By Jean COLANERI Former Director of the Professional Organisations, both European and French, of the Chocolate trade.
1 - We know that two sorts of chocolate can now coexist on the French market. A law dating from last July, applying a European line of policy from June 2000 (+), has in effect allowed a new type of chocolate to be made and sold. It consists of, as well as cocoa butter, certain other vegetable fats.
This has finally put an end to a long period of debate, strife and fisticuffs within the Union, during which several states and their respective public opinion have expressed themselves and have also been confronted by a vehemence that has rarely reached such proportions concerning the contents of a food product.
(+) Law 2003-702 of 29th July 2003 – JO of 1st August 2003, page 13146 Legal directive 2000/36 /CE of 23rd June 2000 of the European Parliament and Council JOCE L 197 of 3rd August 2000, page 19.
2 - Chocolate is the food of pleasure, creating a euphoria par excellence. But its composition, its production and its commercialisation create a host of problems that the past clarifies on this dossier, the difficulty of concluding it, the passionate nature of the discussions and the interest given to the question by the media. Let us remind ourselves of the context :
- Cocoa holds the second place, after grain crops, in the international commercial world of goods; imported mainly from developping countries, that is poor countries. It is one of the major elements in the economic relations between Europe and the Third World.
- The other two basic ingredients of chocolate, sugar and milk, are dependent on the common agricultural policy.
- The production of ingredients for the making of chocolate and of its finished assorted products is guaranteed by both multinationals, commercial giants, by large and small companies and by artisans in their boutiques. All of them make, at least they sell, the same product in the same marketplaces for consumers.
- The perception of chocolate is very different depending on the country of origin : in some countries it is just another consumer item, whereas in others, it is often considered as an offshoot of the national gastronomy.
- The Fifteen occupy first place in chocolate making : they buy more than half of the cocoa harvest and are, together, the greatest makers and exporters of chocolate in the whole world.
3 - The creation of the Common Market required the suppression not only of customs barriers but also of legal ones. And so, from the beginning of the 1960s, the Commission submitted to the member States a vast programme of harmonisation of the national legislations. In the agro-alimentary domain several hundred harmonised laws have been adopted up to now...including chocolate.
Chocolate became the object of a first directive in 1973. Well accepted at the time in most of its detail, this text had however left in suspension the request by the three new members of that period, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom to be able to sell to their partners chocolate that contained vegetable fats, something that had been forbidden among the Six. The reply came... 27 years later, in 2000, in the form of a new directive that satisfied those who had made the request (whose number had quadrupled in the meantime), authorising vegetable fats throughout the Union.
Could it be any other way ?
As one had come to expect, therefore, the Commission, in reopening the case in 1996, proposed the authorisation in the whole Union of the making and trading of chocolate, containing the requested vegetable fats. And, as was equally foreseeable, the Council of Ministers approved this by a large majority in 1999, by twelve votes for – one of which was France – and two against (Belgium and the Netherlands) and one abstention (Luxembourg). The European Parliament announced its decision shortly afterwards with the same approval by a large majority.
4 - Amid general surprise and without any warning, our country indeed gave its agreement. And that was so, even while for years the official position had been : « vegetable fats (MGV) shall not pass ! » Certainly, all resistance had become useless, because of the distribution of votes at the Council. All the same, this formal approval from a country that, more than any other, proclaims itself to be the defender of genuine food products and affirms that it is continually preoccupied with the misfortunes of the Third World, is both not easily comprehensible and only moderately honourable.
Questioned by a senator about this unexpected behaviour, the minister for European Affairs could not give any valid explanation.
5 - If France didn’t have a chance to carry off the prohibition, one would have hoped that it would at least obtain some measures that would strictly limit the use of vegetable fats. That was not the case. The list of fats that were retained is criticised by several qualified experts, and the absence of any reliable method of control in order to guarantee respect for the limit retained (5 % of the weight of the chocolate) is worrying.
As well as that and most importantly, the text does not allow for the fundamental right of the consumer to be fully and clearly informed about the substantial modification that has been made to a product that has always been known, since it does not require the mention of the presence of vegetable fats systematically beside the word « chocolate ». This indication can only be found ...on the back of the packet, in small letters beside the list of ingredients... Buyers, look carefully or don’t forget your glasses and think about returning the packets...
6 - The cocoa producing countries have the most to lose in this affair : less cocoa butter used obviously means less beans sold and the export of some tropical fats, which only have a limited use, will not bring any compensation, far from it. Moreover there will not be a regular appraisal by the Union of the impact of the law about vegetable fats on the economy, as had been asked for.
The chocolate making firms are obviously the winners, it has to be said. In reality, whether multinational or not, the makers have taken advantage of the chance of asking for, in all legality, the use of a basic ingredient that is much cheaper than the one that had only been used up to then. The law favored their interests. That is a fact, whether one likes it or not.
The industrial chocolate makers will be the winners for they will make most use of the opportunity offered by the new law. But, one can only hope that some will hesitate to tarnish their image with products that would not be « pure cocoa butter ».
The artisans have been shocked, notably in France but also among our Belgian and Italian neighbours, at the idea that there could apprear on the market chocolate of a poorer quality, launched on a grand scale by their alltime competitors, the industrialists. A reaction that was a good reminder of their place in the production of chocolate, because of the important role that they have, and above all because of the unique excellence of the products that they offer to the consumers.
These artisans, of whom many are unique in their field, place France in the top category of the quality of their chocolate, in particular in the domain of chocolate sweets, the touchstone of perfection. It is only because of them that she remains there. They have to, as in the past, use the best ingredients, the finest coverings, conceive of the most delicate and succulent centres ; and of course, continue to use only « pure cocoa butter ».
But, it would be good if now they could keep their energy for promoting their production in the best way possible with a sustained emphasis on the quality of their chocolates, rather than by a dispute about vegetable fats that will be invalid from now on and the effect of which might well damage the image of the product in general.
On the other hand these chocolate makers can look to the future without fear. Never has chocolate in all its forms been tasted, appreciated and aired in the media in France as it is today. This country is the only one where, every year, a salon, unrivalled in the world, is visited by millions and associations of tasters and other amateurs actively participate in promoting quality chocolates and those who produce them, both craftsmen and industrialists. Several wishes and one certainty by way of an epilogue :
Could the government make up for the wretched results of their past actions by informing the consumer about what the labeling of the new chocolate is all about. And also by deciding at long last to do away with this tax monstrosity which is the VAT of 19.6% levied on three quarters of chocolates (instead of 5.5% on all other food products).
Could Our-Lady of Competition urge the industrialists to still believe in the virtues of « Pure cocoa butter », irreplaceable in the major brands, and to limit as much as possible the use of vegetable fats in the others.
May the good craftsmen continue to progress in quality and inventiveness. May the consumers learn to choose well, by reading the labelling. In witness whereof, let us be certain that it will not be tomorrow, the eve of a time in this country when people will give up loving good chocolate and acquiring it !