The thorny issue of chocolate labelling in the EU continues with a judgement this week that finds both Spain and Italy acted against the backbone of the EC treaty - the spirit of the free movement of goods - by prohibiting the marketing of 'chocolate' products that contain vegetable fats, other than cocoa butter.
The court case was motivated by Commission concerns that Spain and Italy, in contrast to all the other member states, have prohibited marketing under the 'chocolate' label products containing vegetable fats other than cocoa butter - despite a 1973 directive that states chocolate may contain vegetable fats, other than cocoa butter, up to a maximum of 5 per cent of total weight. Italy and Spain preferred instead to market the products, with the slightly derogatory term, as 'chocolate substitutes'.
Spain and Italy, for their part, submit that the 1973 directive definitively regulates which products can be sold under the name 'chocolate' and that products containing such vegetable fats are not among those. They maintain that their legislation is based on the need for consumer protection.
But the court maintained that the purpose of the 1973 directive is to lay down common rules in order to ensure the free movement of chocolate products within the community. However, as regards the use of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter in those products, the legislature merely established provisional rules.
In particular, the directive expressly allows member states to maintain national rules authorising or prohibiting the addition of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter to products manufactured within their territory.
But the court stressed that the requirement to alter the sales name of the products in question to 'chocolate substitutes' could, clearly, lead to severe restrictions on the free movement of goods.
In response to Spain and Italy's assertion that their legislation is based on the need for consumer protection, an issue close to the heart of Europe, the court maintained that appropriate labelling which notes the presence of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter is more than sufficient to guarantee that consumers are fully informed and ergo, protected.
But Spain and Italy, despite the outcome of the court case, will be obliged to follow their European neighbours when the rules of the new 'chocolate' directive (2000/36) come into force - expected in June this year. The new rules passed, after much inter-state wrangling, contain provisions which authorise the addition of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter up to a maximum of 5 per cent.