by Niccolo Sarno

Brussels, 20 Mar 2000 (IPS) -- The European Union 'chocolate directive', which allows chocolate producers to replace cocoa butter with cheaper vegetable fats, could result in an estimated loss of $800 million for cocoa producing countries, critics say.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted on Mar 15 in favour of the directive, which permits European chocolate producers up to five percent of vegetable fats, to replace cocoa butter used in the manufacture of chocolate.

Economists say the directive is aimed at ensuring the free movement of cocoa products and chocolate throughout the European Union (EU). However West African officials say the move, which is widely expected to decrease the demand for cocoa, will threaten the livelihood of some 11 million people in West Africa who depend on cocoa production.

"The risk is that an important source of revenue for (cocoa) producing countries would be taken away while no form of compensation is being considered," said Sainy. He said cocoa production was indispensable to the economy of West African countries. In Ghana 54% of the export earnings come from cocoa, in Cote d'Ivoire 40%, and in Cameroon 30%.

"In Cote d'Ivoire, cocoa growing is carried out by small farmers. We expect a direct impact of this (chocolate) directive on their lives," said Sainy. Guy Alain Gauze, Minister for Raw Materials of the West African country, Cote d'Ivoire - the world's largest producer of cocoa beans - says the adoption of the directive will result in the demand for cocoa in Europe to decline substantially.

Western Europe reportedly consumes over 40% of the chocolate sold worldwide. The EU imports some 90% of the cocoa from West Africa, mainly from Cote d'Ivoire, where three million farmers earn their living from cocoa. According to a report, by the government of Cote d'Ivoire, over 700,000 families in the country depend directly on cocoa production. In Ghana an estimated 600,000 families are affected, 300,000 in Nigeria and 220,000 in Cameroon, says the report.

Cote d'Ivoire's present cocoa production of 1.2 million tonnes annually represents about 45 percent of total world output, estimated at 2.9 million tonnes.

Paul Lannoye, President of the Green Group in the European Parliament and rapporteur on the so-called 'chocolate directive', said that large industrial groups have won over cocoa producing countries.

In his view, MEPs have been strongly influenced by the industry lobby, especially the British one. The use of vegetable fats in chocolate is authorised in the United Kingdom, as well as in six other EU countries.

The chocolate dispute has divided the EU since 1973 when Britain, along with other countries, won an opt out from EU law saying no other vegetable fat than cocoa butter could be used in chocolate.

Of the 15 EU countries, eight do not currently allow the use of vegetable fats in chocolate, including Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.

"Using vegetable fats other than cocoa butter in chocolate manufacturing obeys to a purely economic logic, as vegetable fats are sometimes 10 times cheaper than cocoa," said Lannoye in a statement from Strasbourg, where the European Parliament was meeting when MEPs voted in favour of the directive.

The chocolate trade is worth some $3 billion a year across the European Union.

According to Lannoye, the 'chocolate directive', will soon be adopted by the EU's ruling council of ministers without further amendments, and all EU countries will have to adopt it.

Most of the amendments to the directive proposed to MEPs were not accepted, to the disappointment of the Greens. The Green Group wanted consumers to be able to see on the front face of the product whether the chocolate contains vegetable fats other than cocoa butter.

They wanted an amendment requesting a labelling on the front of the product, in addition to the list of ingredients, consisting of a 'conspicuous and clearly legible statement': "Also contains vegetable fats other than cocoa butter."

However, this amendment was refused. The directive says it is enough to mention the vegetable fats in the list of ingredients, much to the despair of chocolate 'purists' who wanted a clear labelling to inform consumers. Crucially, the Greens also asked not to implement the directive until it could be controlled, that is until a method of analysis of non-cocoa fat content was found.

They said a sufficiently reliable method of verifying the exact proportion of vegetable fats in the finished product does not exist yet. The amendment related to a reliable content analysis method was also not accepted.

An amendment requesting that the use of genetic engineering in the production of the alternative vegetable fats be prohibited was also not reportedly accepted by MEPs. (SUNS4631)