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The cashew tree originated in Brazil but quickly spread around the globe. As early as the 1560s, the Portuguese took them from Brazil to Goa, India. From India, cashews spread into Africa and the Middle East and have been a staple in these areas ever since. The countries with the current highest cashew nut production are Nigeria (922 kilotons), India (772 kt), and Vietnam (590 kt.) These three countries account for over half of the world's cashew nut production.
Cashews are the fourth most popular nut worldwide. Over 790,000 metric tons of cashews are consumed by the world each year. As the demand for healthier eating increases in popularity, so does the demand for healthy snacking options. Cashews can be made into vegan nut milks and cheeses and are increasingly a go-to snack for the health-conscious masses.
The Toxic Nature of Cashew Nut Production
Most of the world's cashews are painstakingly shelled by hand. In India alone, more than a million workers shell cashews as their full-time job. The average worker will produce 175 pounds (80 kg) of cashew nuts per day. That's over 52,000 cashews processed by hand, per person, per day.
With so much local and global competition and with slim margins, most cashew production companies can't afford machines, gloves, or other protective equipment for their workers.
Working conditions are made worse by the fact that cashew nut shells contain potent, caustic, toxic chemicals that begin to burn the flesh on contact. Often entire families, including kids, must endure excruciating pain in their hands and upper body from chronic contact with the cashew shells.
The further process of roasting the cashews off-gasses even more caustic chemicals into the air. Those who work around the roasting process complain of breathing problems, tight lungs, and chronic coughing.
Caustic Ingredients in Cashew Shells:
- Anacardic Acid: an acid form of urushiol that causes an allergic skin rash on contact, known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.
- Cardol: chemically similar to urushiol.
- Urushiol: a caustic, toxic oil found in poison oak, Chinese lacquer tree, poison ivy, poison sumac, and in the shells of cashews. It causes contact dermatitis characterized by redness, swelling, papules, vesicles, blisters, and streaking. Urushiol-induced rashes are a Type IV hypersensitivity reaction.
"Blood Cashews" and Forced Labor Camps
In Vietnam, many of the cashews are shelled by drug addicts who are trapped in inhumane working conditions by force. The addicts suffer electric shocks, are beaten with sticks, are locked in isolation, and denied food and water if they speak up.
During their stay at one of the country's "drug rehabilitation clinics," addicts are paid little to nothing for their hard labor. The little they make is further decreased by the clinics charging them for food, lodging, and other assorted fees. Generally, they end up with absolutely nothing to show for their pain and hard work.
Workers are constantly being burned by the caustic cashew shell liquids and are beaten and even tortured when they refuse to work 8–10 hour days. Drug rehabilitation clinics can hold these people hostage for years at a time in abysmal conditions. When they're eventually released back into the world, they're threatened and intimidated to keep quiet.
There are over 120 "drug rehabilitation clinics" in Vietnam that are trapping over 40,000 drug addicts in forced labor camps. The addicts sought refuge and help for their drug addictions, but instead, most of them have been swept up into the business of "blood cashews."
How You Can Help: Support Fair Trade
Despite the trend, ethical cashew companies do exist and need your support. The best way to help raise awareness and help end cruel conditions and forced labor is to buy fair trade cashews. These items are always marked with a fair trade logo of some kind.
Fair-trade items are manufactured in a humane environment, and workers are paid fair wages for what they produce. You will, of course, pay more for these products, but a fair wage is hard to argue with when it comes down to it.
Cashew Companies That Are Ethical and Fair:
- Equal Exchange
- Just Cashews
- King Agro Processors
- Liberation Nuts
- Tolaro Global
Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.
Sources and Further Reading
Allen, Z. (2017, September 08). The Magnificent Cashew–Mysterious & Dangerous! Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://nutgourmet.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/the-magnificent-cashew-mysterious-dangerous/
Amon, J. (2015, September 02). National Cashew Day More Than Nuts. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/10/03/national-cashew-day-more-nuts
Blood Cashews. (2018, July 12). Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_cashews
Kiprop, V. (2018, June 04). The Most Popular Nuts in the World. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-most-popular-nuts-in-the-world.html
Lamble, L. (2013, November 02). Cashew Nut Workers Suffer 'Appalling' Conditions as Global Slump Dents Profits. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/nov/02/cashew-nut-workers-pay-conditions-profits
Marshall, A. (2011, September 06). From Vietnam's Forced-Labor Camps: 'Blood Cashews'. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2092004,00.html
Pham, I. (2011, September 10). Blood Cashews: Forced Labor at Vietnam’s Rehab Centers. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://freedomforvietnam.wordpress.com/tag/blood-cashews/
The Dark Side of Cashew Production. (2016, April 19). Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.nuthut.ca/blogs/news/103290630-the-dark-side-of-cashew-production
Urushiol-Induced Contact Dermatitis. (2018, August 25). Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urushiol-induced_contact_dermatitis
Wilson, B. (2015, May 04). 'Blood Cashews': The Toxic Truth About Your Favourite Nut. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/11577928/Blood-cashews-the-toxic-truth-about-your-favourite-nut.html
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2018 Kate P
Melanie from Wisconsin on March 26, 2020:
OH. MY. GOSH. I can't even believe this is a thing! I'm so grateful you opened my eyes to this, I had no idea. I stopped buying Christopher Ranch garlic a long time ago because I saw about the forced prison labor in China, but I had no idea this was such a widespread practice. Like, what is wrong with people?! Sad thing is I always buy Now Organic cashews and I just went to look and they aren't fair trade. So sad. What's a vegan to do these days man, I feel like I can't win. Major sigh. But hey, I'm definitely going to be spreading the word like wildfire on this one. You're making such a great difference in the world by talking about things such as this. Keep at it Kate, you're amazing! God bless you!
Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on March 17, 2020:
@Peggy, Yeah unfortunately Amazon is not a good place to find bulk fair trade cashews, which really stinks because so many of us get free shipping with Prime! That said, this really isn't common knowledge yet at all; when it is, I assure you it will be on Amazon. When I wrote this article in 2018, the poll at the end was 100% hadn't heard of blood cashews up until it had been published for over a year. Now it's 91% two years in, which is an improvement, but if you'd like to help make a change, please share this information - & thanks for buying fair trade!
Peggy on March 17, 2020:
I can't find any fair trade bulk cashews on Amazon. Frustrating.
P Golden on February 21, 2020:
I heard about prisoners in countries used to produce garlic trade, it seems this abuse in all sorts of food industries is becoming common and it is important to be informed. It is also important to have options for consumers to use to not support such atrocities. I will not purchase pealed garlic, knowing this I prefer to shell my own cashews.This single change should become an option. If it will increase humane industrial practices.
Marek Wawer on December 21, 2019:
Thanks very much, very informative. I suffer from contact dermatitis for over 3 years caused by poison ivy (voluntary gardening work). My physician was rather useless prescribing antibiotics. Will show Your article to them. Best wishes
Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on November 23, 2019:
@Rick, agreed. @Chantale, that's the best outcome I could hope for from writing this. Thanks!
Chantale on November 23, 2019:
I had no idea but now am able to educate others and make good ethical choices
rick on November 22, 2019:
wow i had no idea.
Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on October 05, 2018:
@Debbie Anastassiou, Thank you! It's sad to think this type of stuff still goes on today. But now that we know, let's not support it!
Debbie Anastassiou from Perth Western Australia on October 04, 2018:
Very enlighting! Thanks for alerting us to this exploitation.