Purists go after Big Chocolate plan

April 29, 2007|By Adam Satariano | Adam Satariano,Bloomberg News

Would chocolate containing trans fats and sugar substitutes taste as sweet as the real thing? Hershey Co. and other candy makers say yes.

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestle SA and Archer Daniels Midland Co., has a petition before the Food and Drug Administration to redefine what constitutes chocolate.

They want to make it without the required ingredients of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, using instead artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes and vegetable fats such as hydrogenated and trans fats.

"They are trying to pull one over on us," said Cybele May, 40, publisher of CandyBlog, on which she has encouraged more than 200 people to write the FDA to protest what she calls "mockolate." "What they are asking for is permission to confuse the consumer for what we readily accept as chocolate."

Gary Guittard, fourth-generation owner of Guittard Chocolate Co., wants to keep chocolate from the dark side, too. He has enlisted the support of high-end companies such as billionaire Warren E. Buffett's See's Candies to fight the big chocolate makers.

"The process of this thing going through, it wasn't transparent, and it needs to be brought out into the light," said Guittard from his San Francisco home.

In a grass-roots campaign, Guittard set up the Web site "Don't Mess With Our Chocolate," which contained a link allowing people to write to the regulator before the public comment period ended last week.

Brad Kinstler, chief executive officer of Carson, Calif.-based See's, is siding with Guittard.

"If the margarine manufacturers could call their product butter instead of being required to call it margarine, wouldn't it strike the consumer as being odd?" said Kinstler, whose company sold 30 million pounds of sweets last year.

Hershey, the largest U.S. candy maker, says that broader labeling is needed to keep up with changing consumer tastes.

"The petition would modernize all food standards, increasing flexibility to accommodate changes in technology," said Kirk Saville, spokesman for the company in Hershey, Pa. "Changes, if adopted, would provide the flexibility to make changes based on consumer taste preference, ingredient costs and availability, and shelf life."

Cocoa prices in New York have surged about 28 percent in the past six months on speculation that dry weather may impair cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world's largest suppliers of beans to make chocolate.

"Cocoa butter is the most expensive ingredient there is, and so it adds up to a substantial amount of money," said Guittard, whose 139-year-old company in Burlingame, Calif., is a member of the chocolate manufacturers association.

A pound of chocolate contains about 25 percent cocoa butter at a cost of $2.30, while vegetable oils are as little as 70 cents a pound, Guittard said. U.S. chocolate manufacturers used $1.4 billion of cocoa and cocoa products in 2005, according to the latest data from the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.

The chocolate association signed the petition submitted to the FDA last October to change the candy. Members believe "now is an appropriate time for FDA to update the standards of identity for all foods," group President Lynn M. Bragg said in a statement.

The proposal was drafted by the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association urging the FDA to "modernize food standards." In addition to the chocolate manufacturers, the petition was signed by groups representing almost every part of the food chain, including the meat, dairy, fruit, fish and grain industries.

Bloomberg News repoter Lisa Rapaport contributed to this article.

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