“Cioccolato Puro” in Court

Here’s another chapter in the label wars. In the U.S., we know all about industry power when it comes to food labels – GMO food is not labeled, country of origin is usually not on the label but dairies that don’t process milk from cows treated with rGBH have to put a disclaimer on their product telling the buyer that there is no difference between their milk and that from treated cows. The Europeans usually have been a bit more enlightened about labelling, at least when it comes to GMO and hormones. But they have their own label problems.

The European Court of Justice will hear a case brought against Italy by the European Commission about its label “cioccolato puro” or “pure chocolate.” Here’s a bit of background: during the late 1990s six EU member states under the leadership of the UK (incidentally home to Cadbury/Schweppes) pushed through a ruling that chocolate could contain up to five percent of various tropical oils as a substitute for cocoa butter. The label, however, had to state that the bar contained vegetable oil in addition to cocoa butter. The change was bitterly opposed by those countries that have a history of making decent chocolate (France, Germany, Spain, Italy) but they lost out.

Since 2000, when the rule took effect, Italy has permitted its manufacturers to apply the label “cioccolato puro” if the chocolate bar contained only cocoa butter and no tropical oils. That label is now under attack as “discriminatory” as reported by the Guardian.

Some more background: throughout the 1970s and 1980s, after the common market was more or less in place, the EU struggled to develop a common definition for thousands and thousands of products sold in its member countries. It was a losing battle and eventually with the single market treaty of 1992, a new basic principle came into effect: if a product can legally be sold in one member state and if it is safe, then it can be sold in all member states. The chocolate rule of 2000 was one of the examples of that new principle.

History is never quite in the past. The conflict over chocolate shows the same fault lines over chocolate that have characterized Europe ever since the Spaniards brought chocolate there from the Americas. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the more protestant northern European countries thought of chocolate as the beverage of the decadent catholic and aristocratic southern Europe, preferring tea and coffee instead. Only after the chocolate bar made its apperance and became a treat for the masses did that attitude change. Or maybe it never did.

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