blamed Ebola.

Scoville is a senior market analyst at Price Futures Group, and he looks at the cocoa commodities market. Last month, cocoa contracts — the price that chocolate suppliers agree to pay for raw cocoa — spiked in large part because of Ebola fears.

"The price made the move to three-year highs in response to the Ebola crisis, on fears that it could spread into Ivory Coast and Ghana," says Scoville.

Ivory Coast and Ghana together produce more than half the world's cocoa. And they're both next door to Ebola-affected Liberia and Guinea.

Now the fear isn't that you can get Ebola from chocolate. Everyone I've interviewed on this story urged me to remind my readers that YOU CANNOT GET EBOLA FROM CHOCOLATE. The fear, rather, was that if Ebola were to jump over the border to Ivory Coast, those cocoa farmers would scatter to avoid exposure to the virus. The cocoa fruits — the seeds of that fruit that we call the cocoa bean — would stay unpicked. And Halloween would become as expensive as Christmas.

"That," says Scoville, "would be the fear."

Or at least that was the fear until the end of September. Then suddenly the fear vanished. The price of cocoa futures eased back. Maybe the reason was that weeks had passed and Ebola hadn't jumped the border. Or maybe it was because Ivory Coast had reassured traders by locking down its land borders, allowing almost no human traffic from Ebola-affected countries. "The market feels like we dodged a bullet," says Scoville.

That doesn't mean that Bart Simpson will be guaranteed that he can lay his fingers on an affordable Butterfinger in the months ahead.

Those sealed borders could still have an impact on chocolate prices. Most of the workers who harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast are migrants from Liberia and Guinea. Now they can't cross the border to pick the pods. And picking season is the beginning of October.

"If Cote d'Ivoire's agriculture sector loses all of its laborers — that will have a huge impact in terms of the crop and what can actually be harvested," says Edward George, head of group research for Ecobank, a pan-African bank.

Ecobank researchers predict that farms will procure pod-pickers from elsewhere. But they can't be sure how the season will go. And the reason is related to Ebola. Usually at this time of year, chocolate companies send swarms of agronomists into West Africa to count trees and pods, and then use mathematical modeling to predict to great accuracy the world's supply of cocoa this year. Because of Ebola, many of those pod-counters never boarded the plane, even to Ebola-free Ivory Coast and Ghana.

"This information is not coming in," says George. "So this entire cocoa season, we could be walking on in the dark."

Which led me to the most important question of all of my chocolate interviews: Should I stock up on 200 chocolate bars just in case?

"Yes" was George's response. Although he was quick to add: "Except it doesn't keep that well. So I don't know. Unless you're planning to eat 200 chocolate bars in a couple of months."

To put all this in perspective, though, consider: If cocoa prices do spike, people will eat less chocolate. But when closed borders are keeping migrant workers from reaching the fields and sending their wages home, some families aren't eating at all.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chocolate makers said today they are contributing several hundred-thousand dollars to fight Ebola in West Africa. The companies include Nestle and Hershey's. They say they want to protect the world's largest suppliers of cocoa, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Now to be clear, Ebola has not crossed over to those cocoa-producing countries, and yet Ebola has already affected the price of a chocolate bar even here in the United States. NPR's Gregory Warner has been asking why.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Jack Scoville was buying himself a chocolate bar - Hershey's milk, at a corner store in Chicago, and he noticed that the price was just a little bit higher, about five or 10 cents. His first thought was not to blame a greedy store owner or even the executives in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Scoville was blaming the West African Ebola virus.

JACK SCOVILLE: Sure, it's occurred to me. I don't know that the average guy on the street would.

WARNER: But Scoville is not your average chocolate eater. He's a senior market analyst at Price Futures Group looking at the cocoa commodities market and last month cocoa contracts; that is the price that, for instance, chocolate makers agree to pay for raw cocoa, spiked in large part on Ebola fears.

SCOVILLE: The price made the move to three-year highs in response to the Ebola crisis and fears that it could spread into Ivory Coast and Ghana.

WARNER: Ivory Coast and Ghana together produce more than half the world's cocoa, and they're just next-door to Ebola-affected countries Liberia and Guinea. Now, everyone I've interviewed for this story wants me to remind you that you cannot get Ebola from chocolate. The fear rather was that if Ebola jumped over the border to Ivory Coast, those cocoa farmers would scatter, the cocoa fruits - it's the seeds of the fruit that we call the cocoa bean - would stay unpicked, and Halloween would become as expensive as Christmas.

SCOVILLE: That would be the fear.

WARNER: Or that was the fear until the end of September, when this fear, as with so many that seem to petrified the markets, suddenly vanished. The price eased back, maybe because enough weeks had passed and Ebola hadn't jumped the border or because Ivory Coast reassuringly locked down its land borders allowing almost no human traffic from Ebola affected countries.

SCOVILLE: The market feels like we've dodged a bullet.

WARNER: But if you leave aside the markets and consider what is now happening on those cocoa farms as a result of those sealed borders, most of the workers that harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast are migrant workers from Liberia and Guinea who now can't cross the border to pick that cocoa.

GEORGE EDWARD: Well, we are at the critical phase of the season at the moment because the season starts at the beginning of October.

WARNER: George Edward is head of group research for Ecobank; it's a pan-African bank.

EDWARD: And if Cote d'Ivoire's agriculture sector loses all of its laborers, that will have a huge impact in terms of the crop and what can actually be harvested.

WARNER: Ecobank researchers predict that farms will procure pod-pickers from elsewhere, but they cannot be sure how the season will go. And the reason that they're not sure is also a second-order impact of Ebola. See, usually at this time, you'd have swarms of agronomists sent by chocolate companies into West Africa to literally count trees and pods on the trees and use mathematical modeling to predict, to great accuracy, the world supply of cocoa this year. But because of Ebola, many of those pod-counters never boarded the plane, even to Ebola-free Ivory Coast and Ghana.

EDWARD: Without having the agronomists there now, a lot of the trips have been canceled. They just don't want to send the Europeans to the region, even in areas that are not infected with Ebola. That means this information is not coming in. So this entire cocoa season, we could be walking in the dark.

WARNER: So let me ask my most important question. Should I stock up on, you know, 200 chocolate bars just in case?

EDWARD: Yes, actually. Well, it doesn't necessarily keep that well, so I don't know - unless you're going to eat 200 chocolate bars in a couple of months.

WARNER: To put this in perspective, though, if cocoa prices do spike, it means people will eat less chocolate. When migrant workers aren't able to reach the fields and send those wages home because the borders are locked down, that means some families won't eat at all. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.