Recent findings indicate a decline in quality among some cocoa exports. Now, European Union food safety legislators are intending to stiffen regulations that could make it more difficult to sell the commodity.
The announcement has sparked concern across West Africa, where thousands of farmers grow about 70 percent of global cocoa supplies
The measures take effect in April. EU food safety officials say they’re driven by a drop in quality, and rising health safety concerns among chocolate consumers.
The move follows additional pressure for the certification of all segments of the cocoa supply chain from the fields to world markets. Officials want to be sure producers are growing the crop in an environmentally sustainable and ethical way. They also want to be sure producers can prove the origins of their cocoa.
Michael Ndoping is chair of the National Cocoa and Coffee Board in Cameroon. He says a combination of issues is posing a threat to consumers. One is the increased use of pesticides. Others are improper fermentations, and unsanitary processing methods like drying cocoa beans on tarred road surfaces or in smoky ovens.
"The final consumers in Europe, America, Asia and even Africa are very conscious about food safety," he said. "You don’t want to poison people. Quality is a very sensitive issue. And it’s not just for the consumers. It concerns us Africans who are producing as well. Imagine a farmer who goes to spray a cocoa plant and half of the chemical is poured on him. His life is at risk. "
A major target of the enhanced EU scrutiny is cadmium, a cancer-causing metallic substance increasingly detected in imported cocoa. Medical authorities say it’s also a trigger for kidney failure as well as bone and reproduction complications.
It’s used in the production of fertilizers and batteries, plastics and glass pigmentation, and in steel-plating. These activities release cadmium into the environment, where it accumulates in the soil and water and is eventually ingested by animals and plants including cocoa.
Research ordered by the European Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, CONTAM, indicate that chocolate is among surveyed foodstuffs with very high concentrations of the substance. The EU says it is banning from its markets cocoa with cadmium-contents higher than 0.2mg per kg.
The alert has sparked concern across West Africa where farmers grow three-quarters of the world’s annual production of nearly four million tons.
Ndoping says "It’s a real concern. When we were informed, we carried out a quick survey – we collected cocoa beans and soil samples from certain areas and did some preliminary tests that showed that the limits being fixed by the European regulations are way above what we found. That doesn’t mean we’re free. It’s a process that has to be constant."
The region’s cocoa-producing countries are demanding a five-year delay of the EU measures so they can adjust and protect the livelihoods of millions of mostly small-scale farmers. Additionally, cocoa accounts for 40 percent of the state budget in the Ivory Coast, 30 percent in Ghana and contributes two percent to the GDP in Cameroon.
In the meantime, demand is predicted to increase over the next decade by one million tons. In response, output is expected to rise among leading producers, including the Ivory Coast, which produces over one million tons per year, as well as in Ghana, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Cameroon, the world’s fifth largest grower also plans to increase harvests from 220,000 tons to 600,000 tons annually by 2015.
But experts like Professor Maladji Adoroka worry if the planned production increases will meet the new quality requirements and earn better prices for farmers. Madoroka is the Director of the National Research Institute of Nigeria.
"The matter remains," says Adoroka, "who determines the price of cocoa? There’s climate change. Does the buyer care about that? Is the seller not affected? You talk of cadmium – who brings cadmium? Is it in the produce that you bring for us to spray or in the ground, or where from?"
He says though cocoa prices have been attractive over the past two decades; they are low considering the expense involved in improving quality for world markets.
"You say you want this quality, you want that quality," says Madoroka. "You want this standard, you want that standard. At what price? Better quality is always commanding better price. Who will be encouraged to increase quality if the price is not changing?"
Since the start of the year, hundreds of plantations across West Africa have been wrecked by recurring black pod disease epidemics, marauding pests and heavy rains. Meanwhile, farms and farmers are ageing; farm-to-market transportation is difficult, as is access to land and processing facilities, and funding for expensive inputs.
Experts say these challenges have had an impact on West Africa's cocoa quality. Ed Sequain works with a major cocoa importer in the US.
"My job," he says, "is to taste chocolate. Specifically, what I do is to ensure that as we are using tools to bring productivity, yield disease-resistant material to farmers; that we don’t lose track of flavor. Flavor is the reason chocolate exists."
He says increasingly, African farmers are compromising quality as they rush for attractive world market prices.
"It’s a serious problem," Sequaine says, "because farmers have been put under pressure both economically and environmentally. With the ageing of the cocoa trees, quality has declined. Rejection rates are at all-time high both in Europe and in the US for African cocoa."
But officials say they are banking on ongoing research to improve soil quality, introduce better-yielding resistant varieties as well as educate farmers on best practices.
Listen to report on the EU's new cocoa regulations