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Can a sustainably produced KitKat help clean up the chocolate business?

Nestlé will produce KitKat candy bars sold in the US with sustainably sourced cocoa starting next year, the company announced, and will eventually use child-labor-free cocoa for all of its candy bars. 

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The logo of Nestle SA is seen at their headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1999.

Laurent Gillieron/Keystone/AP/File

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As the chocolate industry faces allegations of child labor, food giant Nestlé said it will become the first global chocolate brand to make all of its products with sustainably-sourced cocoa.

As part of its "Nestlé Cocoa Plan," the chocolate maker pledged Monday to use only "sustainably sourced" cocoa to make KitKat bars sold in the US, starting in 2016. The company said it eventually plans to make all US Nestlé chocolate brands with sustainably harvested cocoa.

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"Nestle aims to improve the lives of cocoa-farming communities and the quality of the cocoa we purchase," the company said in announcing its new initiative.

In light of recent revelations of abuse in cocoa farming, the message has resonated with consumers who are increasingly embracing socially responsible choices.

“People are becoming much more alert to sustainability and health issues around the ingredients in the foods they are regularly buying,” said Charlotte Borger of Divine Chocolate to The Guardian.

The $200-billion confectionery industry, and especially cocoa farming, is notorious for poor working conditions and abuses like forced child labor. In June 2012, Nestlé partnered with the Fair Labor Association to monitor conditions at some of its West African cocoa fields. Random visits to 260 cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast from which Nestlé buys chocolate found 25 children under the age of 15 working in the cocoa fields.

"Several risks in terms of labor standards have been identified, especially in the areas of child labor, forced labor, health and safety, discrimination and compensation," the report concluded.

The Ivory Coast supplies about 20 percent of the world's cocoa. According to a new report from the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), more than 1 million children work in agriculture in the Ivory Coast, the majority of them on cocoa farms.

Nestlé says it is working to clean up conditions on cocoa farms.

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Nestlé's productions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan are already using only sustainably sourced cocoa, the company reports. Nestlé Europe trails behind with 35 percent sustainably sourced cocoa, and the US operation is only at 30 percent.

A major part of its Nestlé's Cocoa Plan is training farmers to focus on sustainable methods that will both increase yields and improve the environment, it says. In its plan, Nestlé also says farmer training "provides a forum to raise and tackle issues such as child labor," but it's unclear how progress and accountability will be measured.

Nestlé has said it is using accredited third-party group UTZ to make sure its cocoa meets sustainability standards.

But it can be difficult to assess the credibility of such moves, notes Steve Ford, an economist at The University of the South.

"There is no certification for something labeled 'sustainable,' " he told the Monitor. "You just have to trust the business. The only thing that is certifiable is 'organic,' and there are many hoops to jump through to have a product labeled as such. Other labels like 'natural' or 'sustainably grown' or 'no pesticides' do not have to meet any standards."

"Everyone has a different definition of sustainability," Professor Ford adds. "The important thing here is that a company like Nestlé be genuine about not wanting to abuse the environment or take advantage of the folks farming cocoa.”