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Published: Sunday, 4/20/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

Chocolate’s allure puts pressure on supply

Firms worry about cocoa-bean farming

BY JANE M. VON BERGEN
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Debra Gonzalez, who has worked at Blommer Chocolate for 17 years, inspects chocolate chips as they are dropped onto a conveyor belt and sent through a cooling chamber. Debra Gonzalez, who has worked at Blommer Chocolate for 17 years, inspects chocolate chips as they are dropped onto a conveyor belt and sent through a cooling chamber.
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Enlarge

EAST GREENVILLE, Pa. — That chocolate Easter bunny you’re eating — or that artisanal dark chocolate, that chocolate milk, or that chocolate chip cookie — chances are that, no matter what it is, no matter whose name is on it, Blommer Chocolate Co. was involved.

“About 70 percent of our business is making bulk ingredient chocolate for all the brands you know,” said Peter Blommer, president and chief operating officer of the family-run company, now in its 75th year and third generation.

“Any brand on the shelf, any place you see a chocolate ingredient, there is a high likelihood that it’s our ingredient,” he said, sitting in his office at the East Greenville, Pa., plant, where the perfume of chocolate is omnipresent, even in the distant corners of the parking lot.

THE SWEET FACTS

■ 300 million: Pounds of chocolate ingredients produced yearly at Blommer Chocolate Co.’s East Greenville, Pa. plant.

■45 percent: Percentage of the nation’s cocoa beans processed by Blommer.

■ $13.3 billion: U.S. retail sales of chocolate used in candy in 2000.

■ $20.6 billion: Sales of chocolate used in candy in 2013.

SOURCES: Blommer Chocolate Co., National Confectioners Association

Globally, chocolate is the world’s favorite sweet, but chocolate company owners such as Blommer see trouble on the horizon. “Our concern is that [demand] will outpace the supply of beans,” he said.

The Chicago-based company processes 45 percent of the nation’s cocoa beans, the National Confectioners Association said.

The reason the Blommer name isn’t as well-known as Hershey Co. or Asher’s Chocolates is because companies like those are Blommer’s customers, turning the raw material processed by Blommer into bunnies, truffles, and all the other chocolate flavorings, candies, and food products sold in stores.

At Blommer’s East Greenville plant, 250 employees produce nearly 300 million pounds of chocolate ingredients a year in a 300,000-square-foot factory on about 25 aromatic acres.

Companywide, Blommer processes 200,000 metric tons of cocoa beans a year, Mr. Blommer said. Other plants are in Chicago, California, and Canada.

Blommer’s East Greenville plant runs three shifts seven days a week.

In the United States, retail sales of chocolate used just in candy have risen from $13.3 billion in 2000 to $20.6 billion in 2013, according to the National Confectioners Association.

With demand expected to grow as China and India become wealthier and can afford small luxuries such as chocolate, Blommer and other companies are turning their attention to the cocoa harvest.

Mr. Blommer counts the “long-term sustainability of the cocoa-farming sector” as the chief risk to his business.

“Thirty to 40 percent of the crop is lost to pest and disease every year,” Mr. Blommer said, “[because] the farmers are not applying a lot of the best practices of farming, whether it’s use of fertilizers, using the proper planting material … [or] pruning to keep the tree at the right canopy height.”

Cocoa only can be grown near the equator, often in undeveloped countries, such as Ivory Coast in West Africa — Blommer’s main source for beans — and Ecuador, where Blommer buys 25 percent of the South American nation’s harvest.

“These small family farms might have five acres of cocoa trees,” Mr. Blommer said.

Because yields and profits are so low, farmers’ children move to cities for more opportunity, he said.

It used to be, he said that increased demand could be met by farming more acres, but that puts pressure on rain forests.

Thousands of chocolate chips fall off the conveyor belt and into a hopper. Companywide, Blommer processes nearly 200,000 metric tons of cocoa beans a year. Thousands of chocolate chips fall off the conveyor belt and into a hopper. Companywide, Blommer processes nearly 200,000 metric tons of cocoa beans a year.
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Enlarge

Blommer, along with the rest of the chocolate industry, is devoting increased resources to agricultural training, said Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association.

“The core of our program is farmer field schools,” Mr. Blommer said. “We try to understand what issues they are having, what diseases they are seeing, and train them to combat them,” he said.

For example, he said, “we are training them on how to graft a productive tree’s material onto a nonproductive tree — that’s basic side-grafting, which is commonly used in agriculture and has been used for centuries, but is widely unknown in West Africa.”

A half-world away in East Greenville, the beans are roasted and turned into chocolate liquor — not an alcoholic beverage, but the basic cocoa product, a liquid form containing cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

Based on the customers’ needs, those elements are combined in various proportions at Blommer. Cocoa solids may be shipped to flavor milk or sandwich cookies. Cosmetic firms use cocoa butter for face creams.

Chocolate itself consists of chocolate liquor combined with extra cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder.

That’s the basic recipe, but Blommer’s customers can vary the proportions, choosing beans from a specific region and describing how they want the beans roasted and the ingredients mixed. The customer creates the final product.

“One of the neat things happening is that there is so much experimentation with chocolate — different inclusions whether it’s sweet or savory, whether it’s spices,” said Mr. Blommer, who keeps chocolate in his desk. “There’s a real appreciation for premium chocolate.”



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