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Brussels trains its sights on cadmium in cocoa and chocolate

09 September 2012

The WTO committee responsible for food safety and animal and plant life and health met on 10 and 11 July to hear the concerns of cocoa-producing countries with regard to proposed new EU limits on cadmium levels in cocoa and chocolate. Cadmium is a substance which poses a risk to human health because it can 'lead to kidney failure, bone problems and reproductive difficulties'. Cadmium can be drawn from the soil, but sources also include agricultural inputs: CIRAD researcher Laurence Denaix suggests that its prime transmitters are phosphate-based fertilisers, along with sewage sludge and animal effluent.

The EC has been monitoring cadmium levels more closely since January 2009, when the European Food Safety Authority, in the course of updating an advisory note on the substance, concluded that certain groups of consumers were at risk of possible over-exposure. The EC's Expert Committee on Environmental Contaminants has also proposed that the limits be revised.

The July 2012 meeting progresses a matter first raised in October 2011 by a number of Latin American and African cocoa producers, among them Cameroon and Ghana. They have since been joined by other ACP producers, such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, who argue that this new regulation 'threatens their exports and the livelihoods of their small cocoa farmers'. Observer status was accorded during these sessions to three new organisations: the African Union, COMESA, and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The ACP, ECOWAS and SADC are among other bodies awarded this status during earlier discussions.

More particularly, the cocoa producers are asking the EU to 'clarify the contribution made by different types of chocolate to weekly or monthly cadmium intakes' and 'to work with scientific experts to agree a method of calculating maximum permitted levels’. They have also called on the EU to grant them a delay of 5 years to adjust to the new standards.

The EU has declared itself open to discussions within the framework of the WTO. It emphasises that the new regulation is above all pragmatic in approach, and will initially pass through several stages of consultation with a variety of experts.  For example, the new regulation will recognise the fact that 'dark chocolate, with a higher cocoa content, tends to be eaten in smaller quantities and by adults, while milk chocolate, with a lower cocoa content, is normally eaten in larger quantities and by children'. 

Editorial comment

The EU’s proposed revision affects several other products besides cocoa, including wheat.

However, wheat industry lobbyists have already acted with decisive effect. While the EC was proposing to halve the current limit of 0.2mg/kg for soft and hard wheats, the European wheat industry has successfully lobbied for the creation of a specific category for hard wheat. This sets a maximum of 0.175mg/kg, deferred for 1 year, falling to 0.15mg/kg after a further 3 years. Like the cocoa industry, cereal producers are also concerned about 'the absence of any method of analysis'.

Cereal producers are undertaking a number of research projects – examining, for example, soils and the product itself – to determine how long a transitional period they should be negotiating to give the industry sufficient time to adjust and carry out the necessary research. Stakeholders within the cocoa industry could draw inspiration from the example of the European cereals sector: comprehensive research into soils, varieties and inputs should be conducted, with the ultimate aim of putting forward proposals for the world market in cocoa for human consumption. EU assistance will be fundamental to this enterprise, both to enhance the research programme itself and to ensure that it benefits all producing regions, including the ACP.

It is worth mentioning that producer nations can also benefit from further aid for research by ratifying the new International Cocoa Agreement. This will allow them to strengthen their links with the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) and its partners, among them the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), and thus gain easier access to research and to technical, scientific and commercial training and information. ICCO, for example, with finance from the WTO's Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF) and the EDES Programme of COLEACP, is working on an SPS capacity-building project to mitigate the harmful effects of pesticide residues in cocoa and maintain market access. The project is designed to help countries produce cocoa that conforms to international food safety standards.

These are vital issues for all cocoa-producing countries. Togo, for example, is by international standards a relatively small cocoa producer.  Yet, according to Anselme Gouthon, Secretary-General of Togo's Coordinating Committee for Coffee and Cocoa, the crop provides a livelihood for 12,000 families, representing 7% of the country's export receipts (third after phosphates and cotton) and 30% of total agricultural revenue. Annual production and the total quantity marketed have increased by 13.25% over the past 5 years, with an annual average for this period of 11,305 tonnes. The country has launched a National Programme for Agricultural Investment and Food Security (Programme National d’Investissement et de Sécurité Alimentaire/PNIASA) to remove the major constraints on production, and the coffee-cocoa sector has already received grant aid of 3 billion Central African CFA francs: the fight against cadmium could form part of this. 


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