Hershey, PA - Hershey Foods, the United States largest candy producer, will suspend operations for five days due to a worldwide chocolate shortage. The lost production is driving up candy prices, and could result in bare shelves on Valentine's Day.
U.S. demand for chocolate and sweets peaks around Valentine's Day, which is second only to Halloween for chocolate consumption. The high seasonal demand, coupled with depleted cocoa supplies, has driven world prices to record levels.
The shortage of cocoa, chocolate's main ingredient, is attributed to the December tsunami in Indonesia. In addition to tragic loss of life, the tsunami also devastated the region's cocoa plantations, causing severe shortages and sending cocoa prices spiraling upward. Currently over half of the world's cocoa production is concentrated in Indonesia. Cocoa trees only grow in a narrow range of climatic conditions - those found in the low-lying equatorial regions of Africa and Asia. Because of the proximity of most cocoa plantations to the sea, they have been inordinately devastated by the waves of the tsunami.
Caught unprepared, U.S. manufacturers have been unable to make up lost production. Hershey's has taken the unprecedented step of shutting down its manufacturing operations. "We tried adding more nuts and crispy rice to extend the limited chocolate stocks, but we just ran out," says William Czonka, spokesman for Hershey foods.
European chocolate makers, relying on the more traditional African cocoa suppliers, have been less affected by the shortage. "We are asking our customers to eat more slowly," said Hans Messerschmitt, assistant secretary general of Caobisco, the European candy makers' association. Swiss giant Lindt & Sprüngli has suspended production of their Lindt 85% cocoa bars.
Retailers are struggling to make up for the shortfall. Mega-retailer Wal-Mart has been replacing boxed chocolate with displays of healthy fruit and vegetables. Valuable end-of-isle displays now feature apples and pears, instead of the traditional Whitman sampler.
In response to the shortage, the industry is scrambling to utilize alternative sources of chocolate. One promising cocoa alternative has been developed by researchers at the University of Texas. The Texas team has successfully synthesized cocovflavonol, the chemical ingredient giving chocolate its distinctive flavor. Using inexpensive petroleum paraffin, university researchers can produce synthetic chocolate. Other than a metallic aftertaste, the synthetic cocoa is indistinguishable from the original. Researchers estimate that the FDA will approve the chemical for human consumption within two years.