What requirements must cocoa beans comply with to be allowed on the European market?
There are certain legal and non-legal requirements you must meet to enter the European cocoa market, regarding food safety and food contaminant levels, for instance. Furthermore, European cocoa buyers increasingly apply additional requirements that you need to comply with to keep up with the market, especially in the field of food safety certification and sustainability. Lastly, if you want to enter a specific niche market, you must comply with specific niche requirements. Meeting these additional requirements can increase your chances on the market considerably.
Contents of this page
1. What are the mandatory requirements?
Here, you can find the most important legal and non-legal requirements that you must meet if you want to market cocoa products in Europe. These include general requirements for food products, especially on food safety, as well as specific legislation for cocoa and chocolate products. The Trade Helpdesk of the European Commission gives a complete overview of legal and other requirements for the European cocoa market. The Product Code for cocoa products is 18001.
Food safety and hygiene are key issues on the European market. If you want to export to Europe, your cocoa products must comply with European legislation on food safety and food hygiene. These laws ensure the quality of food products throughout the whole supply chain.
An important measure in controlling food safety hazards involves defining critical control points (HACCP) by implementing food management principles. Subjecting food products to official controls is another important measure. Products that are not considered safe will be denied access to Europe.
In the event of repeated non-compliance of specific products originating from particular countries, in relation to a health certificate or analytical test report, for instance, stricter conditions will be required for import. Products from countries that have shown repeated non-compliance are put on a list that is included in the Annex of European Commission Regulation 669/2009.
- Make sure your products comply with the General Food Law (Regulation EC 178/2002) and the general rules on Food Hygiene (Regulation EC 852/2004).
- Check the Guidance document of the European Commission for information on certain key questions related to import requirements and the European rules on food hygiene and official food controls.
- Refer to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) database to see examples of withdrawals of cocoa products from the market and the reasons behind these withdrawals. Under “Product”, choose the category “cocoa and cocoa preparations, coffee and tea”. In addition, you can choose your country under “Country” to see examples of non-compliance. This can provide a basis for your own risk management system and help you avoid future border rejections.
Food contamination can occur at different stages of the production process due to environmental contamination, cultivation practices or processing methods. Since many contaminants are naturally-occurring substances, it would be impossible to impose a total ban on them. European Union legislation ensures that contaminants are kept at levels that are as low as possible so that they do not threaten human health. The levels are set on the basis of scientific advice provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The main contaminants likely to be found in cocoa and derived products are:
A. heavy metals;
D. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs);
F. foreign matter.
- You must comply with the regulation on contaminants in foodstuffs (Regulation EC 1881/2006); otherwise, your products will not be allowed to enter the European market. Suppliers to Europe are responsible for ensuring that imported foodstuffs comply with European legislation.
- Check the European Commission’s Managing food contaminants: how the EU ensures that our food is safe fact sheet for further information on food contamination control in the European Union.
- Focus on applying good agricultural practices to reduce the presence of food contaminants. Information on good agricultural practices in cocoa production can be found on the website of the Federation of Cocoa Commerce.
A) Heavy metals, and cadmium in particular
The European Union has strengthened its regulation on cadmium in cocoa and derived products. The new regulation became effective as of January 2019. Cadmium is found naturally in the soil, but pesticides and chemical fertilisers containing cadmium are also sources of contamination. The presence of cadmium is a particular problem in cocoa from some Latin American countries due to factors like volcanic activity and forest fires. The maximum permitted levels of cadmium are listed in the table below. Please note that these levels relate to finished chocolate products, but controls of cocoa beans should also take place.
Table 1. The EU’s maximum permitted levels of cadmium in cocoa and derived products
Specific cocoa and chocolate products
Maximum permitted cadmium levels
Milk chocolate with ≤30% total dry cocoa solids
Chocolate with ≥30 to <50% total dry cocoa solids
Chocolate with ≥50% total dry cocoa solids
Cacao powder (as an ingredient in sweetened cocoa powder) sold to the final consumer
When translating the cadmium levels so they can be applied to cocoa beans, European importers use different approaches to calculate the acceptable levels. These levels may vary according to their risk management system and their end-buyer’s requirements. In general, importers will consider <0.5 parts per million (ppm) to be an acceptable level. Up to 0.8 ppm may still be accepted, but acceptance above 0.8 ppm will depend on the content of cocoa in the finished chocolate. If the level rises above 1 ppm, chocolate makers will either reject the product altogether or have to blend the cocoa with other cocoa with lower cadmium content.
- Be ready to provide your buyer with a laboratory analysis of cadmium levels in your cocoa beans. The new maximum levels of cadmium in food products (Regulation EU 488/2014) apply to finished products, but will have implications for suppliers of cocoa beans whose product exceeds the acceptable cadmium level.
- Visit the website of the International Cocoa Organisation for recommendations on how to reduce cadmium levels in cocoa beans. Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of cadmium and other heavy metals will also help you to ensure compliance.
- Access the online Choco SAFE tool, created by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), to calculate the safe EU limit for cadmium in different cocoa and chocolate products.
The European Union has set maximum residue levels (MRLs) regarding the amount of pesticides allowed in food products, including cocoa. The use of pesticides is permitted, but should be strictly controlled. This is especially relevant for cocoa farmers using pesticides to fight insect infestations, such as mirid bugs and the cocoa pod borer.
- Check the legislation regarding the control of pesticide residues (Regulation EC 396/2005) for further information on pesticides.
- Consult the EU pesticide database for an overview of the maximum residue levels (MRLs) for each pesticide.
- Focus on reducing the amount of pesticides in your products. A good way to do this is by applying Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an agricultural pest control approach that uses complementary crop management strategies and practices to help minimise the use of pesticides. Useful sources are the European Centre for Integrated Pest Management and the Training Manual on Integrated Pest and Disease Management for Sustainable Cocoa Production of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Mycotoxins such as aflatoxins and ochratoxin A can occur in cocoa as a result of fungal infection of crops. They are a major cause of economic loss in the cocoa sector. The recognition of the health hazards of mycotoxins has led to regulatory limits being set around the world, particularly in the European Union.
- Focus on good agricultural, drying, processing and storage practices, for example by adopting Good Agricultural Practices and/or Good Manufacturing Practices. These steps have a significant influence on the development of mycotoxins. Check the available guidelines on how to reduce mycotoxin contamination at the different levels of the cocoa production chain.
- Read and follow the Codex Alimentarius’ Code of Practice for the Prevention and Reduction of Ochratoxin A Contamination in Cocoa (CXC 72-2013).
D) Polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs):
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may also contaminate cocoa during the post-harvest or primary processing stages. Smoke is one of the main sources of PAHs in cocoa beans during drying or storage. The limit for benzo[a]pyrene, which is one of the most common PAHs, is 5.0 μg/kg of fat. The limit is 30 μg/kg for the total sum of PAHs.
- Avoid drying cocoa beans with fire or beside roads, the use of inefficient artificial dryers and storage in the presence of smoke. In countries such as Ghana, where farms are small and this method is considered efficient, people use sun drying.
- Read and follow the Codex Alimentarius’ Code of Practice for the Reduction of Contamination of Food with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) from Smoking and Direct Drying Processes (CXC 68-2009).
Although cocoa is considered a low-risk commodity, it may occasionally be subject to microbiological contamination as a result of incorrect harvesting and drying techniques. No microbiological criteria for cocoa have been set in current European legislation. However, food safety authorities can withdraw imported food products from the market or prevent them from entering the European Union when micro-organisms are found.
- Check the legislation regarding the microbiological criteria for foodstuffs (Regulation EC 2073/2005) for further information on micro-organisms.
- Refer to Nestlé’s microbiological specifications for cocoa booklet, to learn more about how a large cocoa processing company sets criteria and sampling plans for cocoa beans and derived products.
F) Foreign matter:
Contamination by foreign matter like plastic and insects is a risk when food safety procedures are not carefully followed. For example, mineral oil residues (MOSH and MOAH) have been found in chocolate in Germany. These residues can be derived from materials like recycled paper and treated jute bags. However, the European Union currently has no legislation on this.
- See the website of the Transport Information Service for information on safe storage and transport of cocoa.
European Union food labelling rules ensure that consumers receive essential information that allows them to make an informed choice when purchasing their food. This is in relation to pre-packaged products. For cocoa beans, which are not pre-packaged, labelling is not guided by specific legislation, but should at least include:
- product name;
- lot or batch code;
- country of origin;
- net weight in kilogrammes;
- in case of organic or fair trade certification: name/code of the inspection body and the certification number.
- Refer to the labelling and packaging guidelines for more information on labelling rules for pre-packaged products, such as chocolate and chocolate products.
- Also, check the specific rules for cocoa and chocolate products (Directive 2000/36/EC), which complement the legislation applicable to foodstuffs.
Cocoa beans are traditionally shipped in jute bags, which can weigh between 60 and 65 kilogrammes. In the mainstream market, bulk shipment of cocoa beans has become more popular. This means cocoa beans are loaded directly into the ship’s cargo hold or in shipping containers containing a flexi-bag. This “mega-bulk” method is often adopted by larger cocoa processors, which handle cocoa beans of standard qualities.
In the fine flavour/specialty cocoa segment, jute bags are still commonly used. For very high-quality micro lots, vacuum-sealed GrainPro packaging can be used.
- Read more about trading and shipping cocoa beans in the Cocoa guide to trade practices of the International Trade Centre.
- Contact Open Trade Gate Sweden if you have specific questions regarding rules and requirements in Sweden and the European Union.
2. What additional requirements do buyers often have?
Some buyers have requirements that go beyond existing legislation, in particular regarding food safety, environmental impact and social responsibility. Western and Northern European countries generally have stricter additional requirements than Southern and Eastern European countries.
If you want to access the European market for cocoa beans, you will have to meet your buyer’s quality standards. These are particularly high within the specialty segment for fine flavour cocoa beans.
Buyers in Europe currently assess the quality and flavour of cocoa beans in different ways and often use a combination of two or more methodologies. The guide Cocoa Beans: Chocolate & Cocoa Industry Quality Requirements provides recommendations on cocoa growing, post-harvest practices and quality evaluation methods that contribute to cocoa quality.
Other common cocoa quality assessment methodologies and international cocoa standards used among chocolate makers and cocoa traders are, for instance:
- ISO’s Standards on classification and sampling for cocoa beans;
- the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI)’s cocoa sampling protocol and cocoa grading form;
- Heirloom Cacao Preservation’s genetic evaluation of cocoa to identify and value cocoa and its flavour;
- Equal Exchange/TCHO’s quality assessment and tasting guide to assess the quality of cocoa along the value chain;
- the methodology developed by the Cocoa of Excellence Program, to assess the quality of cocoa in different stages.
There are no official harmonised international procedures, nor is there a specific terminology for assessing cocoa bean quality and flavour and its direct relation to high-quality chocolate for buyers and consumers. However, a workgroup, coordinated by the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, is currently developing international standards for assessing cocoa quality. The organisation recently launched its International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour website, where the first draft protocols on the quality standards can be downloaded.
These protocols describe step by step how to: 1) sample cocoa beans for evaluation; 2) assess their physical quality; 3) process them into coarse powder, liquor and chocolate; and 4) establish a sensory evaluation of the flavours expressed in these three products.
The protocols are based on several consultations, which looked at current best practices worldwide. This was done to ensure that the international standards are not created from scratch, but are built on current best practices and are reviewed by representatives of the cocoa value chain. Future discussions involving relevant stakeholders will continue during industry events in order to improve and finalise the protocols by the end of 2019.
The lack of a harmonised cocoa quality standard has impeded clear communication among suppliers, buyers and consumers. Moreover, this has created difficulties for suppliers in understanding how buyers assess and define quality and the diversity of flavour, which affects their ability to tackle issues in their supply chain that could contribute to quality improvement.
- Read more about the quality requirements of the European industry for cocoa beans in the Cocoa Quality guide and follow its recommendations on how to improve quality along the value chain.
- Learn more about different methodologies and protocols worldwide to assess cocoa quality, and consult your buyer on their practices and recommendations. Some buyers will request factors that may be considered undesirable by other buyers, such as low fermentation levels.
- Learn more about maintaining the quality of your cocoa during transportation on the website of the Transportation Information Service.
- Keep up to date on the development of the International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour via their website. For more information about the International Standards, contact Brigitte Laliberte, Cocoa of Excellence Programme Coordinator at Bioversity International: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food safety certification
As food safety is a top priority in all EU food sectors, you can expect many players to request extra guarantees from you, such as the implementation of product-specific quality standards and Quality Management Systems (QMS) regarding the production and handling processes. For cocoa beans, it is very important that producers follow good agricultural practices to ensure food safety. The main standards in this area are provided by GLOBALG.A.P. These are voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural production processes that provide safe and traceable products.
GLOBALG.A.P. has a special standard for fruit and vegetables, and products derived from them (including cocoa), which covers all stages of production from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and the application of plant protection products to post-harvest produce handling, packaging and storage.
- Ask your buyers or potential buyers exactly what type of certification they require from you. Certain certification schemes such as Rainforest Alliance/UTZ are aligned with GLOBALG.A.P. If you are certified with these schemes, there is no need to obtain separate GLOBALG.A.P. certification.
Corporate Social Responsibility
European buyers are increasingly addressing social and environmental issues. Sometimes they become involved in local social and environmental projects, and sometimes they develop their own Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies or codes of conduct.
European buyers will expect you to comply with their code of conduct regarding Corporate Social Responsibility. This can be their own code of conduct or one based on external initiatives such as the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) or Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA). The adoption of these standards is most common among large-scale importers and retailers.
The following sustainability aspects are getting more attention on the European market for cocoa:
- business ethics;
- social responsibility, such as the welfare of farmers and processing facility workers;
- environmental responsibility, such as carbon neutrality and impact on local biodiversity.
Where these issues are not specifically addressed by legislation, they are covered in codes of conduct of importing companies and/or retailers, and are investigated further during audits. Some examples of these codes of conducts from retailers are:
- Coop (Switzerland): Action, not words – sustainability at Coop;
- Ahold Delhaize (Netherlands/Belgium): Sustainable Retailing;
- Carrefour (France): Corporate social responsibility.
Examples from importers, cocoa processors and chocolate manufacturers:
- Nestlé: Nestlé Cocoa Plan;
- Mars: Sustainable in a Generation Plan;
- Ferrero: Corporate Social Responsibility;
- Mondelez: Cocoa Life;
- Cargill: Cocoa Promise;
- Barry Callebaut: Forever Chocolate;
- Lindt & Sprüngli: The Farming Program.
These codes of conduct may also affect you as a supplier. Common requirements include signing a suppliers’ code of conduct in which you declare that you do your business in a responsible way, meaning that you and your suppliers respect local environmental and labour laws, are not involved in corruption and child labour, etc. These aspects are also investigated further in company audits carried out by your buyer or potential buyer.
- Investigate the existing sustainability standards established by retailers and other stakeholders on the European market by approaching supermarket category managers (chocolate), cocoa importers and sector specialists. Check whether you can adhere to the guidelines laid down by these standards. They can be a good starting point if you want to supply cocoa beans to these companies.
- Consider participating in or visiting roundtable meetings (via conference call) or seminars to meet industry players and other interesting stakeholders. Check out the website of the World Cocoa Foundation to keep up to date on these discussions.
- Consider developing and implementing your own CSR policy or code of conduct. This is not always required by buyers, but may be a good way to show potential buyers your views on social responsibility. This may furthermore help you to stand out when your buyer has to choose between several suppliers.
- Ensure that your suppliers also have responsible business practices in place. Many social and environmental issues take place at farm level, which may not be a part of direct handling and processing activities.
Sustainability has social, environmental and economic aspects. Many European companies have formulated minimum sustainability requirements for their suppliers that address key issues such as child labour, healthy and safe working conditions, deforestation and pesticide use. However, European companies, especially those in Northern and Western European countries, increasingly also adhere to sustainability certification schemes. This trend is largely driven by the commitment of major confectioners such as Mars, Ferrero and Hershey’s.
There are several sustainability certification schemes that focus on different aspects of sustainability, the popularity of which may vary from one country or segment to another. Rainforest Alliance is the most commonly used mainstream certification scheme for cocoa. As of July 2019, Rainforest Alliance offers mutual recognition options for cocoa. This means that companies at the end of the supply chain will be able to source UTZ and/or Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa and then use either the Rainforest or the UTZ label on their product.
More recently, the new ISO 34101 was published as the first international standard for sustainable and traceable cocoa. The standard was developed by actors in all areas of the cocoa sector, and addresses organisational, economic, social and environmental aspects of cocoa farming, as well as traceability requirements. In short, the ISO 34101 standard brings clarity to sustainability claims within the cocoa sector.
- For a full overview of certification schemes, consult the ITC Sustainability Map.
- Familiarise yourself with the requirements of sustainability certification. Most certification schemes have trainings, tools or other types of assistance to help you understand the criteria and educate you on how to become certified.
- Consider applying for certification. Certification can provide participating producers with opportunities such as training, more efficient agricultural practices and becoming independent of outside synthetic chemicals for fertilisation. In addition, certification can lead to access to new markets for exporters and cooperatives.
- When opting for certification, consider multiple certification schemes. For example, investigate the accessibility of certification programmes in your country or region, the credibility and recognition of the available certification programmes, the costs of certification and the type of certification preferred by buyers in your main European target markets. For more information about considerations on certification and differences between certification schemes, check the Study on the costs, advantages and disadvantages of cocoa certification.
- Look into the different operators worldwide that hold Rainforest Alliance/UTZ certification. This will provide you with insight into the countries where these certifications are most widely demanded, and the players that could be your potential buyers.
- Access the ISO 34101 standards on the ISO Store and benchmark your current practices against these standards.
3. What are the requirements for niche markets?
If you want to enter a specific niche market, you should comply with specific niche requirements. These requirements differ per buyer. Meeting these additional requirements for value addition can increase your chances on the market considerably.
Organic cocoa is produced and processed through natural techniques such as crop rotation, biological crop protection, green manure and compost. On the one hand, implementing organic production and becoming certified can be expensive, especially for smallholdings, and the return on investment may not be high. On the other hand, it could increase yields and improve quality. Demand for fine flavour cocoa with organic certification is rapidly growing in Europe, making this an interesting niche market.
If you comply with the organic production methods laid down in European legislation regarding products from organic production (which are voluntary) and an accredited certifier has approved your growing and processing facilities, you are allowed to place the EU organic logo on your products, as well as the logo of the standard holder (for example, the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers in the United Kingdom, Bio Suisse in Switzerland and Naturland in Germany). Demeter is a biodynamic certification label and is regarded as the highest grade of organic farming in the world.
The popularity of organic-certified products is increasing rapidly in Europe. The popularity in specific countries follows the general market for organic products in Europe. The organic market in Europe underwent a sharp growth of 11% between 2016 and 2017.
The largest national markets for organic food products are Germany (28% of the European market), France (20%) and Italy (7.8%). In terms of per-capita consumption, the leading countries are Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg. The complete figures for organic food products are available in the FiBL and IFOAM report The World of Organic Agriculture.
- Check the legislation concerning organic products (Regulation EC 834/2007) for further information on organic production methods.
- Go to FiBL’s Organic Export Info website to find more information on organic standards, certification schemes and import regulations in different European countries.
- Familiarise yourself with the requirements of organic certification, such as the standard of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
The Fairtrade label is a third-party certification that addresses your business’ social performance along the supply chain. Certification by an independent third party will allow you to place the Fairtrade logo on your product. In general, prices for fair trade products consist of a minimum price plus a premium.
Fairtrade International is the leading standard-setting and certification organisation for fair trade. Products that carry the Fairtrade label indicate that producers are paid a Fairtrade Minimum Price. The current minimum prices and premiums for cocoa, whether organic-certified or conventional, can be found in the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Fairtrade Premium Table. In October 2019, the Fairtrade Minimum Price for cocoa beans was increased by 20%, to US$2.20 per kilo at the farm gate for Ivory Coast and US$2.10 for Ghana.
- Check the ITC Standards Map for an overview of non-legal standards relevant to the European cocoa market regarding sustainability.
- Before engaging in a fair trade certification programme, make sure to check (in consultation with your potential buyer) that this label is sufficiently in demand in your target market and whether it will be beneficial for your product in terms of costs.
- In addition to certification, transparency of the supply chain is an asset in the specialty segment. Communicate a traceable, clear and direct link between the producer and consumers.
This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by ProFound – Advisers in Development.
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