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close this bookThe Courier N° 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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The content of chocolate

Months of heated debate in the EU over the maximum allowable content of vegetable fats in chocolate have culminated in a Commission proposal for a revised Directive which, claim officials, should be to the taste of most interested parties.

The Commission has proposed that the 'subsidiatity' principle should apply to the content of chocolate. This means leaving it to individual Member States to decide whether they will allow the use of vegetable oil - up to a maximum of 5% by weight - in their chocolate-making. The eight EU countries where this practice is currently prohibited are free to modify their laws to take account of this 5% rule. The other cocoa butter and dry cocoa contents specified in the Directive - 18% and 35% respectively - may not be reduced.

The addition of up to 5% vegetable fats was authorised under Directive 73/241 for the UK, Ireland and Denmark when they first joined the EC. Other Member States who acceded later - Austria, Finland, Portugal and Sweden - also use these oils in chocolate production. The remaining EU countries have continued to prohibit the use of vegetable fats - and the sale of chocolate containing such fats. The result has been a partitioning of the EU market, in direct conflict with the Single Market principle.

If the proposal is approved by the Council and the Parliament, all 15 Member States will be free to decide whether vegetable oil can be used in making chocolate. Whatever their individual decisions, however, the barriers will come down, thus opening up the 'pure' chocolate markets to competition from less expensive varieties containing vegetable oil. Stricter labelling rules will also be introduced, with the precise nature of any substitute oils being clearly indicated. The simple mention 'vegetable oil' will no longer suffice. Martin Bangemann, the Commissioner responsible for industry, stressed the significance of revising the Directive in allowing chocolate products to circulate freely throughout the KU. This, he argued, would be in the interests of consumers.

Winners and losers

Traditional cocoa producers such as Cote d'lvoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon are fearful that the proposal may prompt some of Europe's 'pure' chocolate countries to change their laws - and that they will lose trade as a result. On the other hand, sheanut exporters in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Togo and Benin are hoping for higher sales if the 5% rule is adopted by more EU countries. Sheanuts account for 20% of Burkinabe exports and 98% of these are used to make vegetable oil substitute for chocolate products. The sheanut price is just 10% of the cocoa bean price. The Commission calculates that the maximum saving a manufacturer could expect by substituting vegetable fat for cocoa butter is around 1.5% of the ax-factory price.

In weighing up what to do, the Commission also considered the objectives of the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO). These include taking 'all practical measures to increase the cocoa consumption in their countries by eliminating or reducing all obstacles to the growth of consumption in cocoa.' The ICCO estimates that if the 5% rule is applied in the remaining eight states - Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain - it will lead to a reduction in cocoa butter usage of 36 000-50 000 tonnes, which amounts to a drop in demand for cocoa beans of between 88000 and 125000 tonnes. This represents between 9-12% of current consumption.

Some producers suggest that these estimates are too high since they assume that manufacturers will go for almost full substitution, which is not necessarily seen as inevitable. In addition, there is a belief that overall demand for chocolate products may grow as a result of the legal change.

This was not the view taken by NGOs who reacted promptly - and critically - to the Commission text. The Brussels NGO Liaison Committee issued a statement claiming that it would lead to a drop of between 6.25% and 12.5% in the main exporting countries' cocoa receipts - and an additional burden on the European Community's Stabex fund. But chocolate producers and others argue that this is speculative. The impact, they say, will depend on the legal response of the eight Member States, as well as on the reaction of manufacturers. There are signs that the latter may well stick to their traditional and distinctive methods. A spokesperson for the Belgian-based Cote d'Or/ Suchard, pointed out that the proposal had a long way to go before it was approved, and stressed that his company had no intention of changing their 'winning recipes which had served them well since 1883. At the same time, he admitted, vegetable oil could be useful in a more diversified range of chocolate products.

The vegetable oil 'lobby' argues that the addition of vegetable fat makes chocolate easier to mould and less likely to melt in warm climates. And for those who fear the elimination of 'pure' chocolate from the market, they point to manufacturers in Britain, where vegetable oil has traditionally been used, who still exclude such fats from some of their brands.

The proposal must now be debated by the Council and it is clear that the arguing is not over yet. But it is beginning to look as if the consumers may be the final arbiters. Through their purchasing habits, they are likely to be the ones who finally determine the winners and losers in the great chocolate debate.

D.P.