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Broken chocolate: biomarkers as a method for delivering cocoa supply chain visibility

Pedro Lafargue (Department of Health and Applied Sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK)
Michael Rogerson (School of Management, University of Bath, Bath, UK)
Glenn C. Parry (Surrey Business School, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK)
Joel Allainguillaume (Department of Health and Applied Sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK)

Supply Chain Management

ISSN: 1359-8546

Article publication date: 5 July 2021

Issue publication date: 23 November 2022




This paper examines the potential of “biomarkers” to provide immutable identification for food products (chocolate), providing traceability and visibility in the supply chain from retail product back to farm.


This research uses qualitative data collection, including fieldwork at cocoa farms and chocolate manufacturers in Ecuador and the Netherlands and semi-structured interviews with industry professionals to identify challenges and create a supply chain map from cocoa plant to retailer, validated by area experts. A library of biomarkers is created using DNA collected from fieldwork and the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre, holders of cocoa varieties from known locations around the world. Matching sample biomarkers with those in the library enables identification of origins of cocoa used in a product, even when it comes from multiple different sources and has been processed.


Supply chain mapping and interviews identify areas of the cocoa supply chain that lack the visibility required for management to guarantee sustainability and quality. A decoupling point, where smaller farms/traders’ goods are combined to create larger economic units, obscures product origins and limits visibility. These factors underpin a potential boundary condition to institutional theory in the industry’s fatalism to environmental and human abuses in the face of rising institutional pressures. Biomarkers reliably identify product origin, including specific farms and (fermentation) processing locations, providing visibility and facilitating control and trust when purchasing cocoa.

Research limitations/implications

The biomarker “meta-barcoding” of cocoa beans used in chocolate manufacturing accurately identifies the farm, production facility or cooperative, where a cocoa product came from. A controlled data set of biomarkers of registered locations is required for audit to link chocolate products to origin.

Practical implications

Where biomarkers can be produced from organic products, they offer a method for closing visibility gaps, enabling responsible sourcing. Labels (QR codes, barcodes, etc.) can be swapped and products tampered with, but biological markers reduce reliance on physical tags, diminishing the potential for fraud. Biomarkers identify product composition, pinpointing specific farm(s) of origin for cocoa in chocolate, allowing targeted audits of suppliers and identifying if cocoa of unknown origin is present. Labour and environmental abuses exist in many supply chains and enabling upstream visibility may help firms address these challenges.

Social implications

By describing a method for firms in cocoa supply chains to scientifically track their cocoa back to the farm level, the research shows that organizations can conduct social audits for child labour and environmental abuses at specific farms proven to be in their supply chains. This provides a method for delivering supply chain visibility (SCV) for firms serious about tackling such problems.


This paper provides one of the very first examples of biomarkers for agricultural SCV. An in-depth study of stakeholders from the cocoa and chocolate industry elucidates problematic areas in cocoa supply chains. Biomarkers provide a unique biological product identifier. Biomarkers can support efforts to address environmental and social sustainability issues such as child labour, modern slavery and deforestation by providing visibility into previously hidden areas of the supply chain.



The authors recognize the financial support, sample collection and partnerships organized by Tree of Wisdom Chocolate. The authors gratefully acknowledge the funding contributions of the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), grant reference ES/P000630/1, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) to the Dynamic, Real time, On-demand Personalization for Scaling (DROPS) [EP/R033374/1] and the Next Stage Digital Economy Centre in the Decentralized Digital Economy (DECaDE) [EP/T022485/1], the University of the West of England, Bristol, and Tree of Wisdom Chocolate. The authors further recognize the support of the following institutions: Centre for Business, Organizations and Society at the School of Management, University of Bath; Centre of Digital Economy (CODE) at Surrey Business School, University of Surrey; and the Centre for Research in Biosciences, University of the West of England, Bristol.


Lafargue, P., Rogerson, M., Parry, G.C. and Allainguillaume, J. (2022), "Broken chocolate: biomarkers as a method for delivering cocoa supply chain visibility", Supply Chain Management, Vol. 27 No. 6, pp. 728-741.



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