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'Pure chocolate' label must go, EU tells Italy

Their chocolate may be sweet but Italian chocolatiers are bitter over a European Union label ruling.

Large chocolate cake

Italian chocolatiers take pride in using pure chocolate

Last week, Italy lost its battle with the European Commission when the Court of Justice ruled that its use of the words "pure chocolate" on product packaging breaks EU law. In 1999, European legislation was passed, allowing producers to add up to 5 percent vegetable fat and still call their product “chocolate.”

The legislation, which was approved by Italy at the time, sparked anger among those who consider that the only fat contained in chocolate should be cocoa butter. They criticized the EU for favoring large industrial producers over food quality.

In the wake of these reactions, Italy introduced its own national law, which permitted the wording “pure chocolate” – marked clearly on the front of products that contain only cocoa butter. But the high court's decision that the label breaches EU law means Italian chocolate producers will now have to take the wording off their packaging.

Chocolate purist frustration

Giordano Monticelli, who works for the Florentine chocolate producer Becagli, said chocolatiers are furious about the decision. “For the umpteenth time the big distributors and multinationals have overshadowed those in Italy and other countries who are the true chocolate makers,” he said while offering samples of Becagli products to visitors at "Cioccoshow," a five-day chocolate fair held in the northern Italian city of Bologna. “We are totally against the use of vegetable oils in chocolate production.”

Cioccoshow in Bologna

The Cioccoshow in Bologna is a five-day chocolate trade fair

Manuele Gardini, who helps run a family chocolate-making business in the nearby city of Forlì, is more philosophical: “If this is a definitive decision, we'll have to take these words off our labels. Maybe it's not such a big deal as consumers just need to turn the bar over and read the ingredients on the back,” he said, adding that the label was useful for small producers like him to promote more expensive but higher quality products: “To be able to write 'pure chocolate' on the front gives a much more direct message.”

Italy's National Confederation of Artisans (CNA) was also disappointed by the ruling, which now makes competition even harder. “Industrial producers are given an even bigger advantage as they have huge budgets and can spend a lot of money on advertising,” said Francesco de Dominicis, head of the CNA's food section in Bologna. “Small producers can't. The label was a way of putting everyone on the same level.”

Although by EU law all producers have to list every ingredient on the back of packaging, de Dominicis claims this isn't sufficient. “All they have to do is write the ingredients in six languages and it ends up being so small you can't even read them with a magnifying glass,” he said

Ecuadorean cocoa importer, Jorge Felix, agrees that the ruling is detrimental to clarity of information to consumers. The "pure chocolate" label, he argues, helps consumers identify chocolate made without any added vegetable oils. “Cocoa butter is expensive compared to other oils but cocoa butter is a natural oil… and it's cocoa,” Felix said, adding that it is a question not only of purism but also of health: “Most of the time, these are hydrogenated oils that are not good for you and can lead to heart disease and liver problems.”

Ethical implications

European Union permission to substitute up to 5 percent of cocoa butter with vegetable oils has saved the region's chocolate industry millions of euros. As well as the cost to consumer health, De Dominicis claims the impact on cocoa-producing countries is immense: “One percent less cocoa butter in the final product corresponds with 100 million dollars lost by those countries that produce cocoa," he said. "Two percent less is devastating to economies like Ivory Coast and Ghana.”

Trade booth at Cioccoshow

The Bologna event is a chocolate lover's paradise

The ruling against Italy's pure chocolate label, de Dominicis added, was shameful and another example of the EU bowing down to “multinationals that don't care about the economy of poor and under-developed countries.”

Felix, who works closely with cocoa plantations in Ecuador, explained that when cocoa beans are pressed, they produce cocoa butter and cocoa powder in almost equal parts. “You have butter regardless, so if you don't sell everything you have to lower the price and sell to other industries like cosmetics,” he said.

European awareness

Felix would like Europe's larger chocolate manufacturers to assume more responsibility for protecting poorer nations' economies and ensuring quality. In the meantime, he believes the most important step is to educate European consumers “so they understand what a good chocolate is – meaning the source, the way it was processed and many other things. At least you, as a consumer, then have the power to choose.”

Felix is also very pleased to see Italian artisanal chocolate producers working together to import ethically sourced, high quality cocoa. The Fine Chocolate Association of Italy, which now includes around 60 small companies, uses events like Bologna's Cioccoshow to talk directly to the public. “Word of mouth is basically what gives us the power when you don't have the money to make a huge advertising campaign,” Felix explained, “and if you do it here in Italy, Germany and other countries, your voice will be heard.”

Author: Dany Mitzman
Editor: John Blau

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