After 25 years, British chocolate nears victory

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LOVERS of Milk Tray and Cadbury's Dairy Milk can relax. The end of a 25-year logjam in Brussels over the composition of our chocolate bars may be at hand with the decision moving in favour of UK tastes. A big Dutch industry group last week switched sides, moving away from the purist camp - dominated by Belgium and France - and into the UK-led camp of diluters, who dare to add vegetable oils to chocolate bars once made only of cocoa.

While the stakes for European consumers are not great - they have always had a full range of chocolates to choose from - some chocolate lovers say an official move away from the more expensive pure-cocoa product puts some of Europe's oldest and most highly regarded companies at risk.

And the implications of a change for the Ivory Coast and other developing nations are huge: a potential drop of 20 per cent in the price of one of their biggest foreign exchange earners.

Europeans spend $42bn (pounds 26.2bn) a year on chocolate, with the British and Irish eating 11 kilograms on average each a year. The quality of chocolate is a matter of national pride and consumption is the highest in the world, so a common recipe is no small matter.

At a Godiva chocolate shop in Brussels, purists scorn the threat of an invasion of "impure" chocolate. "I don't mind if the British want to put other stuff in their chocolate, but I don't think we should be forced to eat it," said Eric Vandenberghe, a regular customer. "Real chocolate [is] made of pure cocoa."

African growers warn that the EU proposal could cut cocoa demand and send prices down, threatening the economies of developing countries such as Ivory Coast, which produces more than 40 per cent of the world's cocoa.

If allow-ed, substitute fats will reduce West European cocoa dem-and by bet- ween 130,000 and 200,000 tonnes - or as much as 7.5 per cent of annual production, leading to a slump in world cocoa prices, warned Ivory Coast's raw materials minister, Guy Alain Gauze. "European consumers and European decision makers must be made aware of the danger," he said.

The International Cocoa Organisation, which represents the world's largest growers, said the proposal would lead to a $1.5bn loss of export revenue. West Africa, which meets 90 per cent of EU cocoa demand, would be worst hit.

The dispute over chocolate ingredients goes back to 1973, when the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined the European Union. They were supposed to adopt EU chocolate standards. They refused. Since then, they have been joined by new members Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden.

To this day, those seven countries allow their chocolatiers to include up to 5 per cent non-cocoa fats such as palm oil or other fats in their products, which produces chocolate that is cheaper and easier to make into bars or shapes such as bunnies.

The other eight EU countries insist that only cocoa butter - a chocolate- flavoured fat refined from cocoa beans - be used.

The EU proposes all 15 countries adopt the UK standard. Purist countries such as Belgium, which wants to protect its chocolate makers and preserve high prices, say that will force everyone to use cheap fats now used in just a third of all European chocolate. It also would reduce quality and hurt small, high-cost chocolate makers.

At stake is the right of chocolate makers such as Cadbury-Schweppes, Mars and Nestle to sell their chocolate in other EU countries without having to alter formulas. Until the matter is resolved, some EU countries will continue to block chocolate imports from nations with different standards - yet another sign that Europe's history of national self interest has not died with monetary union.

"This is blatant protectionism," said Caroline Jackson, the Conservative MEP for Wiltshire North and Bath. "Clearly some countries want to continue preventing British chocolate exports."

Now an end to the dispute may be in sight. Dutch cocoa processors dropped their objection to the proposals that would create a common standard for making chocolate, though the Dutch government is still to follow suit.

The Spanish government appeared to do an about-turn this week when it said it might back the proposal, leaving just three hold-outs - France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Cocoa prices responded by dropping 1.7 per cent. If Spain and the Netherlands really do come into line with the plan, that would be enough to overrule the objections of the last three purists.

Yet even that would not be the end of the story, because the EU governments would then have to persuade the European Parliament, which takes a much harder line against non-cocoa fats, to adopt the new standard.