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Britain wins EU chocolate battle

British brands such as Cadbury milk chocolate will now be available across Europe

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LUXEMBOURG -- British confectioners have won a "sweet victory" in a European court, ending a 30-year battle over what constitutes chocolate.

Spain and Italy have restricted sales of British-made chocolate because it contains up to 5 percent vegetable fat instead of pure cocoa butter.

But European judges ruled their efforts illegal on Thursday, saying UK chocolate was entitled to free access to all EU markets.

"For the Cadbury's factory making Dairy Milk in Birmingham, and people in York putting Terry's Chocolate Oranges together, a positive ruling will be a sweet victory indeed," said Gary Titley, the UK's Labour Party leader in the European Parliament.

Italian and Spanish consumers would now be "liberated to choose old favourites like Crunchies, Double Decker, Wispa and Flake on an equal footing with local products as familiar as Ferrero Rocher," Titley told the UK Press Association.

The European Commission took Spain and Italy to court after they defied a 2000 EU-wide agreement allowing a small amount of vegetable fat in chocolate as long as it was listed in the ingredients.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg found both countries guilty of breaching EU trade laws by insisting that British chocolate be labelled as "chocolate substitute."

The judgment also applies to other EU countries which market chocolates with vegetable fat -- Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden and Finland.

Their products have all been wrongly prohibited from being marketed under the name "chocolate", the judges said, rejecting Spanish and Italian claims that that the chocolate restrictions were "based on the need for consumer protection."

"The addition of those fats does not alter the nature of the product, and an indication in the label would inform consumers of their presence," the judges said.

Trying to force manufacturers to label their products as "chocolate substitute" imposed extra costs on companies and "may adversely affect how customers perceive those products. That would lead to restrictions on the free movement of goods," the judges added.

Top European chocolate makers Nestle SA and Cadbury Schweppes PLC said they were pleased with the ruling, The Associated Press reported.

The ruling will help achieve "a unified market for chocolate across Europe," Nestle spokesman Marcel Rubin said.

'Family chocolate'

The chocolate war began in 1973 when Britain joined the EU.

To continental Europeans, milky British chocolate with its vegetable fat was seen as less than the real thing.

But London's EU membership negotiators made it clear that Britain would not adopt EU chocolate standards, which at the time required chocolate to contain only cocoa ingredients.

Britain, Ireland and Denmark won an exemption to continue making their own chocolate, while other EU countries could ban vegetable fats in chocolate if they wished.

The result was the absence of familiar British brands -- Mars bars, Kit Kats and Cadbury's milk chocolate -- in eight countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Germany, Greece and Holland.

Efforts to settle the issue included suggestions to call British chocolate "household milk chocolate" or even "vegelate."

A deal was finally reached in March 2000: British milk chocolate containing up to 20 percent milk -- far more than many continentals consider civilised -- could be exported to all EU countries if labelled as "family milk chocolate."

And British chocolate with up to 5 percent vegetable fat could be exported to all EU countries as long as the fat was listed in the ingredients.

Those rules come into force in June, but Spain and Italy decided to continue the fight to the bitter end.

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