Why has it taken 25 years and Europe's best minds to invent a name for chocolate?

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SOME OF Europe's most senior officials meet today to try to resolve a question that has divided the Continent for more than 25 years: what is chocolate?

Since 1973, a bizarre trade dispute has cost Britain millions of pounds in lost exports and prompted moves to reclassify some of the nation's favourite confectionery as "vegelate", "surrogate chocolate" or "household milk chocolate".

Now only technical objections stand between the United Kingdom and a long-sought compromise, and the good news is that it will mean open markets for British chocolate-makers. The bad news is that foreign buyers of Cadbury's milk chocolate will be eating "family milk chocolate" rather than the real thing.

That the deal has not already been done is evidence of the failings of European procedures to resolve a dispute that first blew up when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973. It is a story of vested interests, obstructive MEPs and lobbying on behalf of developing countries that produce cocoa.

There are two differences between the UK's most popular chocolate and those made, for example, in France or Belgium. The first is that almost all Britain's best-known brands - including Mars Bars, Kit Kat, Cadbury's milk chocolate - contain vegetable fat, rather than pure cocoa butter. The manufacturers say this stops the "fat bloom" that appears during hot weather and gives the bar a harder texture. Some British chocolate also contains more milk than continental rivals.

The 1973 chocolate directive solved this problem by avoiding it. The UK, Denmark and Ireland were allowed to add up to 5 per cent of vegetable fat other than cocoa butter. When they joined, Portugal, Sweden, Finland and Austria were given the right, too. But eight countries, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, block imports of the product they judge inferior.

The European Commission first tried to resolve the row in February 1984 with a proposal that would have allowed British chocolate unfettered access to European markets. The opposition was led by the French, who had close links to countries such as the Ivory Coast, which produce cocoa, and Belgium, which has a sizeable chocolate industry.

A vote in the European Parliament in December 1985 called for British chocolate to be reclassified (perhaps as "vegelate") and the Commission shelved its plans. In 1992, heads of government agreed to try again to break the deadlock but it was not until 1996 that the Commission produced another proposed directive. Now Italy wanted to relabel British chocolate as "surrogate chocolate".

Again, the European Parliament intervened, demanding tight labelling rules, including the description of milk chocolate as "household milk chocolate".

The Commission stood by most of its initial plans, and finally a majority pushed through the current compromise. This will allow chocolate with a maximum 5 per cent of vegetable fat to be sold throughout the EU, with the words "contains vegetable fats in addition to cocoa butter", near the list of ingredients. Milk chocolate (with 20 per cent milk content) will be sold as such within domestic markets and, when exported, labelled "family milk chocolate".

The deal has been welcomed by the UK industry, which was relieved that "household" has been dropped. John Newman, director of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance, argues that "the word `household' is deeply pejorative, equivalent to something with which you clean the kitchen".

In Luxembourg last week, trade ministers were due to nod the deal through, until the Commission blocked the plan because it objected to the procedures under which the changes could be made. Today, ambassadors in Brussels will try to resolve this technical wrangle, hoping the proposal can be approved at the next meeting of ministers without debate.

But even then, the legislation will go back to the European Parliament, meaning a delay into the new millennium - or, if the parliament repeats its earlier tactics of cutting up rough, there could, in the words of one official, "be no directive at all".