Imitation leaves a nasty taste: Belgium's chocolatiers at war over imports

Luxury chocolatiers are fighting back against sub-standard foreign products

Guy Gallet rifles through his desk in search of another example of the products he says are threatening Belgium’s famed chocolatiers. The head of the industry association pulls out a carton of “dark Belgian chocolates” from Malaysia. They are flavoured with durian, the spiky, yellow fruit which gives off such a strong smell that it is banned from hotels and public transport across Asia.

It is not quite the luxury product that Belgium’s chocolate makers may want their brand associated with, nor are the other examples from countries including Hungary, Israel and China which boast of their “Belgian Royal Flavour”, “Belgian Recipe” and “Belgian Perfection”. None of them, however, were made in Belgium, and only a handful contain ingredients from the nation synonymous with chocolate. Such products, industry experts argue, are misleading consumers, eating into sales of the genuine article, and hampering efforts by chocolatiers to cash in on the rapidly growing Asian market.

“If we didn’t have this problem we would be able to export even more; the export potential would be bigger,” says Mr Gallet, the secretary general of Choprabisco, which represents the nation’s chocolate, praline and biscuit manufacturers. “Those products are of lower quality, are cheaper, but look like the Belgian chocolate products that are also in those shops.”

There is plenty of incentive for Belgium’s chocolatiers to take steps to protect their brand. While the market in Europe shrunk by 5 per cent last year and consumption even decreased slightly in Belgium, sales in Asia have doubled in three years and continue to rise. The region has taken over from North America as the second-biggest market for luxury chocolates  after Europe.

Figures from the Belgian economic affairs office show that nearly 45,000 tons of chocolate products were exported to Asia last year, up from around 15,000 tons 10 years ago. Exports to China last year were worth €23.2m (£19.8m), up from €3.8m in 2006, as the same demographic which snaps up European wines turns its attention to high-end chocolates.

“You have there a growing middle class and upper-class population that is discovering luxury products and very high-quality chocolate is perceived as a luxury product,” says Mr Gallet.

Protecting intellectual property rights is a problem shared with many industries trying to break into the Asian market, where the proliferation of counterfeit goods has been vexing foreign businesses for decades. But Belgium’s chocolate makers may have a solution. Choprabisco and other industry bodies are mulling applying for the coveted EU protected designation of origin status, which has helped places like Champagne, Parma and Melton Mowbray guard against pale imitations of their sparkling wine, ham and pies.

While in the past only regions were able to apply, a change in the EU regulations last year has opened up the status to nations. If approved – and the process can take a few years – the designation would put a stop to copycats in other EU nations labelling their chocolates as “Belgian” unless they met strict standards.

It would also give Belgian companies a sound footing to challenge manufacturers further afield, especially those which have trade agreements with the EU.

“Even if in the first phase it is just protection in Europe, we are sure that it will dissuade foreign manufactures,” Mr Gallet told The Independent.

Up until now, the industry has used European labelling legislation to try to crack down on producers in EU nations which they think are misleading consumers.

Further afield, they approached individual manufactures or asked the economic sections of Belgian embassies to intervene. But this is only having limited effect, and people working in the industry want to protect not only their sales, but also the quality of the brand.

“If everyone starts using the term, then what is the value? Nothing,” Steven Candries, export manager at Belgium’s Guylian chocolatier, told Reuters news agency. “We want Belgium to be thought of as the chocolate version of the Champagne region among sparkling wines.”

Belgium has one of the biggest chocolate industries in the world, bringing in €4bn in revenue each year.

In the cobbled alleyways around Brussels’s medieval Grand Place, tourists crowd into shops selling the nation’s beloved pralines, the chocolates with a soft, fondant centre which were invented here 100 years ago by  Jean Neuhaus II.

There are more than 2,000 chocolate shops and hundreds of different producers in Belgium, ranging from big companies known throughout the world such as Leonidas, Guylian, Neuhaus and Godiva, to small, artisan chocolate makers.

It is not just competition from Asian producers hoping to piggyback on the name which is shaking up the industry. Tastes are changing in Europe and overseas, and Belgium struggled at first to keep up with innovations in France, Switzerland, Germany and Britain.

Asian markets prefer the darker, more bitter chocolates which Belgium traditionally did not produce. In Europe and North America, meanwhile, a greater awareness of chocolate’s impact on the waistline has led to demand for products which go easy on the sugar and fat.

Some Belgian companies are adapting by producing smaller versions of their heavy pralines, while innovative new brands are thriving.

Pierre Marcolini, which opened its first store in Brussels 12 years ago and offers elegant chocolates sold in stylish boutiques, already has branches in Taiwan and Japan. Their pralines are filled with bergamot, thyme, saffron and mango.

Another up-and-coming Belgian chocolatier, Laurent Gerbaud, took inspiration from a trip to China and his products include kumquats encased in dark chocolate and sweet-chilli spice bars. But when he first sold his products here more than 10 years ago, other chocolatiers were mystified.

“At that time it was still a very sweet taste, and colleagues didn’t understand why I was putting salted nuts in chocolate, and they were asking ‘when do you eat this, how do you eat this?’ After one year I was nearly bankrupt,” he says.

After years of concentrating on the German and British markets, Belgium has finally caught up with  Mr Gerbaud’s creations and his Brussels shop is thriving. He is looking to expand into Asia and the Middle East, and recently opened an office in Shanghai. But he thinks it will be some time before chocolate becomes an everyday luxury, rather than a status symbol for the elite.

“China is a really difficult market,” he says. “They eat more chocolate than before, but its still not a cultural thing for them. When they buy chocolates they offer it as a gift very often.”