Trick or Treat? You Decide.

Yes, I'm back, after a relaxing week in Hawaii followed by a harried post-vacation week of mourning: for the freshest possible papaya, coconut and pineapple, for locally caught fish, for white sands, clear ocean waters, and sea turtle sightings, for afternoon tradewinds and time to read books straight through from beginning to end. Lovely.

But here in the San Francisco Bay Area it's beautiful, too. Orange, red and purple leaves fill the trees all over town. Squirrels dart from oaks, acorns lodged in their tiny jaws. The air is crisp, the sky deep blue. Carved pumpkins smile from front porches up and down the street.

Tonight all across America (except along the suddenly snowy east coast), children will dress up in costumes and head out for Trick or Treating. I suppose some will wear homemade creations, but odds are that most will wear mass-produced get-ups. Pirates, princesses, monsters, cats, spacemen, doctors, nurses, giant M&M's, Captain Americas, on and on the costumes will go. Objects of American children's imagined desires, sewn up for American companies in Chinese factories for pennies, sold to American parents--in stores large and small--for much more. Kids will carry glowing lights sticks, too, also made in China along with China-made plastic Trick or Treat bags. And into those bags will go candy that was manufactured…where? Good question. With our country's current labeling laws, it's tough to tell.

Yesterday afternoon Don / Richie C arrived home with a stack of regular-sized Hershey's chocolate bars. "What do you think?" he asked. "Since we only seem to get a few kids these days, I figured why not give 'em a decent sized candy bar?" He was right about the numbers. Most of the neighborhood kids are college-aged and older now. We get maybe a dozen little kids, if that. But where had the Hershey bars been made? I wondered.

The small print on the back of the shiny brown packaging said: "Mfd. by The Hershey Company / Hershey, PA/ U.S.A." The wording seemed intentionally vague. Had the chocolate bars been manufactured elsewhere for Hershey of Pennsylvania? Back in the pre-globalization days, those iconic chocolate bars would've simply said "Made in Hershey, PA." or "Made in Oakdale, CA." But over the past few years, Hershey began to move some operations offshore. In 2007, the company closed the Oakdale plant and moved operations to Monterrey, Mexico (where workers reportedly receive $2.70 per hour). And in 2010, the chocolate-maker closed its historic Hershey, PA, plant (where union workers had been making $15-25 per hour) and moved to a new, smaller facility outside of town. Between the two factory closings, over a thousand workers lost their jobs.

As I read about Hershey Company changes, our Trick or Treat bars began to take on more importance. Should we keep them?

This afternoon Hershey's Brand Publicity spokesperson, Anna Lingeris, returned my call. I'd left a message with her earlier in the day asking about product origination and the rumored demise of Hershey's manufacturing in America. "Ninety percent of Hershey's products are made here," she said. As for Hershey's abandonment of its outdated but historic facility, Ms. Lingeris said: "We're committed to staying in Hershey. We're investing $300 million in the facility. It's due to open next fall." When asked whether the chocolate bars I'd purchased had been made in the U.S.A., Ms. Lingeris couldn't say for sure but again stressed that nine out of ten Hershey products are made here, so more than likely our Trick or Treat bars were U.S.A.-made.

A few online sources claim that most Hershey miniature products are made in Mexico. Indeed, when I checked the back of a bag of Hershey's miniature Reece's, Twizzlers, and Kit Kats, it stated "Manufactured in Mexico." Can't get much clearer than that. And buyer beware: according to peoplesworld.org, "the Food and Drug Administration had to seize shipments of Monterrey-made Hershey's Kisses. They were contaminated with salmonella." Nice. Nothing says Halloween like a salmonella-infested Hershey's kiss. And here's another frightful image from the same online source:

...[at] a fly-by-night chocolate operation in New Jersey to which Hershey's subcontracted work...a worker, at a plant lacking proper safety guards, fell into a vat of chocolate and died.

Yikes. Talk about a scary Halloween story. Who needs fiction?

Meanwhile, on October 27 Hershey reported that its third-quarter profits were up nine percent. For a publicly traded company--and Americans like you and me who invest in it--this is crucial. CEO John P. Bilbrey (whose annual compensation is over $4 million) said: “We’re positioned to carry our marketplace momentum into the fourth quarter and gain market share for the third consecutive year. Additionally, Halloween got off to a solid start and we now anticipate higher seasonal sales for the full year.”

Glad your Halloween's looking good, Mr. Bilbrey, and I'm happy for American stockholders' portfolios, but still...what about those thousand-plus workers who no longer have jobs?

I had to make a decision. The trickle of Trick or Treaters would arrive within hours. In checking online, I found plenty of yummy treats without offshoring muck attached to them. Yes, strictly speaking, the cacao / chocolate for American candy originates elsewhere, but please. Let's not lose sight of what's important here. And for me, what's important is a company's commitment to manufacturing here, period.

After conducting further online research, I settled on--drum roll, please--Tootsie Rolls, manufactured in Chicago, ILL. There are dozens of yummy sugary tooth-decay-promoting Tootsie Roll Industries products from which to choose, among them: Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, Andes Mints, Junior Caramels, and of course, all manner of Tootsie Rolls.

And so happily, enthusiastically, I scooped up the "ninety percent" Made in the U.S.A. Hershey Bars and headed for the store where Don had purchased them. I returned them, and instead bought a dozen cylindrical, one-hundred percent Made in the U.S.A. Tootsie Roll Re-Usable Bank Filled With Bite Size Midgees ($1 each at Walgreen's). The idea of a bank--even a cardboard one--made in this country filled with goodies also made right here seemed so apropos of this debt-filled moment in America's history that I couldn't resist. If those dozen Trick or Treaters save their pennies, we just might have the beginnings of a bright future after all. Sounds like a treat to me, but I'll let you be the judge.