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EU Wages Bureaucratic War Over Meaning of ‘Chocolate’

From Associated Press

Chocolate. It seems like a simple idea.

But it has become a matter for a bewildering array of European lawyers and policy-makers, businessmen and humanitarian activists, all trying to define exactly what constellation of ingredients qualifies as the real thing.

Chocolate had been one of the few products to escape standardization when the European Union erased differing national traditions to make it easier to trade in everything from electronics to cucumbers.

Now EU policy-makers want to bring chocolate into the fold too, but they don’t know how.

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The problem: Eight of the 15 EU nations, like the United States, insist chocolate must consist entirely of cocoa butter made from beans imported mainly from West Africa. The other seven permit manufacturers to replace up to 5% of the cocoa with cheaper vegetable oils.

The debate divides EU nations and pits industry interests against concern for development in Africa.

“The whole thing is driving us completely berserk,” complains Arnold van Hecke, director of Coabisco, the trade group for European candy makers.

Belgium and other EU countries enjoying a reputation in chocolate contend only pure chocolate should bear the name. They fear their products will be undercut by cheaper chocolate from other EU nations.

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Backed by gourmet chocolatiers and cocoa importers, they say consumers should be confident that products labeled “chocolate” are nothing but.

“One hundred percent chocolate should be called pure chocolate, and for other things there should be another term,” says David Johnston, who heads Godiva, the Belgian chocolate maker.

And what might that other term be? “Chocolate with substitutes” is one leading candidate.

Horrified by that prospect, confectioners in Britain and other countries with a tradition of cheaper, mass-produced candy argue that “chocolate” embraces any number of recipes.

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“Let’s celebrate Europe’s regional diversity and recognize that there are different ways of making chocolate, rather than suggesting that something has to be called chocolate and something has to be called not chocolate,” says Richard Frost, public relations head at Cadbury, Britain’s biggest confectioner and a user of vegetable fats for a century.

Caught in the middle is the EU Commission, the Brussels-based administrative body that drafts laws for the trade bloc. It has wrestled with the issue for more than a year.

“Whatever we do will be attacked from one side or the other,” says Jochen Kubosch, a commission spokesman.

The agency’s task is complicated by pressure from impoverished West African nations that fear greater use of vegetable fats will devastate their economies.

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Ghana, Cameroon and Ivory Coast, where cocoa accounts for at least a quarter of export earnings, estimate that the use of 5% vegetable fats across the EU would mean a 10% drop in world cocoa consumption.

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“This would mean a catastrophic drop in the revenues of cocoa-producing countries,” says Marc Bontemps, an activist for Oxfam, a humanitarian group lobbying on behalf of cocoa-exporting countries.

Chocolate industry officials dispute that.

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They say using vegetable fats enables them to make chocolate that is shinier, crispier, more resistant to heat and more easily mixable with cookies, all of which help sales.

Cocoa traders worry that if vegetable fats get the green light in the EU, the United States--the world’s biggest chocolate consumer--will not be far behind.

But Washington seems content with its ban on vegetable fats. Its embassy is one of the few outfits in the EU capital that has no opinion about what constitutes “chocolate.”

“It just doesn’t impact on the United States,” says Steve Dubrow, an embassy spokesman.

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