Select Committee on European Communities Report


Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to Jeff Rooker, MP, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on an amended proposal for a European Parliament and Council Directive relating to cocoa and chocolate products intended for human consumption (presented by the Commission pursuant to Article 189a(2) of the EC Treaty) (6582/98)

  Sub-Committee D considered this document at its meeting this week and considered that it would be appropriate for them to respond to the Commission's amended proposal at the same time as the publication of the Select Committee's report on "The EC Chocolate Directive".

  The Commission's amended proposal was sifted to the Sub-Committee after the report had been ordered to be printed. The Sub-Committee welcomes the Commission's rejection of the majority of the European Parliament's amendments, and especially welcomes the restoration of the derogation relating to the sale of milk chocolate in the United Kingdom.

  The Sub-Committee supports in principle the Government's objection to double labelling, and would accept the amended wording proposed by the Commission as a compromise, providing it would in no way compel front of packet labelling. The Sub-Committee is concerned that "a conspicuous and clearly legible statement . . . in addition to the list of ingredients and clearly distinct from it" could, if left to the discretion of Member States as opposed to manufacturers, result in some Member States compelling manufacturers to provide a front of packet "health warning" of the presence of non-cocoa fats. The Sub-Committee would be utterly opposed to this result.

  The Sub-Committee's comments on the European Parliament's other amendments are contained in the report, which will be debated in the House.

26 March 1998

Speech by Lord Donoughue, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in the debate on the EC Chocolate Directive, reproduced from Hansard of 30 April 1998, cols 465-468

  My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, marked by a near consensus, although I noticed some faint inclination towards the margin of differentiation from my noble friend sitting behind me, and greatly assisted by contributions from three members of this distinguished Committee which has produced such a fine report.

  I should like, first, to thank the Chairman of the Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for providing me with a welcome opportunity to respond formally on behalf of the Government to the Select Committee's report on the proposed new directive on cocoa and chocolate products for human consumption. My speech tonight should be viewed as our formal response to the committee.

  I shall begin by congratulating the Committee. The report provides an excellent summary of a complex subject and a useful analysis of the issues involved which are of particular importance to the United Kingdom. The written evidence also makes interesting reading and demonstrates the range of interests that have been consulted.

  The Government are pleased to note that the Committee welcomes the stated objectives of the proposed directive, the most important of which is to secure free circulation of chocolate containing non-cocoa vegetable fats, as a measure to implement the single market. Like the previous administration, we firmly believe that different chocolate-making traditions within the European Community should be allowed to co-exist in a genuine single market.

  We welcome the Committee's rejection of the European Parliament's amendments. I can confirm that, as anticipated, the Commission's amended proposal for the directive (which was finally published in the Official Journal on 17 April) also rejected the majority of the Parliament's amendments. As indicated in the explanatory memorandum that we have submitted to the scrutiny committee, the amended proposal takes account of part of the Parliament's amendment on the labelling of products containing non-cocoa vegetable fats. It now requires such products to be labelled with a "conspicuous and clearly legible" statement, in addition to the list of ingredients and clearly distinct from it, that the product, "contains vegetable fats other than cocoa butter".

  However, contrary to the Parliament's view that the statement should be on the front of the package, the Commission has sensibly concluded that the location of the statement should be left to the manufacturer. Your Lordships' Committee has suggested that any requirement for manufacturers to include a separate statement indicating the presence of non-cocoa vegetable fats should be a temporary measure as a possible compromise. The Government understand the merits of this suggestion but remain of the view—and I stress this to my noble friend Lord Borrie, while respecting his opposing view—that additional labelling is unnecessary and are opposed to it in principle. But, like the Committee, we fully recognise the need to seek to ensure that manufacturers have adequate time to implement any changes in labelling, or otherwise, in a new directive.

  It may be helpful if I confirm that the Commission's amended proposal only takes account of three other minor amendments proposed by the European Parliament. These clarify the reference in the text to the Community rules on additives used in foodstuffs and would provide a clearer definition of two specialist types of chocolate—I hope that I pronounce them correctly—"Gianduia" and "Gianduia milk chocolate". All the other amendments proposed by the European Parliament, including the removal of the current derogation for UK milk chocolate, have been rejected by the Commission.

  The Government note the importance that the Committee attaches to the retention of the derogation for UK milk chocolate. I should like to assure your Lordships that we will take a robust stance in relation to our own "milkier" milk chocolate and will do all we can to ensure that when the product is sold in other member states it is not labelled in a derogatory manner. I think a point that is often overlooked by our European neighbours is that the higher milk content of our milk chocolate provides a higher value product. It is also "farming friendly" by providing an additional outlet for the milk produced by European farmers.

  The Government welcome the conclusion of the Committee that the option of using non-cocoa vegetable fats in chocolate throughout the European Union will not necessarily have a negative impact on cocoa-producing countries: and that those developing countries which produce the raw materials for non-cocoa vegetable fats will benefit. There are, of course, significant uncertainties about the possible effect of the proposed directive on cocoa producers and other developing countries. The Government share the view of the Committee that long-term development strategies should be based on helping countries respond to shifts in consumer demand patterns.

  With regard to methods of measurement for non-cocoa butter vegetable fats, the Government fully agree with the Committee's view that there is no need to delay implementation of the proposed directive until more accurate tests are available. Methods which already exist for those fats are no less precise than those for other components in chocolate and these are complemented by in-factory checks of records and recipes, which provide far better reassurance and would be capable of being undertaken on a pan-European basis if genuinely harmonised provisions can be agreed.

  I now turn to some of the points raised during the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Willoughby de Broke, asked about progress towards reaching agreement on the directive. I assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other colleagues, especially the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, my noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury, have taken every opportunity to raise the subject in bilateral talks with their counterparts. At a debate in the internal market Council last November we were only five votes short of the necessary qualified majority in favour of the use of vegetable fats. We want to do all that we can to ensure that other member states understand our concerns and to see whether we can find a solution to this matter during our presidency. I hope the noble Baroness will agree that it would not be appropriate to disclose details of negotiations at this stage.

  As regards timing, I hope that it will be possible for the Council to reach a common position on the proposed directive during our presidency. The existing directive will continue to be implemented until a new directive is agreed. UK manufacturers will be able to continue to use non-cocoa vegetable fats in their products in accordance with existing conditions. They will also be able to continue to make milk chocolate with a higher milk content and sell it as milk chocolate in this country. But when it is exported to member states it will have to be called the equivalent of milk chocolate with a high milk content. In some languages this is translated in a derogatory way as household milk chocolate, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out.

  As regards our legal position, if there is a failure in that regard I shall write to the noble Baroness about it. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, asked about a single definition of milk chocolate. I have already touched on that. I point out that the Government have proposed such a single definition on several occasions but so far the majority of member states want two separate definitions.

  The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked whether vegetable fats should be listed on labels. Our reservation about that is that it would be unnecessarily restrictive for manufacturers and could limit technological developments. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was a member of the Committee. He referred to drinking chocolate and chocolate cake. I reassure him that the proposed chocolate directive safeguards the use of such customary names. We shall certainly resist any attempts to change that. I believe the noble Lord said that few people eat less chocolate now than they did a few years ago. I agree with that in general but, sadly, I must confess that it does not apply to me. I am deprived of all the delights of market testing that have been mentioned. This debate has revived happy memories of chocolate delights enjoyed long ago.

  In conlusion, I refer to the central question of the noble Lord, Lord Reay, I should make it clear that the Government will not agree to any solution which discriminates against traditional British products or narrows the effective range of choice of British consumers. I say in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, that during our presidency we shall do our utmost to search for a genuinely inclusive single solution which allows all the different chocolate-making traditions in the Community to co-exist within a fair and genuinely harmonised single market. As I have said, my noble friend the Minister has had discussions with colleagues and we remain hopeful that the Council will reach a common position on the proposed directive during our presidency.

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